She commands attention.
She shares the life experiences that ultimately led her to the Sixth Floor office at Anniversary Towers in Nairobi to take up a job as a commissioner with the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, the IIEC. The commission was formed in 2008 to reform Kenya’s electoral process and institutionalise free and fair elections following the controversial 2007 general polls that momentarily disrupted the stability of the state. Winnie Guchu’s key responsibility in the commission is to train and prepare teams for elections. She also oversees human resource management at the commission’s secretariat.
Chuckling and laughing heartily at several points, she describes a long journey marked by a number of pitfalls and hurdles. It turns out she has succeeded out of sheer determination and setting her mind to disregard the word impossible. How many girls drop out of school because of a pregnancy and resign to economic hopelessness? Winnie didn’t. She returned to her classes after having been away for two years. Already a young mother, she then proceeded to university. In 1990, she graduated from Kenyatta University with a degree in Education.What followed was a series of false starts. She declined a teaching position in Taita Taveta, feeling it was too rural for her ambitions given that she had a baby to consider. She then moved into an administration position for an engineering firm, then onto freelance assignments. She often took on new challenges in areas unfamiliar to her, but her determination to survive made her bold enough to take on new responsibilities. From sheer confidence and readiness to read and learn, she was able to deliver to expectation. These experiences gave her valuable insights into a variety of important public issues such as civic education, gender inequalities, good governance, and best democratic practices. Her natural ability to teach led her to training others, which she found interesting and rewarding.
That journey took her through the Institute for Education in Democracy (IED) as a consultant and FIDA on contractual arrangements that totalled of three years. These two experiences in particular sharpened her skills and knowledge on democracy and women’s participation in political leadership. Her network expanded, and she moved into regional assignments thereafter, working to promote women and youth participation in leadership.
She recalls: “Prior to 2002 elections, I had been engaged in preparing women for political participation. The GGP (Gender and Governance Programme) project had been started in 2000, dealing primarily with promoting women in political participation for parliamentary positions. I worked with about 26 women continuously, training their teams and preparing them for elections. Six of them were successful after the whole process, and some made it to the cabinet”.
During this time she also became involved in electoral processes in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and other countries in the Eastern Africa region. “I did mixed projects,” she says. Part of that involved leadership training for young people from the countries in the region. They would come to Nairobi, get trained by people like Winnie Guchu, and go back to implement leadership projects.Then came the 2007 disputed elections, and the chaos that erupted jolted her mind into thinking differently.
She remembers, “It became very dangerous where I was living, so I had to move out. I was an IDP for about three months. That’s the time I asked myself, could I make any difference? I thought it was time to stop training people on governance and democracy and go do it.”
When jobs were later advertised for various commissions that were to be set up, among them the IIEC to institutionalise good election management, she figured she would try her luck there. She had broad experience in electoral matters, and she thought she had something to contribute.
“I must say it’s a privilege to sit somewhere and make decisions that you can see are making a change in the country. It’s very fulfilling. I am in charge of training and HR. I do a lot of preparing teams for elections, and developing them.”
Focus, discipline and determination, she says, are the main attributes that have got her to the level she is now. The advice she has for young women and men who are aspiring to gain respectable achievement in society does not deviate from those principles:
“Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t lose focus. The way to go is to take small steps, you know, like a baby. When babies are learning to walk, they take a step at a time and you see the determination. When they fall, they get up. That’s the way life is. So, making mistakes is not the problem. Mistakes are very good. It is how long you take to stand up and dust off the dirt. Anybody can fall, but don’t stay down. Get up and continue.”