Helena ‘Lena’ Tungo Moi is an elusive figure in Kenyan public imaginaries, in large part owing to her near-absolute absence from Kenyan public life for over two decades. Between the formal end of her marriage to Daniel arap Moi in 1979 and her death in 2004, Kenyan media observed an almost absolute silence about her. At the same time, throughout 24 years of Moi rule, Kenya did not have a first lady, as the president remained unattached. This official absence coupled with president Moi’s hypervisibility has largely overshadowed Lena Moi’s contributions to Kenyan public life and history. Through a biographical portrait of Lena Moi’s life and initiatives, the paper demonstrates how, prior to leaving the public political landscape, Lena Moi drew on her distinct African Inland Mission church upbringing and its emphasis on thrift to push for women’s vocational training and education. Importantly, I argue, Lena Moi strategically imagined and articulated a distinct set of ideas on women’s economic empowerment, which coincided with the nationalist rhetoric of self-help and development in 1970s Kenya. Alert to her Kalenjin community’s anxieties about women’s involvement in wage labor, Lena Moi carefully couched her rhetoric and self-help initiatives in the logic of family wellbeing rather than women’s independence; and emphasized national development rather than gender autonomy. Although there is no evidence she identified as a feminist, her perspectives and interventions offer important insights into women’s confrontations with economic inequalities, at a time when women’s economic citizenship was sharply contested.
Grace A Musila teaches African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is editor of Wangari Maathai’s Registers of Freedom (2020), author of A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder (2015); and co-editor of Rethinking Eastern African Intellectual Landscapes (2012; with James Ogude and Dina Ligaga).