I remember where I was on the day that the results of the Lamu Gubernatorial race were announced. Saturday 13 August 2022. I sat on the living room rug of my childhood home in Mombasa watching the votes get counted on a TV that never saw darkness until the final votes were tallied and the winners announced. Issa Timamy had secured 33% of the votes in Lamu, with Fahim Twaha not trailing too far behind with 30%.
While Umra Omar had only managed to secure 11% of the votes, that 11% represented a cultural shift in Lamu. A tremor in the paradigm that saw to upend the old Arab-patriarchy style of leadership that Lamu had grown too accustomed to and was beginning to outgrow like a worn-out kanzu that didn’t quite fit the same way it used to. Umra’s 11% represented a future Lamu, where women could contest on the same platforms as men and convert the minds of people into believing that women could run a county just as well, if not better, than the average male politician. Two days prior on August 11th, Captain Ruweida Obbo was announced as MP-elect for Lamu East, representing the first time a woman in Lamu had broken the ceiling of women’s rep and climbed into the higher political seat of MP.
Politics aside, I was fascinated by Umra Omar. During my time spent living in the remote isle of Kipungani, I’d frequent Shela village for socialization purposes and a taste of the metropolitan. The local residents always boasted about what Umra did for a boy from Kizingitini, off the archipelagic island of Faza. His name is Feisal Mohammed Bamkuu.
If I believed Kipungani to be remote, Faza was a jerkwater way off the beaten track. The stories of Faza always described malnutrition and hunger of its residents, a lack of medical and educational facilities, and even basic household amenities like piped water and electricity were only introduced on the island as late as 2020.
So when this young lad from Kizingitini was tapped to play for French Football team, La Berrichonne de Châteauroux, everyone in Lamu saw a dream manifested for the first time, where previously dreams would dissipate in an ocean of socio-economic disadvantages. And it was all thanks to Umra Omar, who had rallied for Feisal’s talent to be seen by international scouts. At the press conference where he received his jersey, Feisal answered all the French media questions in Bajuni accented Kiswahili, properly repping his homeland and heritage.
The daughter of a former politician and one of the founders of the landmark Lamu Museum- in all her interviews, Umra Omar debunks the stereotype that the Bajuni community doesn’t prioritize education for women, and doubles down on just how much education was a non-negotiable in their household.
Umra’s mother is a retired computer scientist who would sometimes leave her children for months on end in order to further her education. Umra herself was born in Tchundwa not too far from Kizingitini and received her Bachelors in Neuroscience and Psychology at Oberlin College in Ohio, as well as Masters in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations from the School Of International Training in Vermont. When Umra returned to Lamu in 2015 after having settled down in the states, her sleepy historical hometown island had hardened into a frontline warzone for the war on terror between the KDF and Al-Shabaab. Tourism had dwindled and many foreign nationals had evacuated Lamu following the 2011 kidnapping and death of French national Marie Dedieu, and the 2014 Al-Shabaab attacks in Mpeketoni and Hindi where over 100 people lost their lives to the narrative of terrorism. However, the real victims were the native inhabitants of Lamu.
Umrah Omar is the force behind Safari Doctors, which used to be a french-owned mobile healthcare outreach that went under after the Al-Shabaab attacks and kidnappings on the islands of Kiwayu and Manda drove a majority of foreign nationals aways. For Umrah Omar, it led her back home to her people. In an interview with CNN, Umra spoke about the first intention with Safari Doctors,
“When we first started, it was mainly about getting immunisations out to rural areas and making sure that a woman who wanted access to family planning could get it. So just providing that primary care of your cough syrups, your pain medication, and then advancing from delivering these treatments to about 100 people a month to upto 2500 people a month.”
In 2016, Umra was awarded the CNN Heroes Award for her contribution to Humanitarian aid. In 2017, she was awarded the UN-Kenya Person of the Year Award for her work with Safari Doctors, providing affordable and appropriate healthcare to the marginalized and indigenous Bajuni and Aweer communities of Lamu.
In 2019, she was listed as a World Economic Forum (WEF) Young Global Leader.
In 2020, Umra Omar announced that she was vying for political office to become the first female Governor of Lamu county.
A few days to the August 9th 2022 General elections, I followed Umra Omar on the last days of her campaign in Lamu. She had previously declined my last-minute request for a sit-down interview and understandably so, what with campaigns reaching their crescendo in these final days of campaigns. I decided that if I could not access her directly, I would have to access her through proximity. That’s how I met Clinton.
Clinton Ngonyo has been a resident of Shela for 28 years, he was also a key mobilizing agent for Umra’s campaign for the Lamu Gubernatorial seat. I wanted to know how he became a part of Umra’s campaign:
“I joined Umra’s campaign because I see a future in Umra’s leadership. I’ve lived here for the past 28 years but what I’ve seen is discrimination and lack of good leadership. Lamu is very rich in resources but we’re lagging behind because of poor leadership, and if we can have someone who can manage our resources well, I’m sure Lamu can be one of the best places to live in Kenya.”
