By Prudence Minayo
Dr. Florence Ng’endo Mwangi is a phenomenal trailblazer and a woman of many firsts. She was the first black woman to become a physician in Kenya (1985) and also made history as the first African to graduate from Smith College.
Here is her inspiring story as told by WoK.
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Background and Education
Born in Kinoo, Kiambu country to Rahab Wambui Mwangi and Mwangi Muchiri, Dr. Florence attended Loreto High School in Limuru. She was among the beneficiaries of the Kennedy Education Air Lifts. This was a scholarship program organized by the late Tom Mboya and Dr. Gikonyo Kiano prior to Kenya independence. It enabled about 3000 Kenyans to acquire education abroad. These exposed and educated young Kenyans came back to the country and took key positions in almost all sectors of the economy that were once held by the colonialists.
Dr. Florence went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, becoming the first black African woman to attend the institution. In 1973, Smith College opened the Mwangi Cultural Center in her honor. She went on to pursue medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She was the first African student at the medical college.
Return to Kenya
Ng’endo Mwangi returned to Kenya and secured employment at Kenyatta National Hospital before opening a community clinic at Athi River. Being the only doctor in the vicinity meant that she received patients from far and wide. Most of her patients were economically disadvantaged which left Ng’endo struggling to keep the hospital afloat. There was also no electricity and the only source of water was an external tap. Nonetheless, the clinic treated about 50 people daily who had measles, malaria, polio, tetanus, tuberculosis and diarrhea among other diseases. It catered to a population of more than 50,000 Maasai people.
With the help of four staff members, she opened a second clinic named Reto Medical Center at Sultan Hamad. Reto is a Maasai word that means help yourself so that you can be helped. The two clinics merged to become one for easy management. Reto grew to include a mobile clinic, a base clinic, and a facility with 50 beds.
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In 1987, the Smith College awarded her an honorary degree.
Mwangi Cultural Center
The Afro-American Cultural Center was first opened in 1968 before it was renamed in honor of Dr. Ng’endo Mwangi. The center was first used by student unity organizations as office space before it was rebranded itself as a place of cultural gatherings and organizing. Her daughter Wambui Mwangi, who is also an alumna Smith College, had this to say about the impact of the center:
“A transnational feminism is urgently necessary for the world. We need global citizens with both the analytical capacities and the personal networks, friendships and connections to create a more livable and just human future. I’m still in contact with most of my friends from Smith, although many of us have now returned to or live in countries other than the United States….If this is true of Smith alumnae generally, it means that the college—and especially the Mwangi Center—is an important platform for global possibility and personal relatedness,” She was quoted in an interview appearing on the institution website.
The accomplished medic passed away in 1989 after battling with breast cancer. Upon learning of her death, the students from Smith College wrote:
“We, the Smith students of today, owe Mwangi a great debt for being one of the vanguard of women who broke down racial and gender barriers, thereby making our progress a little easier.”