Tom Mboya and the African Student Airlifts: Inclusion, Equity and Higher Education Among Kenyan Women and Men.

Author:Harper, Jim C.


Gender Equity is defined by the United Nations Population Fund as the process of being fair to women and men. The definition further states that "to ensure fairness, strategies and measures must often be available to compensate for women's historical and social disadvantages that prevent women and men from otherwise operating on a level playing field" (United Nations Publication Fund" 2017). As the second largest continent in both size and population Africa has made great strides toward gender equity. Although 1960 was designated the year of Africa because seventeen African countries gained their independence, African countries have been gaining independence since February 22, 1922 when Egypt became independent of British colonial rule. Currently, Africa has 53 fully recognized independent nations (ChartsBin Statistics, 2011).

Since 1960 Africa has had seven women heads of state to be appointed or elected. In fifty-seven years women in Africa have been able to take advantage and fight for opportunities that have led them to become heads of states, win the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as leaders for human and civil rights. This is a tremendous record compared to countries with hundreds of years of independence that have never had a woman serve as the head of state. In Africa, the progressive nature of parents, nationalists, and others who press in various ways for gender equity through the acquisition of education has been difficult but progress has been made.

As the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), a movement consisting of the strategies, groups, and social movements in the United States (particularly in the South) whose goals were to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights enumerated in the Constitution and federal law gained momentum in the United States during the late 1950s, the Kenyan nationalist movement for independence was also gaining momentum. Kenyans were pressing for autonomy and they knew that Kenyans would be needed to fill civil service, military, police force, and other high-level positions that required university degrees once the British transitioned control over the government to Kenyans. In order to accomplish this objective, Kenyan students would need to be educated abroad because East African colleges could not produce enough qualified personnel over a six-year period. In a 1964 survey, the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development under the direction of Tom Mboya, a Kenyan nationalist and trade unionist, estimated that nearly 6,000 highly educated Kenyans were needed by 1971 to fill occupations that required university education. The most urgent and important professional and managerial positions that needed to be filled were in town and physical planning, lawyers, physicians and surgeons, engineers, surveyors, chemists, university teachers, directors, managers, and working proprietors, secondary school teachers, and agricultural graduates (Kenya Ministry of Economic Planning "High-Level Manpower Requirements and Resources in Kenya", iii). To meet these necessary high-level labor needs, the survey identified four goals. First, utilization of the high-level Kenyan personnel already at work; second, up grading presently employed lower skilled workers; third providing education and training in East African colleges as well as overseas colleges and universities; and finally, contracting foreign technicians when qualified Kenyan personnel were not available (Kenya Ministry of Economic Planning, "High-Level Manpower Requirements and Resources in Kenya", iii).

The survey also noted that attention be given to the education of women, especially since there was a need for skilled office workers; stenographers, secretaries, bookkeepers, cashiers and speed typists, professions that during this period were generally regarded primarily the domain of women. However, women educated in Kenya, and the whole of Africa for that matter, had consistently lagged far behind that of men. Women were often the last members of their families to attend school. This was due in large part to the result of economic consideration deriving from bride price or bride token when a groom or his family pays the parents of the women he is about to marry or has just married.

In some instances, the parents were conservative and believed that men should be educated first (Shillington, 2012, 68). Men mainly believed that women must be confined to their traditional roles as wives and mothers, and work in the fields. The reality of the situation was men did not want to lose women to schools, for women constituted the backbone of the farming society (Ibid.) The labor of women and their children increased food production and the wealth of the community. In other instances, cattle was a primary source of bride wealth and men with large herds of cattle could pay the dowry to marry several women who would through farming increase the man's wealth (Shillington, 151). Therefore, educational opportunities for women at the secondary education level remained low. Forward thinking Kenyan parents and others like Mboya recognized the important role that educated women would play in enhancing the quality of life of their families and participate in the development of the country. Nevertheless, it must be noted that women educated in Kenya and in other parts of the African continent had consistently lagged far behind that of men. A large segment of the male population held the conviction that women must be confined to their traditional roles as wives and mothers, and work in the fields. In reality, these men did not want to lose women to schools for women constituted the backbone of the peasantry. This essay demonstrates how men like Tom Mboya and parents sought to include the women who received secondary education in the Student Airlifts so that they were prepared to make valuable contributions to the newly independent Kenya. Educated women played an integral role in enhancing the quality of life of their families while participating in the development of the country. Consequently, women's education advanced steadily especially after independence due to the progressive thinking of individuals like Tom Mboya.

Tom Mboya

Tom Mboya, born Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya (1930-1969) was a native of Kenya. He was part of the Luo ethnic group and educated in a Catholic Mission School. In 1946 he attended Holy Ghost College where he passed is qualifying examinations and earned his Cambridge School Certificate. In 1948 he enrolled in the Royal Sanitary Institute's Medical Training School for Sanitary Inspectors in Nairobi. He was elected to the Nairobi City Council in 1951 and was elected as the President of the African Staff Association in 1952. In 1953 he was elected General Secretary of the Federation of Labor and attended the Efficiency Correspondence College of South Africa majoring in Economics. In 1955 he went to Ruskin College in Oxford England to study industrial management. He actively sought to fight for the rights of Kenyan workers and to seek opportunities for them to obtain education and training (Rake, 15). In 1957 Mboya won the legislative council elections as a workers' candidate, becoming one of only eight elected African members on the council.

He helped form the Kenya independence movement in the council and the People's Convention Party in Nairobi. And in the critical pre-independence decade he also spent a year at the University of Oxford and twice visited the United States. In 1959 he helped found the African-American Students Foundation to raise money to send East African (originally only Kenyan) university students to the United States on charter flights, thus making it possible for many more students to study abroad. In 1960, he was a founder-member of the Kenya African National Union; he was minister of labour in the coalition government before independence and actively participated in the constitutional talks that led to independence in 1963, and in the same year, Jomo Kenyatta appointed him minister of justice and constitutional affairs. From 1964 to 1969 Mboya served as minister for economic planning and development, laying the foundation for a strong mixed economy and capitalist-oriented policies; this upset others in Kenyatta's administration, such as Oginga Odinga, who advocated policies of a more socialist nature. In 1969 Mboya was assassination, and action which shocked the nation and exacerbated tensions between the dominant Kikuyu and other ethnic groups, especially Mboya's own Luo (Goldsworth 1982, Kelley 2008, Mboya 1970, Shachtman 2009).

Tom Mboya sought to develop opportunities for Kenyans and later African women and men across the continent to access to resources and opportunities for higher education in the United States. Mboya's insight in understanding that independence in Kenya and the entire African continent would require and educated workforce of both women and men. He understood the fine lines of social status in the rearing of women and men. The social constructs which include divisions of labor along with political, religious and sometimes economic status forced women into subservient positions that often prevented their access to social status via politics, economics, religious leadership and education. During the late 1950's and early 1960's Mboya took steps to redress the inequity so that women would be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that came before them. By including women in the African Student Airlifts he worked to develop a level playing field by empowering women through access to higher educational opportunities abroad. This was a strategic step towards equity with the hope that true equality could be achieved.

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The African Student Airlifts of 1959, 1960 and 1961 opened the doors for African students to receive scholarships...

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