Gallant and selfless, Chelagat Mutai was barely 24 years old when she beat 11 other contestants to the Eldoret North parliamentary seat. She was young and ferocious, like the lion in her official campaign symbol.
Chelagat’s social and political activism took root early, which got her expelled from Highlands Girls School. Despite the setback, she still excelled in her exams and was admitted to the University of Nairobi to study political science, which was testament to her focus and staying power.
At university, Chelagat’s activism flourished. Inspired by the vibrant political culture that abounded, she became a student leader and editor of the student newspaper, The Platform. Her outspoken nature and brave stance would see her suspended from college on numerous occasions before graduating, again, with an excellent grade.
In 1974, Chelagat joined politics proper, her mentor, the fiercely independent Jean Marie Seroney. Within months of her election, Chelagat found like-minded individuals inside Parliament: Koigi wa Wamwere, Mwashengu wa Mwachofi, Chibule wa Tsuma, James Orengo, Abuya Abuya and Lawrence Sifuna.
Radical and uncompromising, they seven were ridiculed as the Seven Bearded Sisters because the men spotted full beards that were then associated with leftist politics.
Chelagat’s cause celebre remained political assassinations, land grabbing, and corruption, which she spoke against loudly and eloquently.
For her efforts, Chelagat was labelled traitor, dissident, and Marxist. She was arrested in 1975 after leading her constituents to claim a farm they had bought, but whose former owner had refused to relinquish. For her bravery, she got six months imprisonment. She emerged out of prison more resolute, and was arrested again within a few months of her release and charged with incitement.
Despite the tribulations, her constituents appreciated her sacrifice and commitment, and re-elected her again.
In October 1981, Chelagat fled to Tanzania to avoid malicious prosecution. Cut off from the work she loved and her support base, Chelagat used the three years in exile to complete a Master’s Degree in International Relations. She returned home in 1984 and kept a low profile.
In June 2011, after decades in obscurity, she returned to the public limelight when journalists sought her out. She was impoverished, sickly and confined to a wheelchair, yet remarkably defiant of spirit.
She died on July 7, 2013, on Saba Saba Day – memorialized as a watershed in Kenya’s political development – when multi-party democracy was restored.