The Bajuni Community in Lamu has for a long time been uneasy in embracing girl-child education and women empowerment due to traditional norms and beliefs.
Girls in Bajuni have always been forced into early marriages, and house chores, forcing many of them to drop out.
It is in Lamu’s Bajuni where women were previously not considered for any leadership positions in society or any kind of empowerment except being housewives and babysitters.
However, a wind of change is blowing in the community.
The wind has now given this area its first-ever female chief.
Meet Ruhia Shee Mohamed, the chief for Matondoni location.
The 34-year-old mother of one is the pioneer female chief across the Lamu Archipelago.
According to Ms Ruhia, her main reason for seeking the chief’s position was to bring change among the Bajuni community by ensuring women were emancipated.
“I applied and successfully got the position in 2017. I was happy since I knew the time had come for me to fight for my gender. My key target is to change the perception of the Bajuni woman, from being a home keeper to a working-class woman, or an administrator somewhere,” said Ms Ruhia.
Among the achievements made in her five years of working as a chief is that Matondoni location now leads in the percentage of girls attending school in Lamu county.
“Matondoni area was notorious in denying girls the chance to go to school, let alone pursuing a career. Many girls were married off. I am now proud that after taking the chief’s position, the community at Matondoni and Lamu is slowly embracing education for the girl-child. We have very many girls who have completed form four, others are now pursuing undergraduate and master’s degrees,” says Ms Ruhia.
It is in Matondoni that Ruhia was also agitated by rampant cases of divorce, a situation that prompted her to pursue her dream of being an administrator to fight the same.
Having been married for the past 13 years, Ms Ruhia says she has been able to involve couples in discussion whenever they are in domestic squabbles.
In turn, she says her efforts have borne fruit, bringing to an end the high separation rates that marred her location.
Ms Ruhia says at first, her male counterparts viewed her as someone who is not capable of conducting the role of a chief, only for them to come around, and embrace her.
“Male chiefs have really supported me in my journey as a female administrator here. At first, they underestimated me,” she says.
Born in Matondoni village, she attended Matondoni Primary School before she was transferred to Lamu Girls Primary School where she completed Class Eight.
She later joined Lamu Girls Secondary School until 2006.
In January 2008, she was employed as the chief’s secretary at Matondoni before she was transferred to Lamu Town, still in the same position at the Deputy County Commissioner’s office.
She later joined the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM) in 2012, where she graduated with a certificate in Human Resource Management.
Ms Ruhia was appointed Matondoni Chief in June 2017 and five years down the line, she has now become an important tool in the fight against early marriages and divorces.
She has also been at the forefront of fighting for the girl child to access education and achieve gender equality in society.
Mkomani Senior Chief Masjid Basheikh praised Ms Ruhia for her hard work and determination.
“She is very dedicated to her work and fearless. She always does her work perfectly and I am proud to work with her,” said Mr Basheikh.
Today, as Ms Ruhia goes about her business and as the Bajuni community come to terms with her leadership position, she has set new goals.
She intends to continue fighting early child marriages in the county.
To her colleagues, Ms Ruhia believes that chiefs, as custodians of culture, are expected to be at the forefront in ending cultural practices that negatively affect a community’s health and development.
“I believe we as the custodians of culture, should also be role models in society, owing to the respect that the community members accord us,” she says.