Onyango died after 11 years of a strong fight against breast cancer.
I personally knew Mary at the Kenya National Theatre where she acted a brief while a student at the Nairobi University before graduating and joining the Agriculture Finance Corporation in the Rift Valley.
However, just before her death, I last met Mary when she was with her family in Dagoretti shopping. As we chatted, she freely talked about her health and in the end she told me that God is great and is keeping her alive.
l was really shocked to see the beaming eyes on television with a wonderful laughter, full of confidence during an interview with Citizen TV. During her time as financial Controller of Agriculture Finance Corporation she made many friends and was always kind to many that come across her. Mary proved to be a very understanding person and was loved equally by peasant and large scale farmers.
In an extraordinary turn of events, four prominent Kenyan women have died during the past one year. One of them, Dr Margaret Ogola, gave one of its first and best interviews to this writer speaking eloquently about the top issues facing her country and the continent: poverty, Aids, healthcare and, above all, the need to strengthen the African family.
Africa needs good women leaders and it has many of them. However, to lose five of its own distinguished daughters at once must be a severe blow to Kenya. They are: Virginia Wambui Otieno, who for many years conducted a political campaign over matrimonial property law (died August 30); Professor Sophia Githinji, an educator and author (September 21); Dr Ogola, a paediatrician and healthcare administrator (September 22, at the age of only 53); and Professor Wangari Maathai, conservationist and Nobel Peace Prize winner (2004) died on September 25. Then Mary Onyango inApril 2011.
These women were all staunch campaigners for their cause but Mary was a special kind of heroine. Many people, including a generation of Kenyan schoolchildren, parents who met her through her work still do remember her as a patriotic Kenyan.
Mary was famous in her right and upright scholars who read a lot of literature like Jared Angira, Okot p Bitek a leading Uganda writer, Charles Mangua and several African writers that came her way always had candid conversations with her. This is because Mary was a great and avid reader.
It is very interesting to note that although she graduated from University of Nairobi with Bachelors of Commerce and later took a MBA in Finance from Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, Mary was also involved in charity work. She was a member of the boards of several charity and civil society organisations.
Her leadership skills and determination to deliver manifested in her 12 years fight against breast cancer which led her to be the founder of Kenya Breast Health Programme organisation that many women could go to for psychosocial support among other things.
When l met her, Mary said how she had read the story of a woman dying of cancer and the rise to recognition of a former street child. The book had been authored by the late Ogola who battled cancer for many years and dealt with the poor in society for most of her professional life. Having read about the world of Margaret Ogola, Mary liked the writing and would repeat the story so many times. She would say: “Many of those poor were people living with Aids and dying of cancer.”
Within the international community, Mary stood out as a champion of human dignity, which she saw as belonging equally to every man, woman and child, including the unborn child. She was no feminist in the politically correct sense that would have seen her rise with ease to a top United Nations position, but she was a strong advocate of the empowerment of women nevertheless.
At the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women held at Beijing in 1995, Mary spoke with crystal clarity about why that was — and is — so necessary:
“The woman is the heart of the family, and the family is the corner stone of society, therefore, it is very fitting that we should be here in Beijing for the Fourth World Women’s Conference seeking new ways to enhance her well being, natural talents and gifts,” Mary said.
She told the meeting: “The woman is a powerhouse of creativity, development and peace. Conflict between men and women is, therefore, unnecessary because a woman brings an equal and powerful complementarity to the common human condition. Women have been entrusted with the capacity to transmit life which is the most precious gift that anybody can give or receive. Without life no other good is possible.”
She attacked the sacred cows of international development organisations by insisting on “the availability of cheap and safe methods of child spacing such as natural family planning”. Mary would often express her distress “that there seems to be a conspiracy to keep women in the dark, especially the African woman, regarding the many dangerous side effects of contraceptives”. She called for recognition of “the irreplaceable role of parents and the family in educating and informing children on matters of sexuality”.
She would say: “The main reason for this is poverty and the disadvantaged place of women. Therefore, prevention programmes should have women at the core, not only to help them say ‘no’, but also to have alternatives when they say ‘no’. This means attention to the poverty prevailing in our country which is extremely severe is important because about 57 per cent of Kenyans live on less than one dollar a day.
“Most of the poor are women, and particularly young women, because socially they are not considered equal to men and so have less access to education and resources at every level. Their situation has to be addressed in a holistic and integral manner, so that you not only foster family values but also give them opportunities to make a living other than by transactional sex, which young girls get into out of sheer poverty.”
When I last talked to her, l asked Mary if she has any hope for Africa, she looked at me in the eye and said: “So I repeat, I am full of hope good things are going to happen in the continent. We have beautiful people and we have a lovely and very wealthy continent which is completely untouched.”
Mary was married to Richard Onyango, now deceased and was a mother of three daughters.
This article originally appeared in the Reject Online Issue 60