NAIROBI, KENYA — When Charity Kaluki Ngilu was chosen by the National Committee on the Status of Women as a candidate for Kenya's presidency last February, the East African Standard splashed the story on the front page. When her husband came across the screaming headlines the next morning, he flicked the paper across the breakfast table and scoffed: "Here's another one of their crazy ideas. You go tell them they are mistaken."
Mrs. Ngilu refused to back down, arguing that by doing so she would only be confirming the stereotype about women and politics: "People could have said: 'Look, she was offered the position and backed away because women really are not made for this.' "
Ngilu, a mother of three, is the first woman to have set her sights on the presidency in a country where only six out of 200 seats in the National Assembly are currently filled by women.
Today, as she shuttles around this vast East African country in flowing skirts and heels, Ngilu is an unusual, even jarring, sight. More jarring to the political establishment are the crowds that scramble out to meet her - not infrequently engaging in shoving matches with police dispatched to silence her.
Most troubling of all, for the ruling party, is the the distant but not inconceivable possibility that she may put an end to President Daniel arap Moi's 19-year rule, plowing across gender barriers to become the first woman president in Africa. Ngilu is one of four candidates that will be challenging President Moi in Dec. 29 elections, which were announced yesterday. Another woman, Kenya University professor Wanyari Maathai, is considering running, but has yet to formally declare her candidacy.
"The Constitution says any Kenyan of sound mind over the age of 35 who speaks a little English and a little Swahili can seek the presidency," says a smiling Ngilu. "It says nothing about being a man or a woman."
Ngilu stumbled into politics five years ago after a group of men and women marched into her yard and sat down under a tree demanding to talk to her.
"They said they were fed up with their [member of parliament], George Ndoto," she recalls. "They said: 'We have the power to hire and to fire. We've just fired Ndoto, and we've hired you.' " Her overwhelming victory at the polls, she says, taught her her first lesson about politics: "I learned that power could be and should be demystified, that it can come from very real people like me," she says.
On Jan. 3 the next year, she was summoned to the State House for a meeting with the president. On that and other occasions she claims she was offered money - 20 million shillings ($320,000) - to join the swelling ranks of the ruling party. In the years that followed, the government's tactics allegedly became nastier, with party henchmen threatening her and monitoring her every move.
Ngilu's politics have also undergone a radical change. Her speeches have shed the earnest, self-effacing tones that had set her apart from other politicians, acquiring an inflammatory flavor and a use of metaphor so crafty that, as as one Western observer put it, "she could put most politicians in Washington to shame."
"There's no doubt she's come a long way," says the same observer. "Some say too long." In the election campaign, Ngilu has paradoxically come under fire from women's organizations, which have accused her of manipulating the gender issue while refusing to admit a single woman into her entourage. Ngilu has also had herself photographed serving tea to a group of men and smoothing out wrinkles in her husband's collar. "She's an opportunist," says a women's-rights advocate, who asked not to be named. "Her commitment to women's liberation is phony, to say the least."
"My message is about giving this country back to Kenyans, whether they are males or females," Ngilu says. "It's about alleviation of poverty and education." Women are "undeniably agents of change, but they are not, and should not be seen as, a homogeneous group."