Mary Onyango has passed away at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu

Onyango, who was appointed to the commission by President Kibaki, on September 10, 2009, served diligently and enthusiastically in the position until her death at the Kisumu Aga Khan Hospital where she had been admitted. She was 52 years.

Onyango was married to Richard Onyango (deceased) and the couple had three daughters – Anne Marie, Amanda, and Adelle.
Before her appointment, Onyango served in various senior level management positions in the public sector, including the management boards of several private and Government institutions for over 25 years. She also worked as financial controller at the Agricultural Finance Corporation.

Onyango was a graduate of the University of Nairobi (Bachelor of Commerce) and MBA (Finance) from Maastricht School of Management in The Netherlands.

She was also extensively involved in charity work and was a member of the board of directors of several charities and civil society organisations.

Her leadership skills and determination to deliver is manifested in her 12-year fight against breast cancer, which saw her co-found the Kenya Breast Health Programme.

In an earlier interview with The Standard, Onyango, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in January 1999, came out as an epitome of strength over adversity and she had vowed to continue to fight and live a wholesome life.

In the interview she had said she had heard of cancer but like most women, it never occurred to her that she could contract the disease.

She recalled that when she was diagnosed with the disease it marked the beginning of a journey that saw her undergo surgery, rounds of chemotherapy, and radiation.

However her visit to South Africa served as an eye opener for her as it made her realise patients in the country were not only disadvantaged in terms of access to quality care, but also in access to information and psycho-social support.

“I stayed in a house run by the South Africa Cancer Association. There, women would come from all over South Africa for treatment and the association provided accommodation, meals, and transport to the hospital for free. Their support and follow-up system was great. The nurses would follow up on patients and ensure there were no cracks in the system,” she said.

This visit gave rise to her dream to start a support system for women with cancer. On return she set the ball rolling.

She joined hands with Ms Julia Mulaha, a breast cancer survivor, and they set up the Kenya Breast Health Programme (KBHP) – a breast cancer advocacy and support organisation in 1999. Julia died in 2003 and Onyango had been leading the organisation.

The greatest achievement of KBHP was the awareness that it helped to create, which changed the perception of the people and the community in the fight against the terminal disease.

Despite having been diagnosed with metastatic disease three years ago, which meant the cancer was spreading to other parts of the body, which for many sounded like a death knell Onyango applied for a position of a commissioner when NCIC advertised.

Her advice to women was they should never take their health for granted. They must do self-examination regularly and go for screening, which was not expensive, to know their status.

Her stint as the vice-chairperson of NCIC has seen her advocate for national cohesion and reconciliation among communities that fought during 2007-2008 post-election violence.

The commission was created as one of the mechanisms to address the post-election crisis and the underlying issues.

It seeks to provide a mechanism for addressing, on a continuing basis, the ethnic conflicts, which are common in plural societies.

One challenge Onyango faced at the NCIC was to enlighten the people that the 47 counties were not countries, but administration units.

She longed for the day the country would be united.She was often quoted saying, “Whichever party you are in or community at the end of the day we are Kenyans. We will live together, laugh together, and do business together.”

By Isaiah Lucheli, The Standard

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