The manuscript (which I still editted before the speech):
The story starts with the assistant manager of Olkurruk Mara lodge enjoying her dinner; – when a University of Nairobi History and Governance student on his way to Olmotonyi says, “Hey”
(Shanice) Chebet Naserian Kuntai
About two years later the labour pains started. She named the baby Shanice after one of her favourite musicians from her college days; Chebet because that’s the name given to Kalenjin babies born in the afternoon; Her Gogo named her Naserian which means good one in Maasai; and in true patriarchy fashion, her surname was to be Kuntai; so here I stand:
Shanice Chebet Naserian Kuntai.
Shanice is the rule-following sister to 5 wonderful girls and a brilliant student.
Chebet is Mama Africa. If she were a masala tea bag, ALA was the hot water that brought out her afro-centric essence. Chebet was also the one who decided I would no longer be referred to as Shanice for decolonial reasons-so don’t call me Shanice.
Naserian is the outreach program to Chebet’s Wakanda. She creates and participates in projects such as the Shanchena blog, Nole Scholarship Program and Serian Chocolate.
But few know Kuntai mostly because I do a good job at hiding, mostly denying her.So this is her story.
The milling house
My childhood is full of memories of people milling around our house – relatives, friends, friends of friends. Some were just coming to see Nairobi; others were in college and needed accommodation; others were high schoolers on midterm break and others had come to seek the better healthcare they could only get in the city. This meant that we were always sharing beds with someone or watching less cartoon network. The upside of this is that I internalized that leadership meant sharing your access to privilege and caring for everyone aroundyou. I think this is why in the future I would be drawn to leadership – when it was presented to me I embraced it, when it wasn’t I sought it.
In primary, teachers appointed me prefect and the job description was to snitch on my schoolmates. I also gave colourful and inspiring speeches filled with quotes collected from reading my parents’ books. At this point we were also learning about Africa and its challenges and some of those speeches went something like:
“My citizens, I am the president of the United States of East Africa and I will eradicate poverty; decentralise urban areas, build better infrastructure…”
I went on and on stating solutions to the challenges listed in the textbook until I decided that I wanted to join politics in the future. When I told my mum this, she worriedly said, “Politics is very dirty…”
Later, I emerged number 7 in the national exams and observed how this gave hope to many, especially girls from my home area who face challenges which impede their progress in education. This gave me hope that maybe if I could do this, I could also clean up this dirty politics and in turn inspire and help even more peoples omeday.
Friends are precious
Beyond being a source of inspiration, Kenya 7 opened doors to Alliance Girls’ High School:
Girls, when others sit – we stand
When others stand – we stand out
When others stand out – we become outstanding
And when others become outstanding – we become the standard measure.
So I went about becoming the standard measure which for me meant doing everything with great zeal and excellence. This translated into taking up various leadership roles: The happy toilet cleaner, swim team registrar, Scout troop leader, Christian Union Chairlady, School Captain and many more. Policing and colourful speeches were still expected of me but I gradually became conscious of love and service as essential aspects of leadership. This is how I made valuable friends with whom we started and executed projects.
Kama Si Sisi
One of those projects was Kama Si Sisi, an organization we co-founded with Val- my best friend and soulmate. Kama Si Sisi means “If not us?” in Swahili and this is the ethos of the organization: If we do not become the change we want to see, who will? We wanted to build abetter Kenyadriven by its youth and we decided that peer mentoring and donating library books to high schoolers around Narok county was a good place to start.
Two roads diverged
When ALA applications came around; we both applied. Before ALA the path was set: pass KCSE, do engineering at MIT, marry an Acrossian man (Across was our brother school), maybe become president? and then live happily ever after. Something about this path didn’t feel right – it felt imposed and overly self-serving. ALA presented a divergent path which felt right. The decision to accept the admission was summed up by this poem Val had shared with me from one of the letters we used to write each other:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Thus far the only leadership I had known was front and centre on a podium. However, ALA opened my mind to other forms of leadership and I opted for a more introspective leadership journeywhich led me to think more deeply about my community. I thought of how to better share my access to privilegewith girls who dropped out of school to be wives and mothers’ way too soon. This gave birth to 2-GVunie, a peer mentorship programme for high school girls led by university students. When piloting this program, I learnt that peer mentorship was a single solution to multifaceted problem. Consequently, I joined EmoArt as I felt that the experience would help me develop a more holistic and root based approach to respond effectively to the girls’ needs.
It was for this same reason that I wanted to study Gender, Politics and Philosophy in college.
Dad: “What happened to your Maths and Physics? Gender?!
Heehe! And then what will you become?”
Me: “A teacher or an activist…”
Dad: “Ati activist?”
Let’s just say my politician father who had to deal with activists as a menace in his county didn’t take this too well. It was hell in the Kuntai household until one Sunday morning when I found the perfect compromise in pursuing Construction Economics and Management at Wits. Construction would offer the stability that my parents wished for me and I felt that the course was flexible enough to infuse my passion for gender equality.
I also gladly welcomed the opportunity to remain on my beloved continent.
Construction at Wits is actually quite interesting. However, my favourite part of Jozi has been the relationships I have developed which have grown meas a learner and also as a leader.
One of these relationships is the Iimbokodo; a sisterhood that I am blessed to be a part of. Sometime last year we were talking about the male-dominated industry that awaits us and found ourselves complaining about our all-male school student council at Wits which we felt was ineffective. That is when Makatseng (who later became my campaign manager) suggested that I run for school council and become chair in the following year. I started thinking of all the reasons not to – that Wits was too politically charged; I hadn’t even participated in the Fees Must Fall Protests – I felt I didn’t have what it took. My friends would hear none of it: they were right there boosting my self-esteem, praying, reviewing manifestos, campaigning…
I became school council chair about two months ago_Student leadership is stressful but this has been a lesson in embracing Kuntai; the snitching prefect turned feminist love leader.
My dad is the governor of Narok and together with my mothers they passionately serve the county. For the longest time, when asked what my parents did, out of shame, I said they were farmers; because politicians are not known for nurturing and feeding people; instead they are known for misusing their hard-earned income and making promises they know they can’t keep.
While I am too biased to give an evaluation of the political impact my parents have had on the county; as I reflect on my coming into myself as a proud Maasai Kalenjin Woman Leader, I see the undeniable influence that their parenting and leadership styles have had on me. But Kuntai is not just the Governor’s Daughter; she is also a leader in her own right because of the experiences that have formed her.
This is why it was important for me to share Kuntai with you today because she is where I centre my being as a leader.