Jane Wanjiru Muigai | Our sisterhood is global

Jane MuigaiI first learned of Jane Wanjiru Muigai Kamphuis watching the HBO documentary, A Small Act. The film told the story of Chris Mburu—Jane’s cousin—whose primary education in a rural village in Kenya was sponsored by a woman he’d never met in Sweden. Both Jane and Mburu grew up to become Harvard-educated human rights lawyers, and one day, Mburu got the idea for the two of them to start their own education fund to “pay forward” the gift a woman named Hilde Back had given them. The film tells the story of Mburu’s efforts to locate Hilde Back and bring her to Kenya to see the results of her small act. It also portrays the daunting circumstances poor Kenyan children overcome to acquire a high school education. Throughout the film, Jane’s is a voice for the importance of educating girls—and recognizing the double jeopardy they face in passing the qualifying exam because of all the household work they are expected to perform in addition to their studies.

When planning this issue of The MOON on GRRL Rising, I thought of Jane and contacted The Hilde Back Education Fund to try to locate her. Within thirty minutes, I’d received an email from her in Nairobi, Kenya, where she is currently stationed as the senior regional liaison officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). She has spent twenty years in the practice and application of international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law with the United Nations and civil society in various countries. We spoke at length via telephone.                                                                              — By Leslee Goodman

The MOON: Please tell us about your life growing up as a girl in a small village in Kenya.

Muigai: I had a rural upbringing in central Kenya. As a child, my best memories are of the nursery school—the equivalent of kindergarten in the U.S.—which I used to walk to with my friends. It was about five kilometers—or a little more than three miles—but we played along the way. The nursery school was sponsored by a group of Swedish people, so we had some wonderful luxuries like free toys, crayons and we ate oatmeal in the morning and a nice lunch in the afternoon. I have wonderful recollections of that time.

As early as primary school, however, life for us girls began to change. After school we had to do more chores than the boys. We walked to the river, we fetched water, we cooked, we washed the clothes, we fed the animals. The boys had chores too, but the girls had more. While the boys could play, the girls were expected to start becoming responsible for the life of the family.

Our schoolteachers also emphasized personal hygiene for us girls, but not the boys. We had to submit to “hygiene checks,” in which we partially undressed and submitted our uniforms and underwear for examination. It was female teachers who did the examining; yet still, it was clear that girls were held to a different standard than the boys. We were frequently told that we had to be clean and neat, which was evidently not a concern for boys. We didn’t even realize how strange it was until we grew up and thought, “What were they thinking, asking us to undress to inspect our underwear?”

Another example: The village would show movies at an open-air location at night. Only boys could go; girls were not allowed. The next day there would be a discussion of the film in school, but of course the girls couldn’t participate because they hadn’t seen the film.

The MOON: Why couldn’t the girls go?

Muigai: It was considered unsafe. But of course, as adults, we questioned that. Surely it could have been possible to make it safe: our older siblings or parents could accompany us. The villagers themselves could have protected us. The films could have been shown in a location that didn’t require walking a long distance. But that wasn’t the culture. It would have been considered an outrage; totally unacceptable behavior for girls to go. And because we didn’t have electricity or television in our homes, this was a big treat that the boys got and the girls didn’t.

I felt this same sense of flagrant injustice in 2009 when my cousin Chris—who founded the Hilde Back Education Fund with me and others, and who is also a human rights worker—was also living in Geneva with his non-Kenyan wife, while I was living in Geneva with my non-Kenyan husband. We both had young children and I realized that Chris’s child could travel to Kenya with him as a citizen, but my child could not. I had to pay for a visa for him to return “home.” His child was automatically a Kenyan; my child was not. That was Kenyan law at the time: one law for men married to non-Kenyans and having a child outside of the country; another law for women in the same situation. I thought, “Wow. Here we are at the village cinema again.”

The MOON: Tell us more about your education—you ended up graduating from Harvard. Tell us how that happened.



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9 Responses to Jane Wanjiru Muigai | Our sisterhood is global

  1. Wanza Kioko February 3, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    Good piece Jane. I hope many more will be inspired by this story. Yes, in many ways the challenges of women remain the same yet we cannot help but celebrate the many opportunities that contributions like this are making available to younger generations of women. It is a reason to go on.

  2. Perez Abeka February 3, 2014 at 6:56 am #

    Such a inspiring and ‘speaking’ documentary! It’s more than an interview. I wonder how this could further be shared in various forms. It is a real tool for advocacy on a number of areas put together. I see advocacy on education for the girl child, i see advocacy on women socio-economic and political empowerment, i see advocacy on eradication of innate traditional and cultural values that undermine the girl child, as well as infringe on the rights of women – the elderly included, i see advocacy on health sexual and reproductive areas for women, i see advocacy on implementation of the constitutional rights, i see advocacy on improved services in the law enforcement institutions, i see advocacy on HIV/AIDS and many more! It’s my sincere ‘want’ that African leaders and anyone that can influence policy matters across the world gets an opportunity to read through this tool! It’s flowing. If you are interested in issues surrounding education for the girl child, the vulnerable and women empowerment, you won’t give a break to the article until your reach the last word. I did just that!

    To Jane Muigai who happens to be my mentor, the day is coming when the sun will rise and set with a smile to African women with the likes of you, me and other like minded women all over the world!

    Job well done to the MOON Magazine! Continue reaching out to many more inspiring stories. They exist!

  3. Jedidah Wakonyo Waruhiu February 3, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    Jane aka Mama Mbua spoken like a true African woman. Your personal experience, your contribution to society as a whole in Kenya and the globe is truly amazing and admirable. Yes, i can testify to alot of what you have said since our FIDA days…

    If we had atleast 10 Mama Mbua’s in each of the 47 counties in the Republic of Kenya, transformation would be the order of the day in the lives of both men and women. Nothing would be too much for anyone to overcome and we would have outlived any affirmative action.

    God bless you and guide your family always.

  4. Audrey February 6, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Wow! The timing of this is amazing. i am returning to E. Africa June 2014 as an invited guest speaker at the first Emerging Leaders Summit in Nairobi, sponsored by Kenya Institute of Management.

    Let’s collaborate! thanks for this amazing “issue” and the high level of expertise, professionalism and authenticity you bring to this magazine. I honor you

  5. Jean Zellweger February 11, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Thank you Jane Muigai and Moon Magazine for a beautifully moving article! Now, how do we get the Moon Magazine with its informative, empowering,authentic interviews out to the general public ? This is a challenge that needs addressing. Any ideas out there from you with internet and financial expertise? Again, thanks to the Moon for keeping her readers informed about timely and often unpopular social conditions.

  6. Sylvia Ashby February 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    Excellent interview. Congratulations to both women.

  7. Lisa Quarshie September 9, 2014 at 11:52 pm #

    Inspiring article!! We need more women like Jane on the continent…..selfless and truly caring individual that I have had the privilege of working with.
    This is indeed a challenge that all of us women – educated or not – should take up. We cannot continue to let our children follow this path.

  8. Martha nungari September 29, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    Thankyou Jane Muigai thats a documentary filled with insiparation it feels good to have someone to look up to in life

  9. Martha nungari September 29, 2016 at 11:54 am #

    Thankyou Jane Muigai thats a good inspiring article.Its good to have a strong independent woman to look up to.

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