So many remarkable women fill the pages of Trinity’s history, standing out as leaders of communities and families, schools and corporations, civic associations and throughout public life. During Women’s History Month, we recall some of the great Trinity Women who have made their mark in ways great and small. In this series of blogs through March, I am delighted to share a select group of these marvelous stories as a way of celebrating their contributions and challenging the current and future generations of Trinity Women to continue this grand tradition.
Perpetua Wanjiru and Angelica Gesuga were the first African students at Trinity, enrolling in the Fall of 1960. They were from Kenya, two among 800 participants in the African Students Airlift (also known as the “Kennedy Airlift”) that occurred for several years in the early 1960’s during the struggle for liberation from British and European colonialism in Kenya and other east African nations. In the Foreward to Airlift to America, a 2009 book about the program by Tom Shachtman, legendary entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte writes about why he and other notable Americans (Sidney Portier, Jackie Robinson, John F. Kennedy) supported the airlift effort to get African students into American universities: “…in post-colonial, independent Africa, without education there could be no government, no democracy, and no justice.”
The African Airlift students earned their degrees in American universities and returned to their countries to become some of the most notable citizen leaders, public intellectuals and architects of the social, educational, corporate and political structures of the newly liberated nations. Among those students traveling with Perpetua and Angelica to America, some became globally famous world citizens such as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt movement for environmental justice, and Barack Obama, Sr., father of the future president of the United States.
Perpetua and Angelica arrived at Trinity in the fall of 1960 through the support and generosity of the Sisters of Notre Dame and several Catholic organizations that sponsored scholarships for them. By all accounts, they were well-received and had a fruitful experience at Trinity. At one point Perpetua wrote in a letter home, “Here at Trinity, I could not find a better place. Both Sisters and students make life very pleasant. Trinity is really my second home. I am grateful to the Sisters who offered me this unique opportunity of getting such a wonderful education.” (Excerpted in Perpetua Wanjiru Macharia: An Educational Ambassador, p. 44) While at Trinity, both women were active in campus activities and also became organizers and founding officers of the African Women’s Organisation in America (AWOA) to help prepare African students in the U.S. for the challenges they might face when returning to their home countries.
After graduation, Perpetua moved to Canada where she married Simeon Macharia, and then they returned to Kenya in 1966. Simeon became the chief engineer at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and Perpetua became an education officer in the Kenyan Ministry of Education. Along the way they also raised a family of six children!
Perpetua rose to the senior officer position in the Kenyan Ministry of Education and among her responsibilities was the allocation of seats in secondary schools — a fierce competition that sounds like a familiar story even today in Washington, D.C. Consider this passage from her biography:
“As the officer in charge of the intake of students into secondary schools, Perpetua was under pressure from politicians and senior government officials who demanded that their sons, daughters and children of their friends be admitted to the schools of their choice, their performance in the final primary school examination notwithstanding. But in the ten years she served in that department, she stood her ground as far as merit was concerned, at times even getting into conflict with the highest authority in the land over the issue.” (An Educational Ambassador, p. 110)
Perpetua continued to rise into senior leadership at the Ministry of Education in Kenya, triumphing over the racism that continued as Europeans were displaced after Kenya became independent in 1963, and also the sexism that African women faced repeatedly in their own cultures. Her biographer, her husband Simeon Macharia, wrote, “Perpetua had to stand her ground and fight the existing racial and gender biases by defending the incoming heads of secondary schools, especially in the previously segregated European schools. Unfortunately, African men in charge of various sectors would rarely allow the promotion of women, their qualifications and experience notwithstanding. Perpetua demolished the notion that women could not take up certain responsibilities. Even though senior officials held the opinion that women could not travel outside their work stations, since their husbands would not permit it, she bluntly told ministry officials that husbands did not lord it over their wives in the office.” (An Educational Ambassador, p. 112) In another incident pungently depicted in her biography, she led a small rebellion when the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education referred to the female officers as the “women of the Ministry.” No, she declared, the women are officers of the Ministry and should not be separated out in any way. Her persistence opened avenues of advancement for other women.
One of Perpetua’s major victories for women was securing a change in policy regarding pregnant students in teacher training colleges. In those days, pregnant students had to drop out, hide or abort their pregnancies, and the incidence of infant death among these women was high. Perpetua led a movement to change the policy to allow pregnant students and teachers to take a leave of absence to deliver and care for their babies, a major step forward for women and children alike.
Because of her stature as an educational leader in Kenya, Perpetua served on several international study groups including participation in the 1976 UNESCO general conference and the 1985 UN Decade of Women conference in Nairobi. She held numerous other positions in educational and professional organizations. When Kenya organized a body to govern the nascent higher education system in the country, Perpetua became the Assistant Commission Secretary of the Commission for Higher Education where she was instrumental in helping to create the policy and operational infrastructure for higher education oversight.
Perpetua’s death in 2006 was a source of great sorrow for Simeon and the children. In her memory, Simeon created a remarkable biography consisting of photos and various artifacts of Perpetua’s life, along with essays extolling the tremendous service she rendered to the people of Kenya, and particularly to girls and women. Her faith also sustained her, and a portion of the biography traces her religious development. This biography, Perpetua Wanjiru Macharia: An Educational Ambassador, received a terrific review in the Nairobi Law Monthly in March, 2017.
Students please note: in honor of Perpetua Wanjiru Macharia ’64 and in recognition of her life and work during Women’s History Month, I am making 20 copies of her biography available for Trinity students free of charge. I have them in my office and will be happy to distribute them to the first 20 students who stop by!