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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Power of affirmation

The power of affirmation

Yesterday I was struck in the most amazing way on the power of affirmation. This came from pupils from Mang’u Primary School where I schooled many years ago. The inspiration to start the ‘Dare to Dream mentors’ was this same school. I felt that something is missing as far as school's academic performance is concerned. At the time that I schooled in this school, we had kids going to national schools, and during my year we set a record where four girls were admitted to national schools while many other pupils were admitted to provincial level schools following excellent performance in the

Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams. In Kenya, the admission to schools is based on performance in the region, hence the quota system. In the recent years, the school and many other schools in the locality have been performing poorly barely getting any children admitted to secondary schools! I felt this strong urge to go back to the school and the dream was realized in April 2010 when we had our first mentorship forum.

Since then, with support of friends, we have been carrying out mentorship forums where we engage on life skills with pupils in class seven and eight in the school. The sessions have been inspiring for both the mentors and the mentees. We have focused on various issues around growing up, skills in academics/ study skills, relationships, setting goals, self awareness and self esteem among others. We hold the sessions monthly. Every day that we get to interact with the young one is a lesson learnt for us. I believe that as the children get a safe space to discuss these life issues it will not only impact on their academic performance but also on their life skills outside the education system. Sharing and encouraging words from the friends involved in mentoring these pupils has been greatly appreciated by the pupils and the teachers.

One of the key highlights is the annual prize giving where we award the best pupils as a way of affirming and motivating them. We have held two successful prize giving forums which have played a great role in motivating the children. Apart from the best performers in class six, seven and eight, we also award other categories of pupils. These are best in sports, discipline and neatest pupils. In August 2011 we had a prize giving day that was quite a success. In the process of doing this, we wondered what other motivation we could come up with for the class eight candidates as they prepared for the final exams.

After brief consultations, we promised them that those who will have improved by 40 marks in the October (mocks) exams would be rewarded. As we left the school, we kept consulting and the general feeling was that the target was a bit high, not easily attainable. There was a proposal to adjust this, but somehow we never got to doing this. The determinant exams were being done between 11 and 13th October. In a mentorship forum that we held on 8th October, the kids made it clear, they remembered the promise if they added 40 marks!

Later on, the head teacher called me to clarify the issue and he was of the opinion that this may be a target too high to achieve but promised to check on the same and get back to me in two days’ time. I instructed him to check up to 30 marks and above. He was not very optimistic though, neither was I! When he called me back, it was with excitement in his voice! He was also shocked, 18 of the ‘average’ students had improved by up to 61 marks. Two pupils had improved with over 50 marks. In total 18 of the pupils who are not in the top 5 in the class had improved by between 32 and 61 marks!

The power of affirmation!

As we prepare to keep our promise, I can’t help marveling at how positive motivation can work. I realize that most of the times some students can sit back and not work hard, after all their fate is sealed! They can not be among the top students. I am inspired and encouraged as I look forward to a day with these kids before they sit for their final exams. No doubt, motivation and affirmation has a great space in the lives of children.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wangari Maathai - Unbowed

Unbowed- celebrating a great life

It has been two weeks since I set to write this, but no words seemed fit enough. How can one say anything about this great lady of the universe?

Wangari Muta Maathai – Rest In Peace.

Monday 26th September 2011 will remain significant to Kenyans. Mondays are interesting days, mostly the bad day. I have made a conscious decision to love Mondays, after all I have to experience one every 7 days! I have realised that attitude is everything and that this works. However, on this day I woke up feeling sluggish and even as I prepared I was not sure I was going to enjoy this day. I therefore didn’t check my phone messages as I woke up as I normally do, but when I finally did in the middle of preparing myself to go to work, I was shocked. I received two text messages from my brother and my sister in law, with one core message “Wangari Maathai is dead!” I felt numb, somehow I still feel like some people are not meant to die, they deserve more than a lifetime, and Wangari Maathai is one of them. I was shocked, and I screamed, “how, why”? I didn’t know Wangari Maathai personally yet I felt at that moment that I did, that I had lost a friend, a mentor, who didn’t know that I existed. At first I felt a loss, a loss of a great woman who I felt needed to live longer and make more impact in this world. But after a few days, I felt I needed to celebrate her life, a life well lived.

Who can ably eulogise this great woman? I do not think any words can be fit enough to express who this woman was for Kenya. She was simply an enigma.

My memories of Wangari go back to the former president Moi era when she was often mistreated, mishandled and beaten up. I particularly remember the day her hair was plucked out, and she was on national television with blood running down the back of her head. How one’s hair be pulled out, and wake up the following day to have the same fight is beyond me. However, this was just one of the ‘minor mishaps’; she had experienced enough, far much worse. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement that started as a movement of women, mostly rural illiterate women to conserve the environment.

While she was on national television often, mostly injured or hauled to prison by the government, reading her memoir ‘unbowed’ leaves one utterly challenged. I first read this book around my birthday in 2010.I had planned to purchase the book, but somehow didn’t get to until a friend asked me what book I wanted for my birthday present; and voila I was in possession of that great story that seems unreal. Reading the book, what struck me as I read the book twice is the simplicity of this woman. She describes a rural girl, growing up in the village; the determination of an African girl in an era that educating kids, let along a girl was out of the ordinary. How such a girl got to pursue PHD degree, in that era is just amazing. She describes her love for nature in the simplest words of a rural girl’ trying to catch the tadpoles in the river. She describes a young woman who knows the gender roles in the cultural context of her times. I still smile at the description of how she had gone to the farm but harvested more than herself and the donkey could take. By the time her and the donkey got home they were so tired and collapsed at the gate!

