Irene Kendi is an outstanding woman who has faced many challenges but rose above them all. Her childhood was marred by the rejection of her father and the poverty that ensued. There would be tougher days ahead, but Irene refused to let her circumstances dictate her destiny.
We reached out to Irene to find out more about her journey to success and were blown away by just how remarkable she is. This is her story in her own words.
Who is Irene Kendi?
I could describe myself in three dimensions: a mother, a gender-rights advocate and civil servant. All the three define me so fundamentally.
Motherhood gives me a sense of responsibility and fulfilment. Advancing gender rights defines my tremendous sense of justice, especially among the disproportionately disadvantaged women. Being a civil servant serves as the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the people of Kenya as far as the capacity of my position allows.
However, before this tripartite description of me, I previously served as a student leader and mentor at Kenya’s leading university and a village market hawker.
What is your book all about?
My book is an autobiography of my life titled Carving of a Firebrand: A Journey of Brokenness, Breakthrough, Loss and Restoration.
It’s generally about the struggles I faced in my life since birth due to rejection by my own father who could not live with my mother anymore because she was not giving birth to boys. How I started my market business at the age of 9, struggled with school fees and lived in a rented single room with my mother. The attempted rape by my step-dad and running away from home to get married immediately after I left high school. Giving birth when I was too young and being in abusive marriage for eight years. (I was with a lethal mother-in-law). Then staying home for six years and doing business in the market to raise money to go to university.
Later I joined the university when my son was barely two years old. I would attend classes with him in Nairobi.
From there, I ventured into student politics and photography while on campus. I made history as the first female deputy president of the Student Organization of the Nairobi University (SONU), the largest student union in the country.
During this time, I became so powerful and prominent in advocating for women rights in Kenya that it got me a job as a programs coordinator in Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU). While there, I founded COTU Queens, a movement for young women in trade unions to agitate for the rights of young women workers in the country.
During the 2017 elections, my outspoken nature made me get recognized by the president to lead his youth campaigns in Kenya. Through this, I met my current boss, the minister for public service, gender and youth affairs, who appointed me as his advisor on political and youth matters.
Unfortunately, I lost my mother in a road crash in 2017. This sank me into depression, which I battled for three years and came out strong last year.
So those experiences and my story of resilience made me write my book so that I can share it with the world.
How has your upbringing, being raised by a single mother, shaped you to be the lady you are today?
That was quite a challenging period in my life. Indeed, it shaped several perspectives I have about life.
Being raised by a single mother without a formal job (and six children) meant we barely had enough to survive on. Our rent was always late and piling, food was ever scarce, our school fees was such a great challenge that my sisters dropped out of school. We were often ridiculed for the indignities of economic constraints.
This is why I had to begin hawking at the age of 9 to contribute to the family income. We never had time to play or enjoy our childhood. In fact, my marriage at age 20 was informed by the need to find stability in life, though I would later learn I was taken for granted given my background. I was often out of school for lack of fees and failed to proceed to university despite qualifying for it.
This made me appreciate the challenges poor people face and perpetually fuels me to strive harder in life to ensure I do not regress to the same life again. Because of the disadvantages we faced, I learnt to fight for myself and other similarly affected people. As a mother, it made me to work harder to prevent my childhood replaying in my son’s life.
Tell us more about the loss of your mum. How did you cope, and how did you use this experience to help others in the same situation?
I was grief-stricken for months. Her loss devastated me to the point of triggering depression in me, which I had to fight for almost four years. My mother was the anchor of my life, having grown without a father. She trained me how to trade in the market, encouraged and supported me. She was a tremendous woman of God who inculcated a great deal of spirituality in me.
So deep was my sense of loss that for months, I could replay several memories of her in mind, both during happy and sad moments. At times, when the sky was a particular shade of blue, I could be in a street and see a woman with my mother’s build, and quip, “Is that my mother?”
Battling the ensuing depression taught me the importance of grounding in life. It taught me the importance of having a solid support system to lean on when occurrences in life knocks one off their feet. It also taught me that parents are very important, and we need to appreciate them while they are alive than to rue the chance missed. The point is family is very important.
Tell us more about the Kenya Universities Female Students Leaders Association (KUFSLA).
While at the University of Nairobi, I became one of the most popular and consequential student leaders ever. I realized that most of my female student colleagues were ill-prepared for leadership roles that had a great influence on the future of women leadership in Kenya.
My establishment of KUFSLA aimed to pull as many female student into the leadership realm, encouraging training and mentoring them to take strategic and consequential endeavours to change the leadership landscape in the continent.
The initiative soon took the country by storm, and we were serially featured in the media, won awards across Africa and had our names engraved in the Hall of Women Reformists of Note. The government, civil society and politicians took the challenge, and Kenya’s women leadership landscape has grown by leaps and bounds.
What is your advice to fellow women who want to be successful in life, both personally and business-wise?
Success is not an event. It is a journey. You do not rise up one morning and find yourself successful. Every day one must progressively add value to their knowledge, values, principles, networks and, more fundamentally, their spiritual life. All these synergize to deliver a remarkably successful person.
Connect with Irene via:
Facebook: Irene Kendi