Muthoni Likimani, A woman of many firsts

Born 90 years ago, Muthoni Likimani has put – and still puts – to good use her time here on earth and has many feathers in her cap. Her fortitude and revolutionary spirit has seen her make an indelible mark in the Kenyan history. ESTHER KIRAGU had a sit down with her as she opened up on being a woman of many firsts, her influence in women right’s activism and her legacy.

One word is not enough to describe the gracious Muthoni Likimani because she is not one thing. Muthoni wears numerous professional hats: broadcaster, radio and television producer, public relations personnel, writer, educationist and women rights activist, and leader. Many who grew up during her heydays possibly remember Muthoni Likimani as Shangazi, as she produced a popular children’s programme in the 90s dubbed “Shangazi na Watoto.”

Brought up in a strict Christian missionary environment, Muthoni attended the missionary sponsored Kahuhia Girl’s High School in the then Murang’a District. She later went to the Government African Girls Teachers College, Kabete to train as a teacher.

Perhaps as a testament to her broad outlook in life, Muthoni was among the few Kenyans to marry across the ethnic divide at a time when inter-tribal marriages were unheard of. She was married to Dr Jason Likimani from the Maasai community, the first African doctor in Kenya, with whom she was blessed with three daughters. She later walked out of her marriage due to irreconcilable differences; this has been well documented in her autobiography, Fighting Without Ceasing.

Entry into media…

In the mid 1950s, she was fortunate to travel to the UK and further her studies in adult education and community development at the University College London Institute of Education as one of the beneficiaries of a sponsorship by the British Council.

“There were very few Africans from commonwealth countries who got scholarships to study abroad at the time. While we were in London, the British sponsors realised they had not given anyone from the East African region a scholarship to study tropical nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Realising that a wide door had been flung open for me, I decided to make good use of my opportunities and added tropical nutrition to my areas of study.

It was during my stay in the UK that I met John Ithau, then attached to the BBC Africa Service Unit in Bush House, London. My fluent Swahili impressed him and as luck would have it, he was looking for Kenyans to participate in BBC’s Swahili programmes aired locally. In what marked my entry into media, I got a part-time job with BBC Swahili service and quickly learnt voice-over skills. I later learnt to translate scripts from English to Swahili and got paid double. I also got a chance to meet many women from Commonwealth countries whom I interviewed for my shows.

My return to Kenya in the 60s was marked by a pleasant surprise when I learnt that my BBC programmes were so popular that they were being broadcasted by the Kenya Broadcasting Services (KBS) later renamed to Voice of Kenya (VOK). I secured a freelancer job at KBS where I broadcasted women’s programmes and eventually landed full time employment as a programme producer, a rare feat for women broadcasters in the 60s.

With my background knowledge in community development, nutrition and education, I sought to improve people’s living standards through educational and informative programmes. With time, I rose up the ranks to become a programme’s producer. Of all my radio programmes, a children’s programme dubbed Shangazi na Watoto was the most famous and it earned me the Best Writer and Creative Producer award in 1969. I also produced a television programme where I got to interview local and international women from all walks of life.

The most exciting time in my career as a broadcaster was in 1963 when Kenya gained its independence. It was a great joy to witness the colonialist’s flag, the Union Jack, being pulled down and Kenya’s flag being hoisted high. I continued working in media but despite my love for broadcasting, I eventually quit because it was clear that my upward mobility in the organisation was restricted because I was a woman. Case in point, I was overlooked for a senior position in which I had been serving in an acting capacity for sometime. At the time, if you served in an acting position for a certain period, you were automatically confirmed for the post,” she narrates.

Setting up a PR firm …

Having met a lot of people in advertising and marketing companies, Muthoni launched Noni’s Publicity, the first African owned public relations consultancy firm in Kenya in 1973 to deal with public relations, general consultancy and publishing. She handled exhibitions, press coverage, photography services and events, among others. One of the highlights of her firm was getting appointed as representatives of some international companies, one of which was Seagram – one of the biggest and prestigious distillers and marketers of wines and spirits. Noni’s Publicity represented Seagram for 23 years.