Clinton went on to elaborate that he doesn’t believe in political sycophancy. To him, the concept of a leader is spiritual, not political. What Clinton saw in Umra was not a mere leader in the surface sense of the word, but a good manager of resources – circling back to her work with Safari Doctors.
“Safari Doctors is now a network which is all over Lamu County, but when Umra started, it only used to cover Lamu East, but she extended it to Lamu West because we have poor quality healthcare systems all over Lamu. Imagine right now, people were given NHIF covers but there are no NHIF services in Lamu. People have to travel as far as Mombasa or Moshi to seek treatment. Suppose we have these facilities in Lamu, that could save our people a lot of money.”
According to Clinton, what Lamu really needed in a Governor was someone who would be a solution to the collective problems of the people of Lamu, not your everyday land-grabbing, public-fund-looting politician we’ve grown all too accustomed to seeing in Kenyan governance. Lamu needed a governor who would take care of its money and invest the public resources into developing the county and ensuring the basic needs of residents are met.
“Umra has never been implicated in any land dispute, meaning she’s not part of the problem. Land has been a big problem in Lamu, especially land grabbed from poor people by rich people. Poor people don’t have the means to get title deeds whereas the rich person will get a title deed made in Nairobi and then bring it down to Lamu and claim that they own the land when someone’s been living there for decades.”
I wanted to pick his brain as to whether he felt that Lamu, with its strong Swahili culture and patriarchal ideas of leadership rooted in Islam, were ready for a female Governor, especially one as progressive as Umra Omar. He counter-posed a question right back at me:
“Let me ask you, between the community and the culture, which one protects the other? Or is it a two-way street?”
He explained that there are some things that made sense 100 years ago which simply don’t make any sense today.
“So if the people of Lamu still hold onto that, then it means they’re moving backwards, not forward. There’s the muslim culture which is practised all over the world and then there’s the Swahili culture, which most people confuse with the Islamic religion. So we need to have these boundaries and I think we need to troubleshoot our Swahili culture because it’s crashing, if it hasn’t already crashed. We need someone who can fix things, and I think Umra is a good fixer because we need modern Swahili, we don’t need the old Swahili of 100 years ago.”
Lamu is a UNESCO protected world-heritage site as it is one of the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. Unlike other settlements along the East African coast which have been abandoned, Lamu has been continuously inhabited for the past 700 years. The Lamu of 100 years ago is not too different from the Lamu of today, while many inhabitants of Lamu take pride in their ancient heritage, Clinton believes this fixation on not straying too far from the past is not of benefit to the people of Lamu today.
“At the UNESCO World Heritage site, people are complaining – how does the status benefit them? It’s only a few individuals connected to UNESCO who are the main beneficiaries but the people don’t benefit and that’s why you see motorbikes in town these days because people wonder ‘how can UNESCO put food on the table?’ For many young people in Lamu, that has been a big question. So I think there has to be a way to balance both of them, to have both the pikipiki and the heritage of culture.”
Clinton also wanted to clarify that while Umra was indeed a woman, that factor was irrelevant. To him, Umra was a good manager of resources. A good leader.
“I’ve heard people raise the fact that she’s a woman as one of the main reasons why they can’t vote her into office, but those reasons are based on religious grounds and it’s really hard to mix religion with politics. If politics were based on religion, then no muslim would be allowed to run for political seat because Kenyan elections are haram, not halal.
So if you want to maintain halal, you should stay away from politics but if you’re in politics, then you shouldn’t introduce religion into politics. Politics is a competition of ideas, the one who convinces the masses based on ideas should be the one who wins and this should be the principle.”
The sun was setting behind us and it was getting late. The last thing Clinton wanted to talk about was how Umra pulled a reverse brain-drain and brought her biggest resource back home to benefit her people: herself.
“Umra went to school in the USA and Canada, and then she decided to come back home which not many people do. We have a lot of people who are stuck abroad, who want to live and work there after they complete their studies. They don’t care about coming back home. But Umra saw the need to come back home and develop her people. This should be the spirit for other regions to encourage people who went to school abroad, who have the knowledge to change things to come and apply their knowledge here so that everyone can benefit.
Voting for her encourages the Kenyan diaspora to look into Kenya as their home and a place that needs to be improved because even if they live in the states, those places were developed by the young people of those nations. No-one is going to come and build the Lamu we want, the people who will build the Lamu we want can only come from us.”
Unlike other politicians from Lamu whose main domiciles are in Mombasa or Nairobi, Umra immersed herself within the community. She lives in Shela full-time and even built a public school in Shela, Shamba La Shela School, which her own children, as well as Clinton’s children, attend.
