In an extraordinary turn of events, four prominent Kenyan women have died during the past month. One of them, Dr Margaret Ogola, gave MercatorNet one of its first and best interviews in 2005, speaking eloquently about the top issues facing her country and the continent: poverty, AIDS, healthcare and, above all, the need to strengthen the African family.

Africa needs good women leaders and it has many of them. But to lose four of its own distinguished daughters at once must be a severe blow to Kenya. They are: Virginia Wambui-Otieno, who for many years conducted a political campaign over matrimonial property law (died August 30); Professor Sophia Githinji, an educator and author (September 21); Dr Ogola, a paediatrician and healthcare administrator (September 22, at the age of only 53); and Professor Wangari Maathai, conservationist and Nobel Peace Prize winner (2004) (September 25).

These women were all staunch campaigners for their causes, but Margaret Ogola was a special kind of heroine. Many people, including a generation of Kenyan schoolchildren, have met her through her books, most famously The River and the Source, which won the 1995 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book in the African region, and the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature the same year. The novel follows four generations of Kenyan women in a rapidly changing world — a theme continued in its sequel, I Swear by Apollo.

Her third novel, Place of Destiny, which won her a second Jomo Kenyatta Prize in 2007, is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of a woman dying of cancer and the rise to recognition of a former street kid. Dr Ogola battled cancer for many years and dealt with the dirt poor in society for most of her professional life, a colleague writes.

Many of those poor were people living with AIDS. From 1994 she was the Medical Director of Cottolengo Hospice for AIDS and HIV orphans, and in 2004-2005 played a key role in establishing the SOS HIV/AIDS Clinic, serving women, men and children in Nairobi slums. At the same time she was a wife and the mother of five children (one away at university when she spoke to MercatorNet in August 2005) and to two orphans from her extended family. As she said then: “So, though I am past the age of child-bearing my family continues to grow! And that is the story of everyone in Kenya today – you have orphans that you are taking care of because they have nowhere else to turn.”

She continued writing during nights made sleepless (“I am a poor sleeper” she told us) by, no doubt, the pressing challenges of her work and a mind brimming with ambitious goals for improving life in Kenya.

As well as her medical work, Dr Ogola served in key administrative roles. From 1994 to 1998 she was Executive Director of the Family Life Counselling Association of Kenya, and from 1998 to 2002 the National Executive Secretary for Health and Family Life for the Catholic Bishops Conference, a post she held until 2002. The latter job entailed co-ordinating the administration of over 430 health care facilities run by the Catholic Church in Kenya — representing about 20 per cent of all healthcare in Kenya. In 2002 she became she became the Kenya co-ordinator of HACI (Hope for African Children Initiative), a partnership involving CARE, Save the Children, Society for Women and AIDS, World Vision and other international NGOs.

In the international community Margaret Ogola stood out as a champion of human dignity, which she saw as belonging equally to every man, woman and child — including the unborn child. She was no feminist in the politically correct sense that would have seen her rise with ease to a top UN post, but she was a strong advocate of the empowerment of women nevertheless.

At the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women held at Beijing in 1995 she spoke with crystal clarity about why that was — and is — so necessary:

The woman is the heart of the family, and the family is the corner stone of society, therefore it is very fitting that we should be here in Beijing for the Fourth World Women’s Conference seeking new ways to enhance her well being, natural talents and gifts.

The woman is a powerhouse of creativity, development and peace. Conflict between men and women is therefore unnecessary because a woman brings an equal and powerful complementarity to the common human condition. Women have been entrusted with the capacity to transmit life which is the most precious gift that any body can give or receive. Without life no other good is possible.

She attacked the sacred cows of international development organisations by insisting on “the availability of cheap and safe methods of child spacing such as Natural Family Planning”, expressing her distress “that there seems to be a conspiracy to keep women in the dark, especially the African woman, regarding the many dangerous side-effects of contraceptives”, and calling for recognition of “the irreplaceable role of parents and the family in educating and in forming children in matters of sexuality”. (She herself wrote a book to help parents with this.)

While recognising that the collapse of sexual morality was basically to blame for the AIDS epidemic, she was full of compassion for those suffering in one way or another from the disease and insistent that poverty was driving its spread among women. As she told MercatorNet:

The main reason for this is poverty and the disadvantaged place of women. Therefore prevention programs should have women at the core, not only to help them say “no”, but also to have alternatives when they say “no”. This means attention to the poverty prevailing in our country which is extremely severe, with about 57 per cent of Kenyans living on less than one dollar a day. Most of the poor are women, and particularly young women, because socially they are not considered equal to men and so have less access to education and resources at every level. Their situation has to be addressed in a holistic and integral manner, so that you not only foster family values but also give them opportunities to make a living other than by transactional sex, which young girls get into out of sheer poverty.

Sustaining Dr Ogola in her unceasing work for her fellow Kenyans was her Catholic faith. Journalist John Allen interviewed her several years ago and learned that she owed her astonishing “peace and focus” in the midst of so many commitments precisely to her Christian life.

To that also, no doubt, she owed her irrepressible optimism. We asked her in 2005, Are you hopeful that Africa and its families can overcome the great problems they face? She answered:

Yes I am very hopeful. Perhaps there is some problem with my brain! Someone once attacked me because my book was so full of hope, and I hadn’t realised that. Considering everything that has happened in the last 10 years, and the awareness that exists in the world now about the plight of Africa and the impact of HIV/AIDS, and the good will and the funds that are beginning to come in to do the right things, not just dish out condoms, but to provide care and support, to provide care for hungry children, to provide clothing so that they can at least go to school decent and look like other children – all these things are beginning to happen. And when everybody is concerned, surely human ingenuity can defeat any virus. We will defeat this one just as we defeated smallpox and polio and all the others.

So I repeat, I’m full of hope. Good things are going to happen in the African continent. We have beautiful people and we have a lovely and very wealthy continent which is completely untouched.

The last word should go to someone who knew her and was present at her well-attended funeral at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi yesterday. In an email they told us:

She was progressively closer and closer to God. Today at the funeral Mass the priest who looked after her mentioned that she wanted to do everything, big or small, no matter how difficult it was, for love. Different people who spoke at her funeral – family, friends, colleagues and government officials — highlighted the fact that she was a very talented and determined person, an untiring worker and always seeking ways to serve better in the medical profession, especially in the care of HIV/AIDS orphans who were her special concern as a paediatrician. She had a great love for children and fought for respect for the dignity of human life. They also highlighted the faith and trust in God which characterized her life.

Dr Margaret Ogola is survived by her husband Dr George Ogola and six children. May she rest in peace.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet