Africa

Australia's first black African senator Lucy Gichuhi returns to her childhood home

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EXCLUSIVE: Lucy Gichuhi made history last year when she became the first person of black African descent to serve in the Australian Parliament. SBS News joined her on a trip back to her homeland as she discussed challenging the stereotypes of African-Australians.

Lucy Gichuhi’s story starts in the tiny village of Hiriga, a three-hour drive from Kenya’s capital Nairobi. The first of ten siblings – she has seven sisters and two brothers – the South Australian senator was saddled with responsibilities from an early age.

“There was always a young baby so one had to babysit,” the 55-year-old told SBS News during a visit to her homeland this month.

Lucy Gichuhi, centre, with her younger sisters, outside Hiriga Catholic Church in Kenya.
Lucy Gichuhi, centre, with her younger sisters, outside Hiriga Catholic Church in Kenya, January 2018.
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The children were expected to help out on the family’s smallholding, graze the cattle and do their fair share of housework. Gichuhi says she preferred to work outside. “Housework doesn't have a beginning or an end, it goes on all the time, so I got up really early and opted for working in the field,” she said.

Humble beginnings

Today the family home is built of stone, but when she was growing up it was a more temporary structure; they didn’t have electricity or running water. The kids would go to the river to fetch water and bring it back in a jerry can.

Gichuhi was the first of ten siblings.
Gichuhi was the first of ten siblings.
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Gichuhi was glad to reach school age and avoid some of the chores: “I loved school, I realised I loved school because school life was better than home life … [it] was always an escape.”

Her younger sister Ann Wanjiru Mwangi remembers Gichuhi enforcing the importance of homework on the other children. “If we didn’t do our work at the right time she could tell us that we are not going to get supper,” she said. “She was very strict on that … we feared her even more than our parents”.

Lucy Gichuhi, right, outside her childhood home.
Gichuhi, right, outside her childhood home.
SBS News

Gichuhi went on to secondary school and university, studying commerce at the University of Nairobi. She married William, now 54 and a quantity surveyor, and began a family – but she was frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Kenya.

Two of her cousins had married foreigners and were living in Germany “so they would come back and I would see things are a little bit different out of this country … I started getting that idea that we could go [abroad],” she said.

A younger Lucy Gichuhi, left, with her mother in Kenya.
A younger Gichuhi, left, with her mother in Kenya.
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Gichuhi had two prerequisites for her destination country; that she would be able to continue her career, and her family could join her. An acquaintance told her to look into Australia.

Newly arrived

The Gichuhis and their daughters (Peris, now 29; Agnes, 25; and Joy, 21) relocated to Adelaide in 1999. She describes the first few years as “a little bumpy”.

Lucy Gichuhi, bottom left, with her husband and three daughters.
Gichuhi, bottom left, with her husband and three daughters.
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“You know, migration is like marriage; we prepare so much for the wedding, but no one prepares for the marriage. You spend all the time preparing for the day you leave, the day you get there, but you forget the journey after”.

Migration is like marriage; we prepare so much for the wedding, but no one prepares for the marriage.

They were one of very few families of African origin in the state. “There weren't a lot of black people … I would go to work and somebody would tell me, 'Oh I saw your husband in the market'. I'd say ‘No, he possibly could have been there’, this is just because they had seen a black man around … That's how few we were in 1999.”

Gichuhi found work as an auditor at the Auditor-General’s Department South Australia before a getting a job as an international student liaison officer at an Adelaide college. She gained a second degree - a bachelor of law at the University of South Australia - and was admitted to the state’s Supreme Court in 2015. She was volunteering as a lawyer at the Women’s Legal Service when an opportunity came to enter politics. 

Lucy Gichuhi attends Hiriga Catholic Church in Kenya.
Gichuhi attends Hiriga Catholic Church in Kenya.
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A community leader

In 2016 Gichuhi took an internship in Canberra with then Family First Senator Bob Day. That opportunity led to Day “asking me if I could be his number two,” she said.  “I said ‘yes’ and things took a different turn from there.”

Gichuhi ran as the only other name on the Family First ticket in the July 2016 election and when Day resigned the following November, following a recount, she was elected. She became the first person of black African descent to serve in the Australian parliament, saying ahead of the result that she hoped to use the position for “empowering new and emerging communities.”

“Just making them feel and participate as Australians, other than just being in the sideline," she said. 

Lucy Gichuhi, centre, arrives for her swearing-in ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 2017.
Gichuhi, centre, arrives for her swearing-in ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 2017.
AAP

In April last year, Family First merged with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and Gichuhi chose to continue as an independent senator. She says Australia could benefit from more immigration from countries such as Kenya.

“Australia is a mature population, most people are mature, and a country like Kenya, if you check around, it's such a young population … Africa can offer a lot of skilled migration, of course following the right process, and that is a first.”

She says she wants to challenge stereotypes of Australians of African origin. “I hope just to break that stereotyping and identity politics of thinking, ‘just because I'm African … this is not a job for me’”

“I would like to see my fellow Africans get more involved in Australian life … that is their life and if we keep on living our past we never enjoy the best of our present.”

I would like to see my fellow Africans get more involved in Australian life. 

A religious independent

Back in Hiriga, SBS News joined Gichuhi as she attended a homecoming party, as well as mass with her family at the church she went to as a child. She has been part of many churches since then.

“I was raised a Catholic. After I got married I moved into [the] Presbyterian church and we were there for a very short time, about two years. Then we moved to Baptist and then we moved to Anglican, and then we moved to Australia and joined a Pentecostal church, so now I think I'm a Pentecostal but, just … I'm a Christian.”

Lucy Gichuhi at church.
Gichuhi at church.
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She says her religious beliefs inform her politics: “Having grown up a Catholic, and all this Christianity stuff, is part of what has raised me … definitely, when I'm looking to that I'll take into account things that are informed by my belief system.”

But there’s more to Gichuhi’s story than her religion, she insists, saying she considers issues she now faces as a senator from every angle. “Basically when you are making a decision on policies it's made up of who you are in totality”.

Parliament returns on 5 February. 

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