Muthoni was also one of the founding members of the Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK); a professional body for advancing excellence in public relations in Kenya and ensure the practice continued to thrive within the ethical framework defined by the profession.

She says, “Broadcasting aroused a desire in me to write. Through Noni’s Publicity, I ventured into the publishing business and began a periodical publication dubbed Women of Kenya, which I have published since 1973. In 1988 during Kenya’s silver jubilee since attaining independence, my firm published a special publication to mark the historical events that had taken place from 1963 to 1988. The publication serves as a way to teach the current and future generations of the struggles Kenyans went through in colonial times and the gains made since independence.

I have also published several children stories and narrative poems, novels and an autobiography and I continue to write and publish books to this day. I have also served in various media related bodies including Chairperson, Women in Communication Trust; Director, FEMART for Women Writers; Trustee, Kenya writers Association; and member, Women in Radio and Television among others.”

Her view about the media today? “There are too many television channels today and viewers are spoilt for choice. But you must also realise many people can’t afford television and radio is best for mass communication, so all viewers need to be catered for. I wish the media could cover more developmental issues and offer solutions to the many problems in society such as family conflict and violence. Additionally, the media ought to do more to educate the masses on emerging issues. The media also needs to disseminate intellectual information about what is going on in the world,” she says.

Being a women’s activist and political minded…

While in London during the 50s, Muthoni’s political interests flourished and she kept in touch with some of the Kenyan political activists living in the UK. She would attend political gatherings and freedom fighter’s meetings. She was also involved in the Kenya Student Movement in Britain. When she returned to Kenya, she was actively involved in local women’s activities through Maendeleo ya Wanawake as well as international women’s organisations such as Young Women’s Christian Organisation (YWCA) and the Girl Guide’s Association among others.

“I witnessed one of the most frustrating experiences by families in Mount Kenya region during the colonial era. There were no grown up men available in many homesteads as husbands and sons were either locked in detention camps, imprisoned, in forest fighting or working as home guards for the colonialists. The women left behind were harassed and mistreated by the colonialists,” she says.

“At one time, my husband was the only doctor allowed to treat detainees at the detention camps and I would accompany him. As he went in, I conversed with the detainees across the barbed wire and sneaked in and out letters to their relatives. Although I never fought in the Mau Mau war, I was an active sympathiser of those who fought to liberate Kenya from colonial rule. I recall once when a veterinary doctor brought to my attention that the colonialist was arming Maasai Morans to go and fight Kikuyu’s. I assembled local leaders and convinced them to go talk to the Morans. Through my intervention, I was able to diffuse what could have been a war,” she talks of her involvement in the liberation war.

“In one of my books; Passbook Number F47927; Women and Mau Mau in Kenya, I wrote about the role women played in the struggle for Kenya’s independence as the unsung warriors. I also followed the Kenyan politics keenly from the days of colonial rule and helped in the fight against race and colour and in the struggle for equality,” she adds.

“At one time, I unsuccessfully contested for the Bahati parliamentary seat in Nairobi County. My opponent had used a dirty campaign trick; he lied to the voters that I had withdrawn from the race to support him. Luckily, I was later nominated as a Nairobi City councillor, the only woman nominated at the time. I also served as a deputy chairperson in the city council in charge of the city social services and housing department,” she recounts her many activities.

Muthoni is also one of the founding members of Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT). In recognition of the outstanding services she has rendered to the nation in various capacities and responsibilities, Muthoni was awarded Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear (MBS). YWCA also awarded her the World YWCA Council Award in 2007 in acknowledgment of her dedicated leadership and active social involvement as a women’s rights activist. Muthoni is currently an ambassador of International Forum for Literature And Culture (IFLAC).

A cry for Kenyan children…

Muthoni is currently working on a new book; My Blood Not For Sale, capturing a myriad of issues including human trafficking and the plight of Kenyan girls who go to work abroad as domestic workers.

She continues to work towards equality for women and their empowerment and has launched a charitable trust, Tangazaa Trust, which provides life skills education for poor and marginalised women. Many women have benefitted and continue to benefit from her mentorship, as she gives talks in forums, conferences, and workshops upon invitation. She is also a proud grandmother and great-grandmother, something she is grateful to God for.