Kenyatta hosted Iftar dinner, and the message was superb


NAIROBI, Kenya | President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya was this week hosting Tanzanian counterpart Samia Suluhu on her first-ever State Visit since taking power in March.

The two countries had been in continual tiffs under her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli so it was always expected that her in-tray would seek solutions to these bureaucratic bottlenecks. These, they did speak about in all forums the leaders attended.

But there was something else. The trip happened in the middle of the Holy Month of Ramadhan, when Muslims fast day long for a month and have meals only in the evenings or before dawn. This would mean little to a Kenyan leader who is a practicing Roman Catholic. Yet, he used the occasion to show love and respect for Muslims.

In the programs, there had been an indication of a state banquet at the State House. But he did turn into a special dinner for Muslim women. In a region where women, let alone Muslim women, have had little say, it was refreshing to see a section of Muslim women leaders accompanying the Tanzanian leader for dinner.

So what do we learn from this? It could just be that the Kenyan President was putting on a show and market himself as a cross-sectional kind of leader. But it also showed that religious tolerance begins and can stand on people honoring each other’s religious festivities.

Tanzania is often multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, but it has managed to balance the religious differences through its rotational democracy that allows Zanzibar islanders, mostly Muslims, to share power with Tanzania mainlanders, mostly Christians. Since Independence, the power shifts have rotated between these two communities without a bump. Suluhu’s resulted from the death of Magufuli, but she had also been the first female Vice-President.

For Kenyatta, however, it meant granting his guest the chance to share an important meal of the day with other women. These women included Cabinet Secretaries, politicians, and senior government officials, and private sector players. Kenyatta was probably showing that his administration was pushing opportunities for women just as much and wasn’t afraid to present them to the world.

And it seems it is not just Muslim leaders. Kenya’s Acting Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu and other senior officials were in attendance too. She represented a judiciary that last week nominated a woman to become the Chief Justice. Justice Martha Koome now awaits the expected nod of the National Assembly to take over the seat that a woman in Kenya’s history has never occupied.

It was a simple meal for a guest coming in to help clean the mess and good relations. But the optics were good. Kenyatta probably knows he scored a big political imagery contest by simply inviting Muslim women to keep his guest company.

Our societies will be better at elevating women regardless of their faith. We hope to see this as a trend in our region soon.


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