By GUCHU NDUNG’U, @lguchu
Though he earns almost Sh1m each month, Kiharu MP Irungu Kang’ata has been described as the poorest legislator in Parliament.
And his dressing style does not help the situation. The man hates suits and admits that the few he has have been bought in stalls that his colleagues would not want to be seen in.
In fact, when the Daily Nation interviewed him at his offices in Murang’a Town, he was in a white short-sleeved shirt and wore black shoes with no socks.
He had just arrived in an old battered Toyota Corolla with a dent on its right side. The most expensive electronics gadget he has bought for himself is a phone worth Sh10,000.
“I live a simple life. I am a pragmatic guy. I do not like a showy life and extravagance. Surely what value does a big car add in my life?” Poses the MP.
“It does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” he says in reaction to the phone.
And in a Parliament that is on the spot for faking mileage allowances to earn more cash and flashy living by legislators, he is an outlier.
In fact, during his first time to Parliament after the 2013 elections, Mr Kang’ata was ejected from the canteen reserved for MPs by guards who thought he was an imposter due to his dressing.
“They thought I was a driver and asked me to come back with my employer, who was supposed to be the MP. I had to produce an ID and wait for it to be verified,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Critics say that the Spartan lifestyle of the MP is a show he puts to endear himself to poor constituents. This especially in a constituency that has been represented by billionaires like Kenneth Matiba and Dr Gikonyo Kiano.
“I like it when people under-estimate me because I prove them wrong. I am also able to interact with my people more freely,” he responds.
So, is he a dyed-in-the wool communist or showman?
“I am not a communist. I am a social conservative. As to my lifestyle, I have no answer on why I live the way I do because I just do not like expensive things. It is that simple,” says the MP whose constituency was awarded for having the best water projects in 2014.
“I give out my money and invest the rest. I do not see what the big deal is,” adds the father of two. He once bought a Prado after complaints that he was embarrassing residents during high-profile meetings but the vehicle is now used by women groups during ceremonies like weddings of their members.
He also attributes his lifestyle to his upbringing. A seventh born in a family of eight, his parents Joseph Irungu and Margaret Wangechi were mechanics in Grogon, Murang’a Town. Their iron-roofed mabati house still stands near their garage, where the MP is occasionally seen washing his face using a tap on the lawn in the morning when it gets too hot.
But what Kang’ata lacks in opulence, he makes it up in rebelliousness. The young Kang’ata was expelled from high school for writing protest notes against “injustices.” He would take this attitude to the University of Nairobi, where he was admitted for a law degree.
As Sonu vice-chairman, he led protests against the introduction of Module II courses, which are now popularly known as parallel or self-sponsored programmes, by public universities. Universities argued they would help raise revenue for reinvestment in facilities but Kang’ata said they would lower the quality of education.
“Parallel students were studying faster and studied better courses than us yet they were less qualified,” says the MP, who has been voted as the best Wanjiku’s representative on education by the Mzalendo lobby group.
The protest led to his suspension by the university. Afterwards, he dabbled his hand in Deejaying at night clubs in Murang’a and touting before the politics bug bit him.
He rode on his popularity with the youth and the Narc wave to become a councillor after the 2002 election.
“Even then, he would campaign on a motorbike and often wore open shoes or slippers,” recalls Mwangi Ndung’u, a trader at Grogon.
When a newly-elected President Mwai Kibaki pardoned all suspended university students and asked the institutions to re-admit them in 2003, Kang’ata went back to the UoN to finish his law degree.
Mr Kang’ata has cemented his pro-poor image by taking up cases that have a Robinhood feel, where the rich are fighting the poor. He burst into national limelight when he represented Rebecca Kerubo against then Deputy CJ Nancy Baraza. Ms Baraza was accused of slapping the guard at Village Market and she was consequently forced out.
“I like it when the poor win against an unjust system. It is a good feeling,” says the MP, who loves music by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The legislation he has sponsored also betray his leanings. The most recent one was the HELB Bill that would have allowed students less than 18 years old to access university loans or be represented in the Helb board.
President Kenyatta however refused to assent to the Bill and sent it back with a memorandum. He did not make any changes as requested and the Bill died a natural death. He is also seeking amendments that will make it mandatory for counties to spend at least 10 per cent of budget on health care.