Having graduated from Kenyatta University in 2001, Dennitah Ghati joined eight other Kenyans who had won scholarships by The Ford Foundation to farther their careers abroad.
To that effect, she is among a few Kenyans to have studied at Columbia State University — a prestigious Ivy League institution in the US.
“It was an awe to experience a different environment and to adapt to a new way of life,” says Dennitah.
“It is something you live to cherish: It shaped my life and contributed greatly to who I would develop to be.”
After completing her studies, her streak of luck continued as she got an opportunity to work at a US organisation called Raiya.
The combination that would propel her to the fabled American dream was seamlessly coming together.
However, Dennitah opted to move back to Kenya where she felt her services and expertise would be fully felt.
She says: “At Raiya, I began to learn what my life interest was: I wanted to empower women. It is here that my plan for emancipation of women from oppressive cultures began to unravel.”
Almost all of her other colleagues opted to stay in the US, choosing not to play Ping-Pong with the spirit of poverty and uncertainty back home. She was well aware of what she was coming back to. She travelled to her native land of Kuria, a nondescript countryside flung at the periphery of the Kenya-Tanzanian border. Here she founded an education centre for the advancement of women and began training women on inheritance, land rights, education and economic empowerment.
Dennitah tells me she is passionate about girls’ education.
“If you think about it critically, women can never really be emancipation without education. I know so because I benefitted from it myself. I escaped by a whisker from what I had seen women and girls from my community go through.”
She dodged the bullet that was Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is a culture that is practiced among the Kuria, considered as a rite of passage for girls into adulthood, ripening them for marriage and womanhood. Together with her sister, they refused to go back home at the end of term, staying behind at St Anne High School. At hand to help was her aunt — a nun who taught at the school.
Hiding kept Dennitah safe. However, the oppressive culture kept nibbling away the lives of other girls her age. It was disheartening for Dennitah, but there was nothing she could do at that point. It was only after she came back from the US that she began a campaign to eradicate the practice in Kuria.
“I went around, attending barazas and talking to members of my community to shun the practice. Today, though we are not celebrating total victory, FGM has decreased incredibly in the community and many people are turning against it,” she says with a smile.
In 2010, while working with the League of Kenyan Women Voters, Dennitah developed an interest in politics. She met women with similar dreams of making life better for womenfolk. This brought to surface an idea that had always been in her mind. Destiny was proffering a different challenge to her; one that if she went through would put her on a higher pedestal to voice her beliefs and impact lives from a different platform.
“Back in Kenyatta University, I realised I harboured political ambitions — but for the right reasons. The League of Kenyan Women Voters just reignited the embers that had been smothered as I progressed with my education abroad. This was a chance I could seize and make the best of.”
Dennitah met resistance from several quarters but being a go-getter she is, nothing could stop her. Her mother was worried that she was putting herself in danger. Her brothers and sisters winced with apprehension. People thought she was committing an abomination by running for political office.
Convicted that her community needed the brand of leadership she would offer, Dennitah went on talking to voters and asking for their endorsement. Men scoffed at her campaigns, but she managed to find others who felt she had a worthy dream. She decided to run for the Migori County Women Representative seat, not because she feared facing male candidates in other positions, but because she felt the seat befitted her dream of changing the lives of women.
Dennitah still relishes in her victory, having been voted in overwhelmingly in a zone that is predominantly Luo while she hails from Kuria. The one time editor and writer (that’s right; having worked at The Standard Group for about a year in 2008) was now on the other side of the interview table. She smiles and chuckles at how the media has transformed over the years.
Three hours later, through, Dennitah is preparing to attend three different official events, the final one culminating in Migori — more than 600km from Nairobi. It is a crazy schedule being a mheshimiwa and she has learnt to adapt to it.
I notice she loves African print dresses but before I can ask why, her driver is outside, waiting to ferry her to parliament — on same day she is expected in Migori.