Perpetua with other senior officials of the Ministry of Education (L-R) Mr Muhoro, Mr Mwirichia and Mr Gachathi the Permanent Secretary, at an official function in 1970

Dr Ng’ang’a Gĩcŭmbi

Because of the paucity of life-stories of pioneer women educationists, especially during the exciting post-colonial period, Kenya’s literary and socio-cultural scene has become the poorer. It is a serious tragedy that many of our unheralded professional icons of the 1960s and 1970s, arguably Kenya’s golden era, are dying out, and many of them without penning down their memoirs or leaving behind documented evidence to help others write their stories for the sake of posterity!

In advanced societies, innovative leaders in business, public service, industry, science and technology, take it as a sign of national pride and public duty to pen down their memoirs as a way of sharing with fellow citizens their personal insights, which they hope can also aid in shaping their societies.

It is against this backdrop, that one appreciates the biography of the late Perpetua Wanjiru Macharia, An Educational Ambassador, which will be launched at St Austin Catholic Church at end of this month.

Why Educational Ambassador?

An intensive reading of the book reveals that Perpetua was a true emissary of education in its original and, I dare add, meaningful sense of becoming a “good person”, and becoming a more capable person than when one started.

“Capable person” is understood here as a person who is inspired by a deep sense of integrity, justice, equity, humility and compassion in the execution of her role. Her story further reveals why learning should be viewed in its proper sense as nothing but a means of accomplishing the goal of becoming a “good” and “capable” person, and why it is dangerous to confuse the ends with the means.

Her early resolve to excel in her chosen career path is best summed up by Dr Theresa Gachambi (a Catholic sister) in the preface to her book where she writes, “Girls like Perpetua and I, who had the privileged opportunity to go to school at this time … we were told that, if a door closed, a window would open. Jump out!  Do something to get moving and find your way!”

There is a sense in which Perpetua’s story makes real the English expression, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” And heat did she withstand, and much more.
In one instance, Perpetua issued instructions to head-teachers from Kiambu South to desist from travelling to Nyeri Provincial headquarters to collect their schools’ examination results, and instead do so at the Provincial office in Nairobi. This was a bold initiative and one that deviated from standard practice at the time. In another instance, she defended the right of pregnant students to return to school upon giving birth. This later became standard practice by the Ministry of Education.

But it was her encounter with Peter Gachathi, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education that, perhaps, best revealed her sense of awareness. Gachathi had made the mistake of referring to female officers as the “women of the Ministry.” This infuriated Perpetua a great deal that she successfully organised all the other women officers and confronted Gachathi who promptly apologised.

Not one to waffle and prevaricate, the book reveals instances where she was crisp and frank when confronted by political heavyweights who wanted her to bend the rules. To her, integrity was a sacred unquestionable and she wasn’t prepared to fall over backwards!
At one time, a prominent cabinet minister came to her office with money stashed in an envelope and threw it on her desk, and unceremoniously announced that he wanted his son to get a national school of his choice. Annoyed, Perpetua simply pointed to the door and out came a crushed Minister with his bribe money!

The book strikingly reveals how studying in Catholic-run institutions (in Kenya and USA) may have amplified her deep sense of social justice which find resonance in her a no-nonsense, non-fundamentalist and matter-of-factly approach to public duty.

The book cites the construction of Kiambu High School as an example of her fidelity to public duty. The moment Perpetua became a signatory to the School’s Building Committee, “the project…was completed within eighteen months with no loss of public funds.”

Elsewhere in the book, Mwangi Mathai, a Member of Parliament for Lang’ata in 1974-1979 and author of the celebrated Poverty and Vulnerability in Kenya recalls how Perpetua rejected an expensive watch from Mathai’s Ugandan friend whose children she had helped obtain schools in Kenya.  One cannot take away the choice of words by which Mathai recalls the sobering incidence. “Perpetua looked at it from a distance. She didn’t even touch it. I have never felt smaller in my life. She then told me, ‘Listen, Mwangi, I cannot take the watch.  Why would I take a watch for doing my job?  I did my job. I helped a man who was in need.”

As the title to her biography, I would have proposed, A Brave Educationist, or even, more telling, An Incorruptible Educationist. However, the choice of title cannot take away the true worth of the story of this great Kenyan woman educationist!
In the end, An Educational Ambassador is really about a woman with some unique gifts of leadership, a rare combination of wisdom, knowledge, practicability and refinement of personality.

It is also about a Kenyan woman who lived ahead of her times by defying some very mean and chauvinistic labels about women and becoming a living proof that integrity in public service can bring about transformational changes in society.

This book is a must read for any progressive bent on changing the culture of corruption in Kenya.

Writer is a scholar and accomplished author; ngagich04@gmail.com

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