Dr. Wanjiku Kibera Embodies the Empowerment of African Women: Blazing the Trail for African Women

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Dr. Wanjiku Kibera (second from right), Dr, Fabu Carter (second from left), Minneh Nyambura Wanjiku (l, Kibera’s daughter) and Woddie Mogaka, Carter’s son

by Jonathan Gramling

The Wisconsin Idea, UW-Madison’s philosophy that “education should influence people’s lives beyond the classroom,” is not just limited to the state of Wisconsin. As she was completing her master’s degree from the UW-Madison African Literature and Languages Department — now known as African Cultural Studies —  Kibera was in an environment where Women Studies had recently become a department at the university. She took home more to her native Nairobi, Kenya than a degree. She also took home an idea.

Kibera returned “home” to Madison to be a keynote speaker at Honoring Our Past, Securing Our Future: Resilience and Reclamation in Higher Education,  a conference co-convened by UW System Women’s and Gender Studies Consortium.

“I went back to Nairobi and I did my Ph.D. in Nairobi in the same field of literature,” Kibera said during a reception held in her honor earlier this month at the Black Business Hub. “And then I was hired there to teach. I’ve been teaching at the University of Nairobi from 1980-1981 to about two years ago when I retired. I taught literature and I also started the African Women’s Studies Department. We actually call it the African Women’s Studies Center.”

Kibera had a transformational vision for women in Africa.

“I started a Ph.D. and master’s program for those who want to do African Women’s Studies for the last 12 years or so,” Kibera said. “And I was still teaching in literature. I am now professor emeritus in Literature and African Women’s Studies. It is the only African Women’s Studies in Africa. It is the only one focusing on African Women’s Studies. And it’s not just in Africa. It is globally. We have Women’s Studies, but not African Women’s Studies. We have Gender Studies and Women’s Studies in many parts of the world. This has been going on for the last 50-60 years. But the African Women’s Studies Center is all about African Women’s Studies. We don’t have studies in other areas unless you are comparing some aspects.”

African Women’s Studies teams up with other departments to offer degrees in a number of areas.

“In our foundational classes, we give you the tools to do the analysis, the theoretical basis for these studies,” Kibera said. “But you can do most of this in African Women’s Health, African Women’s Education, African Women’s Economic Empowerment, African Women in Politics. Any discipline fits into that.”

And from there, the social change spreads outwards throughout Africa.

“Here we are talking about women getting into disciplines where they have been marginalized,” Kibera said. “For instance, women in the factory, women in construction, women in the hard sciences and so on. We are promoting women’s participation in all sectors of the economy, not just in agriculture. In agriculture, we are promoting women’s involvement in the African trade and global trade as well as value addition like you are looking at cows and you have been milking them for a long time, but you don’t get into value addition, making cheese, yogurt and so on. That’s for many communities that focus on livestock. But also those who are growing herbs and so on, there is value addition. It’s not enough to just grow it and sell the food. Economic empowerment involves you adding value and therefore you get more for your family.”

An important component of African Women’s Studies is its research arm, which provides the data, the ammo, to make the case for women’s empowerment throughout Africa.

“We are also carrying out research in all of these areas,” Kibera said. “We’re using what you call a debits-based policy advocacy. For instance, with women in manufacturing, you identify what is the percentage of women getting into manufacturing. How are they paid in comparison to the men and so on. We use the data now to advocate for policy change for women’s economic empowerment and also political empowerment. In many areas, this information is very useful because it is outside the institution. Now you can argue the case to influence policy for taking into consideration women’s interests.”

And just like the Wisconsin Idea, Kibera’s work has not been limited to the classroom. She has been a board member of the board member of the International Center for Research on Women based in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to develop gender analysis tools for the seven countries in the Inter Governmental Authority on Development region namely: Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Djibouti among many other projects beyond the classroom.

Kibera is not content to teach about African Women, she works to actively promote their empowerment.

“There are still problems in terms of women’s access to resources or controlling these resources, but changes are taking place,” Kibera noted. “For this, I also participated in the drafting of the new constitution. We’re developing women verbal skills to actually give their views because it was a highly participatory process.”

Kibera has also been working to establish other African Women’s Studies Departments in other African universities and beyond. Dr. Wanjiku Kibera is a change maker who was influenced by what she saw and experienced during her stay at UW-Madison in the late 1970s.