Kenya: Female Chief Blazes a Trail in Patriarchal Narok County

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At only 36, Ms Susan Laitei Saning’o has achieved what many women from her Maasai community have never dreamt of.

She is the first woman administrator in the larger Trans Mara region and is the assistant chief of Nakuiyana sub-location.

This is a great achievement because her highly patriarchal community does not believe in women leaders and over the years only men became chiefs and assistant chiefs.

She started her assignment in July 2019, a job she got after about a decade of working as an Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) teacher.

“It was not easy when I started my role as a chief. People would shun my barazas (public meetings). Men used to wonder how I could invite them for meetings. It was unheard of in the history of my community,” recalled Ms Laitei.

Women too, did not initially go for her meetings, because having been condemned to second-class citizens, they usually stayed away from community issues.

“They believed that they were the weaker sex and they could not say anything before men. Only one or two would initially attend my barazas, but they now come in large numbers,” said Ms Laitei.

With time, her community members are embracing her leadership and that of women in general.

After her appointment, two other women followed suit and are also assistant chiefs in Trans Mara.

“I always wanted to be a role model in my community. I prayed to God day and night to bless me in a way that I will serve others and change my community for the better,” said the assistant chief.

Done fairly

Ms Laitei did her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam at Chesilyot Girls Secondary School and got a mean grade of C- (minus).

She then joined Angelic Teacher’s Training College in Kisii County where she got a diploma in ECDE.

“I taught at Kilgoris Township Primary for close to a decade. When the vacancy for the assistant chief was announced, I applied and I thank God that it (recruitment) was done fairly,” she said.

The assistant chief is married to Mr John Saning’o and together they have four children — two boys and two girls aged between 14 and six.

“When I go back to the house, I am a mother and wife and I have a lot of support from my family,” she said.

Her parents, Mr Joshua Sonkoyo and Mrs Mary Sonkoyo were initially worried when she told them she would be an administrator.

“They knew this was a man’s job. They wondered how villagers would view our family. They told me the task ahead was not easy, but they are Christians and they prayed for me. They are now my biggest supporters,” said the second-born in a family of seven.

Ms Laitei is grateful to her boss, Trans Mara West Deputy Commissioner Mohamed Noor, for considering women as administrators.

“I thank Mr Noor. He saw the need to have women serve as chiefs and assistant chiefs. I will forever be grateful to him for believing in my leadership and giving me an opportunity,” said Ms Laitei.

She added, “I want my community to support women leaders. We are their children and we mean well.”

Five years ago

Mr Noor said when he went to Trans Mara West five years ago, there were 98 chiefs, all men.

“There was no gender consideration. We started by appointing Ms Laitei and later added two more. In each recruitment, we now consider women. We have witnessed that they perform duties equally well like their male counterparts,” said Mr Noor.

He initially faced a lot of opposition for his decision to have women chiefs, attributing that to the local culture.

“Women here were not allowed to lead. They were to remain behind doing house chores. It was difficult for female administrators to conduct some meetings because they were the preserve of men. In pastoralist communities, it is men who conduct meetings,” said the Deputy County Commissioner.

He added that Ms Laitei is instrumental in the fight against female genital mutilation and illicit brews.

“She is a good example and a role model to female students and has become a motivational speaker in schools,” said Mr Noor.

Mr Julius Ole Maki, a retired chief and Trans Mara West Peace chairman, said with Ms Laitei’s appointment, the community is slowly changing its attitude towards women, but cautioned the government to go slow in appointing women.

“We are embracing their leadership, but this should be gradual. Let the government not rush in appointing many women at once to avoid a backlash. This is our culture and you cannot rush it, the changes must be gradual,” said Mr Maki.

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