Before he departed, we shared a bottle of Mnazi, when Clinton suggested I speak to a man named Chris for more context on Umra’s campaign and work. I reached out to Chris and we met the next day at the Safari Doctors offices in Shela.
Chris King is a film-maker based in Nairobi, and together with his wife Maia Lekow, they run a production company called Circle and Square Productions. Chris is originally from Australia but he’s been in Nairobi since 2007 working in the film industry, particularly character-driven feature length documentaries, long form, deeply personal, and mainly based on powerful women smashing paradigms.
“The whole thing about gender is really complex and there’s a lot of layers to it,” said Chris.
“I think on the surface Lamu comes across as chauvinistic and quite patriarchal, but when you dig a little bit deeper, I think you actually find that there’s a really powerful afro-feminism that’s existing here. I guess because the space is very walled, and the woman’s domain is within the domestic sphere, but especially within the Bajuni community, Umra’s home community of Pate, and as far up as Kismayu, you’ll find it’s a hugely matriarchal society.”
Chris told me how Umra’s own grandmother married 8 husbands and had 18 kids. Since Umra’s mother is the first-born daughter, she’s the de facto ‘leader’ of the family, and it’s the women who inherit the family home.
“As Umra told us, the men are usually out fishing or they go away for a couple of months to farm on the mainland so as far as the village is concerned, it’s the women who run the show but this hasn’t always translated to modern day leadership; but if you look at the community and how things are mad, how disputes are resolved, and how that thread of society is woven together, it’s the women who have a very powerful place.”
That’s what made the story of Lamu interesting for Chris and Maia, and their central compelling character is Umra Omar. While one may think Chris and Maia were telling a story about how repressed women are in Lamu, and while that’s definitely a factor, the plot twist is that massive power is wielded by women and Umra was waking that up with a cross-over into politics. Captain Ruweida Obbo, former Women’s rep for Lamu County and current MP for Lamu East is another example of a powerful woman in Lamu pushing the envelope.
“I think the criticism that got leveled at Umra early on for her running for governor was ‘Hey, you’re a woman. Why don’t you run for Women’s rep?’ Disregarding what the role of Governor is and what the role of Women’s Rep is, it’s kind of a preposterous argument, but now that there are women breaking out of that women’s rep mold, and the fact that Umra just went for the top seat and took these guys – has definitely shifted the needle regarding what’s acceptable and what’s normal here in Lamu, and hopefully that’s going to carry on either way into the future.”
However, just as Clinton had explained the previous day, the public reception to the idea of a female governor was still skeptical, but not too skeptical for minds to be changed.
“A lot of the interviews we did with people on the street showed us that a lot of people are of the view that women shouldn’t be entering into positions of leadership, even a woman standing on the stage and holding a microphone was against their religion. A lot of people thought Umra was leading a bad example for young girls and I think there’s still a lot of that belief here on the island. But after her rallies, after her door to door, after hearing her speak, and after many meetings – there’s been a lot of people won over. Whether or not that translates into votes is going to be interesting to see on election day.”
Thanks to Clinton and Chris, I had the opportunity to follow Umra on the final day of her campaign, going door to door through the sandy winding roads of Mararani, a settlement nestled deep within the interior sand dunes of the larger Shela area. A crowd of excited women decked in orange headscarfs ran through the streets, whistling, beating drums and singing slogans of Umra.
“Mama lao apewe u-governor”
“Huu ndio Mama Lao”
Umra herself was dressed in soft amber and walking shoes, going door to door with a small team. Shaking hands with women, men and children. Carrying her own backpack. The deeper we go into Mararani, the more people join the procession from their homes.
Shortly after sundown, we arrive at a field by Neema Mararani Nursery School and assemble under a tree, where we all sit in a circle on the sand, Umra at the centre. Drumbeats punctuate the air and everyone pays keen attention.
A man in an orange leso stood up to speak about how the other male candidates do not settle in Lamu. They get their votes and leave. Umra came back and never left. The people at the campaign express desires for a new beginning. A fresh start. Someone who actually wants to make change, said the man in the orange leso.
Clinton speaks the last words, a quick civic education on how to avoid spoiled votes. They close with prayers. A Muslim dua and a Christian grace. The rally ends and slowly, the crowds go home.
Chris King told me this as we parted on that fateful day at the Safari Doctors office,
“A big part of Umra’s campaign, and our film, has been a first hand witness of what it’s actually like to vie, and I think Umra’s taken a harder brunt being young, being a woman, being dismissed very early on and having to claw her way through to firstly just be seen as a legitimate contender, and then secondly, to try and take home the majority of votes.
The most exciting thing for the future is seeing a lot of young people engaged and I think Umra and her team have a big part to play in stirring up this alternative narrative within the political space. They’ve got the biggest stakes in the future of Lamu and this is where it’s very interesting for us as storytellers to see and ask, just how far into a generational shift are we?”