In Depth

Feisty woman challenges Kenya's male culture

NAIROBI (Reuters) - In a continent where men still dominate, Esther Passaris is an anomaly impossible to ignore -- and anyone who tries is likely to get an earful.

Slum dwellers stand in bright lights under a light pole in the Mathare slums near Kenya's capital Nairobi in this file picture taken on June 29, 2007. Esther Passaris, a leading businesswoman in Kenya who set up the "Adopt a Light" system credited with lighting up much of Nairobi and reducing crime by selling advertising on light poles, has launched the "One in a Million" campaign asking Kenyans to donate each month to alleviate poverty in slums. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

The Kenyan businesswoman, whose father was Greek and mother from the majority Kikuyu tribe, talks non-stop, firing off a scatter-gun volley of scathing and sometimes unprintable attacks on politicians and business rivals.

“He is a very rich, corrupt, greedy, arrogant African. I wish he would find direction. You don’t have to be bad all of your life,” she says of one competitor.

“He is absolutely spineless and useless. He cannot make a decision...I don’t know how they become leaders,” is how she sums up one serving government minister in a Reuters interview.

Passaris is one of Kenya’s best-known and controversial women, with a natural gift for publicity. A skilful television performer, she certainly is not lacking in self confidence.

Once a runner-up in the Miss Kenya contest, Passaris says she is a role model for the nation’s many downtrodden women.

“Even if I go to the slums, you know you have got these little kids. They go ‘That’s Esther Passaris’ and they can actually spell my name,” she says.

“Kikuyu men have a problem with women. A woman is not supposed to have a brain. Period. You should know your place.” Passaris, 42, could never be accused of that.

She is most famous for the Adopt-a-Light project she began in 2002 after crime became so bad there were fears the United Nations would pull out of her city, long known as “Nairobbery”, whose dark streets were a haven for armed robbers and rapists.

Inspired by a South African project, Passaris signed a deal with the impoverished city government to restore decrepit street lighting in exchange for advertising rights on the lamposts.


The idea was later extended into the violent slums where 60 percent of Nairobi’s population lives. She has erected 14 tall floodlight masts to illuminate the shanty towns.

The lighting-up of city streets and slums is credited with a significant reduction in crime, especially rape, and allowed shops to stay open and schoolchildren to study later.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

Now Passaris is locked in a bitter legal dispute with the city council which says her contract is an unhealthy monopoly and has expired. It wants the advertising rights back.

Passaris says the contract included an automatic rollover and accuses the council of being bought off by a rival group. It says her contract is fraudulent and invalid.

While the dispute works its way through the courts, Passaris has launched a new project called “Be One in a Million”.

She aims to get one million Kenyans to pledge at least 100 shillings ($1.50) a month for various projects to help the poor. Companies supporting the plan will be able to display the logo of her “Driving Kenya” foundation.

“If you don’t have the Driving Kenya stamp, that means you don’t care about poverty. I am going to shove it down their throats until they choke,” Passaris said.

The project’s board of directors and trustees are all women and Passaris emphasizes that it must be a homegrown effort.

“Let me tell you why I put all women: because I think poverty affects a woman first and number two, I wanted the men to see that the women decided to do something about poverty.

“We are rich. Why do we need some white man somewhere to come and clean up our act here? He is not affected by the poverty in Kenya ... we have got to stop this dependency culture.”

She believes a recent wave of crime by a gang that mutilates its victims might encourage stingy Kenyans to be more generous.

“If we don’t deal with poverty effectively, poverty is going to deal with us,” she said over lunch at a posh restaurant.


But while many women still regard Passaris as a feminist hero, she stirs mixed emotions.

“She endeared herself to Kenyans ... but then she started self-glorification,” said Ken Ouko, a sociology lecturer at Nairobi university. “A lot of people find her too flamboyant.”

Passaris’s feminism is a clear reaction against her highly traditional Greek-Kenyan upbringing in Mombasa on the coast.

She and her three sisters “were groomed for housewives. The Greek mentality -- you needed to be a good wife, cook, keep house.”

Passaris says her father wanted to marry her off to a Greek. He thought “a well-educated woman will never, ever be married because you will talk back to your husband and he will never stay with you,” she said.

“From an early age I decided I was not going to be anybody’s wife and even if I was I would have my own money,” says Passaris, who has two children by her former partner, a married business tycoon.

Her legal battle to win child maintenance when they separated boosted her popularity among women.

After leaving school, she worked for free in a local beach hotel to learn the business, rose to be another hotel’s sales manager and left when she discovered women could never get the top job.

She moved to Nairobi and became a millionaire after founding a company producing marketing merchandise for Coca Cola, before founding Adopt-a-Light.

Some of Passaris’s fans think she should stand for president. She says politicians favor the rich, line their pockets and only take notice of the poor when they need votes.

But she says she might go for the post of Nairobi mayor if it was elected by the people instead of city councilors. That sparks another tirade.

“Heavens. I know exactly where the corruption happens in there and how it happens. So if there is anybody who can stamp out the corruption in City Hall it is me. But they will probably kill me before I get round to doing it.”