Curtain falls on the life of Kenya’s top educationist

 Joan Wambui Waithaka
The late pioneer educationist Joan Wambui Waithaka. PHOTO | COURTESY  

This week we laid to rest yet another pioneer educationist, Joan Wambui Waithaka, at her family home in Kentmere, Limuru.

Born to a pioneer Presbyterian minister, the Rev Musa Gitau and Lillian Wamucii Gitau on June 14, 1929 at Kamandura, Limuru, in Kiambu District, it was as if the purpose of her life was ordained at birth. Ms Waithaka grew up in a deeply Christian home where her parents practised what they preached and the virtues of discipline, honesty and hard work were inculcated from the very beginning.

The Rev Musa Gitau, being a Church of Scotland missionary, placed a high premium on education for Africans especially for girls as this was a controversial subject at the time. All of his children benefited from the best education that was available at the time and Ms Waithaka was no exception.

Starting her intermediate education at the Church of Scotland Mission Primary School, Thogoto, in 1941, Ms Waithaka passed her Primary School Certificate Examination with flying colours, along with Margaret Kenyatta in 1943. However, there was a dilemma because at the time there was no junior secondary school available for girls. Due to their outstanding academic performance, the headmaster of Alliance High School, Carey Francis, made an exception and admitted three girls at the boys only school in 1944.

Ms Waithaka passed her Junior Secondary Examination in 1945, beating all the boys in her class, proceeding to Senior Secondary in 1946. She served as Senior Girl in 1946 and 1947 becoming the first and only girl to score Division One in the Cambridge School Certificate Examination. She taught at the newly established African Girls High School (later Alliance Girls High School) under the first headmistress Jean Wilkinson (née Ewan) in 1948.


Proceeding to Makerere University College in 1949,Ms Waithaka became the first Kenyan girl to be enrolled at the institution. In 1951, she graduated with a teachers’ certificate diploma becoming the first Kenyan girl to do so.

Returning to African Girls High School in 1952, she was assigned to teach history and among her first students were Dr Eddah Gachukia, who is also an educationist, Monica Kabeberi, her sister Edith Matiba, Catherine Mboya, Mary Kiamakiru and Zelipa Wamwangi. She demonstrated very high standards of discipline, honesty and hard work and encouraged the girls to aim high in life.

Later Ms Waithaka taught at Machakos Girls High School and between 1959 and 1966 taught at Thogoto Teachers Training College before being posted to Highridge Teachers College from 1967 to July 1968. In August 1968, she was posted as headmistress of Nairobi Girls Secondary School.

Amid some disquiet as to how an African could manage this now iconic missionary school, Ms Waithaka was appointed the first African headmistress of Alliance Girls High School in August 1969. During one of her first parades, some of the girls started murmuring but she, with a commanding voice, ordered them to stop, which they immediately did, realising that the new headmistress did not stand any nonsense.

Ms Waithaka immediately settled down to manage the transition from white to local leadership and teaching staff which was by no means easy given the evolving social, political and economic landscape in the country.

Affectionately known as “auntie” by her students, she proved to be a worthy administrator — always strict but fair in all her undertakings. She carried an aura of authority everywhere she went and you could expect her to turn up in the most unlikely of places and catch a student off guard. The academic performance of the school continued to exceed expectations during her tenure.

She retired from the teaching profession in 1984 after serving a total of 32 years, 15 of which were as headmistress of Alliance Girls High School.

Being committed to community duty, Ms Waithaka served on various boards, including the Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology, Thogoto Teachers Training College and on education review commissions including the National Commission on Educational Objectives and Policies (the Gachathi Commission) of 1976. She was awarded a Distinguished Service Award by Kenyatta University in 1995 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to education. She was also awarded the Order of the Burning Spear second class by President Daniel arap Moi.

After retirement in 1984, Ms Waithaka Joan and her husband, Prof James Mbugua Waithaka, settled in their country home in Kentmere, Limuru, where she engaged in horticulture and was active in church life.

It is worthy of note that she was born in the year when the debate about the girl child was at its peak in central Kenya. Her life story is one of many firsts and it appears her mission was to debunk the myth and prove that the African girl could equal and even exceed what her male counterparts could achieve in any field of endeavor.

Many of her former students have contributed greatly to development in Kenya as educationists, healthcare professionals, agriculturalists, legislators and captains of industry. She instilled in her students the virtues of discipline, honesty, moral uprightness, hard work and excellence, which unfortunately are in rather short supply in our nation today.

The motto for Alliance Girls’ High School is “Walk in the Light.” It is no coincidence that Ms Waithaka walked in the light without deviating so that she could lead others to the mountain top. Some of her first students at Alliance Girls’ High School who are still surviving are now in their 80s. What a legacy! May the Almighty rest her soul in peace.