Fida founder on sacrifices to 'have it all'


Lilian Mwaura, Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida) founder during the interview on May 17. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG



  • In 1949, Lilian Wakiiya Mwaura's father went into the bush to fight for independence. He never came back.
  • She was two years old and had six siblings.
  • Her mother, a peasant farmer, through grit and prayer, sent all of them to school, including the girls, an uncommon thing during those days.

In 1949, Lilian Wakiiya Mwaura's father went into the bush to fight for independence. He never came back. She was two years old and had six siblings.

Her mother, a peasant farmer, through grit and prayer, sent all of them to school, including the girls, an uncommon thing during those days. Lilian went on to study law in university and later opened a law firm— K Mwaura and Co Advocates— with her brother in 1975.

Upon seeing the marginalisation of women due to lack of legal rights, she and other prominent women lawyers founded Fida { Federation of Women Lawyers} in 1985 and ran it for the next five years as its first chairperson.

Over time she has served as Chairperson of Kenya Women Professional and Business Club, Kiambaa Branch, Chairperson of National Council of Women of Kenya (1987-1999) and between 2000 to 2011 she was the International Council of Women Representative to UNEP. She was also a member of the Green Belt Movement since its inception and served as a board member from 1990 to 2007.

Now accomplished, self-actualised, and winding down, she spends time in her home in Nairobi's Loresho researching, writing proposals, reading and writing books on women achievers, or enjoying her beautiful garden.

She sat with JACKSON BIKO on her patio to speak about her life and times as a firebrand for women empowerment. Next to her sat her young granddaughter, named after her, and her look-alike daughter, Waithera Kabiru, Head of Media Futures at East Africa Breweries Limited.


Have you always been driven by women's rights? Where did that come from?

It comes from my mother who raised seven children alone after my father died in war. But she was very gender-sensitive, never discriminated against any of us. Life was difficult; during the school holidays, we used to go to White Highlands to pick coffee to supplement what our mother was getting.

She was privileged to have planted coffee because the late Senior Chief Koinange was her cousin. He had also planted coffee although it was later uprooted by the white men. Coffee educated me.

While I picked coffee on Saturdays I remember seeing white women carrying their children in cars and taking them to school. In those days, the schools were for White, Asians, and Africans. So I started dreaming that one day I will drive my children to these white schools and also study in one.

My dream came true. I joined Msongari, an all-white school. By then, most girls were married. Being the most educated woman around the village, I had many suitors. [Chuckles].

Before I joined university, I got married then I started having children; first-born in the first year, the second born in the second year and when I was finishing I got my daughter in 1975, this one here. [Gestures at Waithera who says, ‘her favourite child’].

What sort of conversations do you remember having with your mother in the 50s?

My mother was a very prayerful woman. She also always told us that only education would get us out of poverty. She would tell us that anything we want to be could only come out of hard work. She was big on family unity.

As a teenager, we used to all have lunch together every month, a tradition we have continued up to today. You discussed your issues during lunch, not with people out there.

The other important thing she would stress about is honesty. She used to tell us if you steal money, or get it in fraudulent ways if you don't pay for it, your children will. For the over 40 years that I have been a lawyer, my law firm has been in good standing.

What do you remember about your father?

When my father died my uncles wanted to inherit my mother. She knew that if she got inherited her daughters would not go to school, they would be married off. So she refused and got hell out of it. Her land was taken. The animals were sold. She was mistreated. But she was very prayerful.

I remember when there was moonlight she used to go outside the house, hold a panga up and pray to Jehovah. She’d tell Jehovah ‘bless my hand and this panga so that when I go till my land I get enough food for my children.’ My uncles never gave her land, but my siblings and I studied up to university. So my mother eventually got her justice.

You mentioned how you saw white settlers uproot coffee belonging to your relatives, then you went to an all-white school. What was your feeling towards white people?

To begin with, I thought all white people were British. When I went to school, I found out that there were British, American, Italians...and they treated each other differently.

The British almost felt superior to the others. We were only five black girls in school and decided we were not going to speak English. That’s why I don’t have an accent. We used to speak Kikuyu except when we're in class.

But it was a culture shock; the food, the fork and the knife. Sometimes we would feel harassed and one day I told them, ‘I’m a daughter of Mau Mau, if you continue harassing us again, we’re going to eat you alive.’ That night they slept under their beds. [Chuckles]. We had to be tough to survive. And then we were doing very well in class.

