Wangui Mbatia: Cancer silences voice of Kenya’s poor

Wangui rarely took issues personally and would seem to shift sides on topical issues as she constantly strived to be on the side of the truth and the oppressed.

At times, she took the side that had the least support just to show that the other point of view was just as valid.

But, whatever side she was on, you would want to be on that side since she had a habit of intellectually vanquishing those who opposed her thought.

When Wangui Mbatia Nyauma slipped away quietly in her sleep on February 10 after a long battle with cancer, Kenya lost one of its most powerful voices in the fight for social justice.

Wangui was a truly phenomenal daughter of this nation whose local and international struggles and sacrifices warrant more than a casual mention in the obituary.

In 2003, on the ground floor of  Bruce House, along Muindi Mbingu Street in Nairobi’s CBD, a beautiful young lady sat  in the director’s chair of the offices that were simply marked in the building’s directory as Mary Wangui Mbatia.

The establishment provided information and placement services for students looking to study in the US and Europe.

Being on the ground floor, the reception area also provided photocopying and printing services.


During the lunch hour of one of the early days of Mwai Kibaki’s Narc regime, a group of young activists walked into the establishment looking to make copies of a document.

Since the receptionist was out for lunch, Wangui, a US-trained lawyer, walked out to the reception area to make the copies herself and could not help notice the title of the document which was the “Anti-terrorism Bill” that was at the time being debated in Parliament.

Taking a deep interest in the document, she asked what the group was doing with it and after a quick perusal and brief discussion, she was invited by the group’s leader, James  Kabutu of Bunge la Mwananchi to a discussion that had been organised by the Kenya Human Rights Commission in a Nairobi hotel.

During the discussion, she turned out to be the most informed on the contents and consequences of the Bill and ended up schooling the entire forum on the draconian nature of this proposed law, which, to her, was more or less an appendage of the “Patriot Act” of the US and which sub-ordinated Kenya’s justice system to the American one.


After that session, the Bunge La Mwananchi group, a social movement that provided the common mwananchi a platform to debate and act on social, economic and political issues affecting their lives, invited her to Jeevanjee Gardens, the movement’s headquarters, to teach the rest of the members about the Bill and other issues.

She quickly got hooked to the sessions of the movement and became the de facto leader of the campaign against the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the grassroots movement in the country.

So influential was she that by 2004, she had become a strong voice in the Constitutional review debate where she became a leading proponent of the “Bomas Draft”.

When in 2005 the government through the Attorney-General, Amos Wako, perverted this draft and produced what came to be known as the “Wako Draft”, Wangui led the troops of Bunge La Mwananchi to  Kencom bus terminus for what became the most publicly vocal opposition to the corrupted version of the Constitution.

This is where the 2005 “No” movement truly began.


Her voice had become truly national.

The energy that she threw into campaigns on different social issues was phenomenal.

But the traction gained by her campaigns did not just come from “reason of force” but more by her “force of reason”.

By 2005, the cost of living had sky-rocketed and accessing basic commodities was becoming a nightmare for the common mwananchi.

The cost of a two-kilogramme packet of Unga (maize-meal) was costing almost a dollar (Sh75), which was more than the entire daily earning of over 60 per cent of Kenyans (Kenyans living below the poverty line).

Wangui argued that during the previous regime, the former President Moi increased the cost of “unga” from Sh3 in 1978 to Sh27 in 2002, when he left power; an increase of Sh24 in 24 years.

Based on this simple arithmetic, she showed that “unga” should not cost more than Sh30 in 2005, especially since we were supposed to be in a new and “liberated” political dispensation led by an economist.


The cry of “unga 30 bob!” was born and has since become the hallmark of the biggest demonstrations held in Kenya on issues to do with food and the cost of living.

This was the earliest conception of the “Unga Revolution”, a movement in its own right that is still growing today and has become the embodiment of the push for the realisation of the socio-economic rights encapsulated in Article 43 of the current Constitution of Kenya.

Her cry for social justice saw her organise a parallel World Social Forum in 2007 in what might probably be her greatest achievement in opening up the space for participation by the common mwananchi on issues affecting them.

This was necessitated by the co-option of the WSF space by “corporates” and big-name NGOs that had made the event exclusive and had even put up a charge of Sh500 to attend the event, which was being held at Kasarani Stadium, an area on the outskirts of the city that was inaccessible by many Nairobians who lived in the slums in other ends of the city.


The alternative forum, which was held at the Jeevanjee Gardens drew more attention from the international media than the multi-million dollar event at Kasarani.

Most of the true revolutionaries who attended this event said that it represented the true spirit of the WSF as it was envisaged before the coming of the corporates and the NGOs with their elitist agendas.

This standoff created an icy wall between Wangui and the conventional Civil Society Organisations which took years to thaw and it is only her personal relationships with individuals within the CSO/NGO world that allowed her to collaborate with them on national issues that demanded unity beyond personal differences.

Her highest point during the WSF came when she represented Kenya during the presentations of the African Social Movements (ASM) and singularly managed to outshine even the South Africans who came with their powerful anti-apartheid Zulu chants and dances.

Mary Tfosa Wangui Mbatia was the single biggest phenomena during this event.

The WSF’s daily newspaper for the next day carried her image on the whole of the front page with the headline reading “The Poor Now Have a Voice”.


Wangui Mbatia never shied away from taking on behemoths of all sizes.

When in 2007 MPs attempted to grant themselves gratuity, she joined hands with the rest of civil society in protesting against this travesty which was going to add unnecessary burden to the already over-burdened mwananchi.

This led to her arrest, one of the countless times that she ended up in court while protesting on myriad issues and had to keep on reappearing for needless mentions and hearings.

Although she never practised law officially, the skills she learned as a lawyer in the US were always called upon during this trying moments when many a time the lawyers who represented them pro-bono were unable to make it for these cases.

In 2009, together with Mwalimu Mati of Mars Group, they started Kenya OTNOP (pronounced Otpor- which is Serbian for “Resist”) movement which challenged the excesses and corruption within the two arms of government and called for Kenyans to join hands in resisting the tyranny of the state.


Community Organising was at the centre of Wangui’s heart.

In 2006, together with her colleagues, they established the Kenya Network of Grassroots Organizations (KENGO), a network that brought together and build on the capacities of CBOs and other grassroots movements while connecting them to international partners.

The network spanned the country and this allowed her to travel and meet people engaged in different struggles.

Wangui  slowed down in her late 30s to raise a family.


She met Polycarp Masaki, a quietly intelligent and avid reader who complimented her at a deep level and brought out her sensitive and emotional side.

Wangui gave birth to a daughter named Celine.

In late 2013, Wangui started experiencing abdominal pains and subsequent tests and diagnosis showed that she had cancer.

After initial treatment and extensive surgery in India, the cancer disappeared.


Unfortunately and unexpectedly it reappeared at a very advanced stage in late 2016.

At 8.48 on the morning of  February 10, 2017, Wangui Mbatia Nyauma, who was buried on February 24, lost her struggle against cancer.

She leaves behind a loving husband, a beautiful daughter and a continuing struggle against injustice that should be inherited and continued by all those who believe they are fighting for a just and equal society.


Mulialia Okumu is the founder of State of Africa Communications and an active member of the civil society.

Wangui Mbatia: Cancer silences voice of Kenya’s poor

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