It is on the 20th floor of a building in Nairobi’s Upper Hill that I meet Peninah Malonza, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage. If you are one to be intimidated by big offices, then this is as big as it comes, with niggling protocol, government-red carpets, and gilt-edged Victorianesque furniture.
Ms Malonza here, is the biggest shark in the water in a place where the ice is always thin. She holds an Anthropology degree (University of Nairobi) buttressed by several Master’s from the same university: Project Planning and Management; and another in Public Health. She also has a Diploma in Psychological Counselling and is a member of the Kenya Association of Professional Counsellors.
You can say it was written in the stars that she would become a star, but she would rather give the glory to God. Peninah, you quickly work out, doesn’t fill the room, she grows into it, and you grow with her. She is measured, but she also knows not only what to say and when to say it, but also how to say it. Under the gravity of that silvern seat of power, she wouldn’t be more at home if she was at her farm in Kitui.
Today, however, she bares her soul as among women of firsts: the first female deputy governor, the first girl from her village to join university, the first female Cabinet Secretary from her region, the firstborn of a firstborn father from a firstborn grandfather.
First, what does it take to be here?
Hard work. It is quite an honour. I have been a politician since 2013, serving as Deputy Governor in Kitui, later running for the Women Rep seat and losing. But I didn’t just land in politics straight from campus. I worked at Compassion International, an NGO that sponsors children from poor families. Later I joined AMREF Kenya, working to rehabilitate commercial sex workers at Laini Saba in Kibera.
This [CS] position takes a lot of consideration in terms of education, and I went to university and did several Master’s degrees. When I was about to fly out for my Ph.D. in Health Economics, my political ambitions proved a siren call, so I stayed. That dream is still alive but age is catching up.
It takes a lot of hard work, but even then, it doesn’t hurt to align with the right [party] party.
What is one piece of advice you have for young girls?
Not to be negatively influenced by people. And when life beats you down, you need to bounce back. I know they watched me during my vetting when I was not at my strongest. That could have been a dark moment for me but I believe in my education and my strengths. Life is about being who you are and believing and working for it, only then does it become the standard measure.
Have you ever been fazed by a big office?
From my childhood, destiny positioned me for such offices. I was a shy girl in school, but I was also a prefect. The big office is not just about responsibility, but you also have to be tough. When I was working with sex workers, that was a big office, especially when they told me of the clients they had. I realised we judge them harshly. I began my public service as a church project worker in Mombasa at Baptist Church, leading its development organ that dealt with the poor of the poor who were afflicted with all sorts of trauma, from rape to violence. It weighs heavily on you. I had to come up with orphanages and homes, and that felt like a big office.
Being here is a climax. I came at a time when tourism numbers had plummeted. However, I have the energy, the vision, and the right people on board to tackle this head-on, having experienced our anchor products— beach and bush (safari)— since after all, I grew up in Changamwe.
What’s your favourite childhood memory growing up in Changamwe?
There was a lot of exposure in terms of our understanding of work. In Birikani, there is what we called ‘king’ora’—a siren. That’s what would wake us up, like an alarm bell. When it sounded early in the morning we knew it was time for our fathers to go to work (my father was working at KPA). It rang again at midday and in the evening. It was the tradition, and it more or less programmed us. I also remember my father taking me to Diani Beach Hotel when I finished my Class 8 studies. I saw so many white people and I was a bit traumatised haha! You see, in my culture, it is taboo to see people ‘without clothes’ [in skimpy swimwear], and seeing a sea full them was new to me. But my dad was doing this to expose us.
Did your father see this coming?
He is proud of me. I am the firstborn in a family of 10. I broke the glass ceiling by going to university. He protected us from early marriages. When I became the pioneer female deputy governor, he didn’t know what to do. I imagine he went bonkers and now that I am a Cabinet Secretary, I am yet to hear his thoughts.
What is your superpower?