Tell me how you fell in love.



Daughter: Would you like us to leave so that you tell the story?

No! It’s no secret. I married Professor Kabiru Kinyanjui. I knew him when I was in Limuru. His cousin was in our school. She introduced me to him. We kept meeting. He invited me to a movie and we went and he didn't even watch the movie, he was watching me. [Laughter) And from there the rest is history.

To Waithera: What was the impression of your mother when you were growing up?

She worked a lot. She was very focused on making sure that we didn’t go without. She was always giving to others so we always had a lot of relatives staying here.

My mom would never come for sports day in school, even though I was top. My brother was a great swimmer, always number one, but she was never there. But the driver was there. [Laughter]. And the swimming lessons were paid for.

In her days at Fida or NCWK, she travelled all over the country and I had more freedom than my friends. I could come home and my mom was not there to micromanage me like my friends. It helped me to be more responsible and independent because if I failed she would be in school.

Was there any form of guilt being away from home a lot?

Not at that time because my focus was to provide for them. They had everything; I took them to the best schools here and abroad to study. I worked so hard for them. At home, they had a chef and also my mother used to live here.

I was contributing to the community, what I was doing for the women was also important. One incident bothered me though; my son, the good swimmer, had a competition and all his friends’ parents were there, and I wasn’t. I think it had a very negative impact on him.

He must have thought, ‘here are parents of children who aren’t even winning, yet I’m winning and my mother isn’t here.’

If I would take the clock back, I would give my children more time.

Starting Fida must have been very difficult at that time when women empowerment was met with hostility. You were branded names like divorcees. What made you stay the course?

I believed in the course. I believed getting my goal will help a lot of women. So it didn’t matter.

What's been the most difficult decade of your life?

Between 1975 to 1985. I was fighting for women’s rights at a very difficult time. Domestic violence was viewed as disciplining a woman. I remember getting a loan from a bank as a woman you required your husband’s consent. I told the banks that this was discriminatory. Those are the days when women did not have confidence in themselves. Hard times.

Tell me the story of your rings.

(Giggles) What about them?

They look like they have stories...

One is from my brother who used to have mines. The first stone he got, he made a ring for me. Another one was from my marriage, of course, it cannot fit here, I was a small girl. Now I put this one. Marriage advice? Respect each other. If I respect you I will love you. If I love you, you respect me.

What drives you the most at this stage in life?

To see my grandchildren get a good education, grow up to be good citizens, and above all, listen to their parents.

Waithera you want to ask your mom a question?

Waithera: You didn’t grow up with a dad. We also didn’t grow up with our father. Do you see any gaps in not having a male figure in your life? Looking back, do you see anything that could have been done differently in the way you grew up and raised us without a male figure?

When I was growing up many children did not have their fathers around. They were in detention or elsewhere. I didn’t feel like I didn’t have a father. I used to believe my older brother was my father. We were all raised by the community. If you have a strong mother, she can play both roles and if you have uncles they can help. But in an ideal condition, children should grow up with two parents.

What do you think was the effect of many children growing up without fathers in the 1940s and 1950s?

I don’t think they knew what they were missing. They thought it was a normal thing.

Your daughter said that the reason she probably got married a bit later in life was that she saw how you went at it alone. In you, she saw competence, courage, freedom, and financial stability...

I was struggling! Let me tell you, my dear. When I was at the law firm, I would drive to Narok every Friday evening. My children were abroad at that time. I had leased 3,000 acres of land to plant wheat. I would go with her younger brother, supervise and even drive the tractor to plant or dig. On Sunday night, I would drive back to Nairobi to be in court on Monday morning.

I remember one day I reached Mai Mahiu and I felt I could not drive anymore, I was fatigued. I told my son, ‘let’s close our windows and sleep.’ I slept for two hours then drove up the escarpment at 2am.

I’d do this so that after three months when I harvest the wheat, I could afford to pay for their school fees abroad. That was not financial stability, that was not having a lot of money. [Chuckles]

How did you navigate patriarchy at a time when there weren't many of you doing that?

I didn’t believe men were superior to women. They were just allowed to act that way because the woman power believes in it. Women have a lot of power because they can manage a lot of tasks. And they have a kind heart. Women, when it comes to the family, are the backbone of the family, not the man. The man is the leader of the home because we have said you are the leader. I believe men are the head but we are the neck, and you cannot turn the head without the neck.