What propels me is God. I come from a place where there are many snakes and surviving to adulthood is by grace. As a child, I was overweight. I remember this one time walking in the sun with no shoes, and sleeping under trees only for my grandmother to come looking for me. By the time she found me, a huge snake was crawling up to me yet I was asleep! But it just passed over me. Now, I have one child [daughter who’s an engineer], and when I was six months pregnant with her, El Niño floods were ravaging the country. I was harvesting greengrams from my shamba (farm) and because I super tired, I slept on top of the green grams. Minutes later, I felt something cold passing over my legs. When I opened my eyes, it was a black mamba. I couldn’t run, heavy with child, and just one bite is fatal. I stayed still and survived, again.
Another time, when I was six years old, a huge tree fell on my head, giving me this scar (shows me a scar). Those days there were no hospitals in my village. The next best thing was some home-cooked remedy. My parents simply putting charcoal on my head. I survived—clearly haha. I owe that to God. My other power comes from my father. He went against village norms to educate his children.
What’s your favourite travel destination?
Everywhere! But I have grown a serious attachment to wildlife, even those snakes, I am considering bringing them to a sanctuary. I understand human beings, now I am looking to understand animals.
Is there a particular animal you identify with strongly?
I identify with the lion because it is the king of the jungle, and I love the jungle, probably because I grew up in the wilderness of Ukambani haha! I love being natural, being that village girl. I would be her any day were it not for the rules of this office, even this makeup thing—I don’t like it but haha!
Maybe that’s why the snakes spared you?
Not really! It’s not just the snakes. When I was doing my first Master’s degree, I moved from Mombasa to Nairobi. On this particular day, we did an exam and left school for Waithaka in Dagoretti at 11pm. Unbeknownst to me, a gang was trailing me. The gangster tried to shoot me but the gun jammed. He said ‘Madam I can’t kill you but I need you to help me!’ I told him to first surrender the gun.
Due to the insecurity in that area, we moved to Starehe. Again, a man who I later discovered was a thug started following me. He showed me his gun and asked why I was not scared of him. Believe it or not, after we talked, he escorted me home. Somehow, I realise I was connecting with the worst of society and the animals who are not harming me haha! Do you know, just last week an elephant came to our home? In Kitui. Honest to God.
They say you can take the girl out of the village and all that. Is there one thing from the village you have refused to let go of?
That village in me haha! I just want to be myself, who I feel I should be. It’s a struggle. Sometimes I appear in long sweeping dresses and people are like “Hee! Another one!” Uzungu haijanikubali. When I did anthropology, I got in touch with my traditional values, so it cauterised me. I am trying though. Different strokes for different folks, they say. So I wear different clothes depending on the event.
Big offices can impose their customs on their inhabitants. What do you do just for yourself?
I have a challenge with people washing my clothes. I want to do it myself. When I was a deputy governor, I used to till my farm alone. Even today, I cook for my father and mother. They keep telling me to get out of the kitchen, but I want to cook.
What’s your go-to meal?
Millet ugali. I also love malenge (pumkin). That is something you will always find in my fridge. Chapati and rice, not so much.
What is an absurd thing you have spent money on?
I am not big on shopping haha!
What is a hack that makes your weekends better?
I am too busy to have a weekend. The only anchor I had was going to church and dancing. Play some reggae and I’ll hit the dance floor.
Lately, what have you become good at saying no to?
I am a forthright woman which works negatively in politics. Anything that contradicts the law and my beliefs, I will tell you no.
Is there a misconception people have about you?
That Peninah is a fish out of the water, and she doesn’t know much. That I know nothing of street life, that Peninah is not talkative. I talk a lot. I am a kasuku (parrot), especially when I am in a political arena platform or a small circle. I can tell you that within one year you will know why Peninah has never been number two in life.
Is Peninah smart or lucky?
Smart and lucky.
What are the three things Peninah knows to be true?
My humility. The generosity that I have, especially since I have been exposed to resources. My money is for community projects. Finally, my integrity. It is who I am. And crucially, my Christianity. I am a staunch believer in God, and I have seen power and money corrupt a few Christians. If the job will make me leave my God, then let the job go.
What is the soundtrack of your life right now?
Umenibeba by a Tanzanian singer, Pastor Tumaini. This is God’s doing. Look how well God has carried me.
Who do you know that I should know?
Know my God.
I already know God.
Oh, you are looking for a physical person? Then you should know my boss, President Ruto. Maybe I should set up an interview for you two, too haha!
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