Her professional life was not smooth, being the first woman from East Africa to get a PHD and lecturing in an institution that had not accommodated the possibilities of women professors in the policies. When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel peace prize in 2004, it was a day of rejoicing for Kenyans and for all women in the world. However, reading the book makes one realise just how much she deserved the prize. Her love for conserving the environment was amazing. She suffered severally in the hands of police and in jail with her undeterred efforts to conserve the environment. Uhuru Park is one of the significant places that will always be associated with her. She persistently lobbied to prevent a skyscraper from being erected in the public park. She also led a non-violent action supporting women of political prisoners in a sit in and strike for a full year. The persistence and determination saw her cross paths with the former president many times, sometimes even fearing for her life.

Her death was not without lessons and shocks as her will stipulated the out of ordinary burial with cremation. Her coffin was not to come from wood- the trees that she had defended all her life but from bamboo and hyacinth, a plant that had caused problems in the Lake Victoria was put to good use.

Prof Wangari will be remembered in Kenya for a long time to come. I feel privileged to have lived in a generation that this great woman lived. Her death has caused action, whether out of guilty or realisation among Kenyans on tree planting. Her legacy is all over in nature, a true daughter of the earth who hugged the soil and trees and any opportunity.

One of the great stories that will be told and retold is the story she tells of the hummingbird.

“One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest - a huge forest was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. They felt overwhelmed and powerless expect this little humming bird. It said “I will do something about the fire”. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals like the elephants with its large trunk that could bring more water; watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird, "Don't bother, the fire is so huge, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too little, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
And as the animals continued discouraging it, the hummingbird turned to them without wasting any time said “I am doing the best I can”

Wangari Maathai concludes by saying “that to me is what all of us should do. We should always feel like a hummingbird. I may feel insignificant but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the universe goes up in flames. I will be a hummingbird; I will do the best I can”

She certainly did her best, in a world that barely recognized her efforts and make a big mark in conservation.

May her legacy live forever and ever.

Rest in Peace Maitu, rest in Peace mama, rest in Peace great mother of Africa.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our greatest fear

There is a quote I like that is often associated with Nelson Mandela but the original author being Marianne Williamson; “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”

I found myself reflecting on these words as I tried to make the best of the 5-hour flight to Lagos which seemed longer than that. I was reading the Dr Myles Muroe book, The principles and power of visions. I realized I can get myself busy putting some words down.

Very often I talk with (young) people about setting goals and having a clear vision in life; yet the book still speaks volumes, and it seems every word has a new meaning. When I look back to my younger days, teenage years, I often say that the words that I would wish that someone had told (and that I had believed them) are that “you are powerful beyond measure” I am not sure what was missing, the persons to tell me those words in whatever way, or my heart and mind having doubts believing in this, or both. I can recall several times when I felt (and still do feel) that people have the wrong impression of me! The most recent is when I was in a forum mentoring young women in governance and leadership. As I sat and listened to this younger generation express different views, and a lot of energy, I realized that the message I was going to deliver on that day was “you cannot be ‘ordinary’ and succeed. I did deliver this message, and I hope someone listened, but not before getting shocks of my own. While I was being introduced, I wondered if the person introducing me was talking about me! (Since am not certain Stella was talking about me, I won’t repeat what she said.)

I still recall the first time I got into visible leadership. While in High school I was shy (yes, me, shy!). I am sure many who know me will think this is a strange joke! I was a noise maker yes, I had been the ‘wag’ of the class like the Wodu Wakiri of the book The Concubine which was our course book; who was able to make a joke of every situation. I would have a ready joke, but I also preferred taking the ‘quiet corner’. While I was an active member of the Young Christian Students’ (YCS) group, I would participate in Church and other Bible study groups even lead them, but that was all. I still recall the shock when the outgoing officials were announcing new officials. Officials were normally appointed by outgoing ones from the Form 3 class. I was least bothered about this process since it didn’t affect me. I was therefore shocked when it was announced I was to be the Chairlady! I didn’t have any words (yes sometimes I actually lack words); and was in a daze. Surely, this was a joke.

“How can I do that? I can’t”, I told the outgoing chair lady ( Maggie Njonjo). She hugged me and told me “You can, and you will” and to her that was the end of discussion. She also ‘informed’ me that I was to take some roles the following Sunday. There seemed not to be much discussion in this issue and I was certain they had made a mistake. I wanted to prove them wrong so the following Sunday when I was asked to take the reading, I am certain nobody two rows away heard a word I was saying. The officials were not perturbed and just asked I raise my voice next time, and the issue was not up to discussion. Somehow, I realized there was no short cut, and that was the beginning of my leadership and speaking in public. There was visible progress in the YCS that year, I am still grateful that someone saw the potential in me even when I could not see even a glimpse.

Many times I have met people who are determined to ‘break me’ and blur my vision and I had a major experience of that recently, but most of the times I have met people who believe in me more than I do believe in myself. They have been the shoulders I lean on when I want to just sit down and declare end of the road. These are the precious people in life, who help us maintain a clearer vision of our life and pursue what we believe we are destined for.

How often do we forget that we are each so precious and unique that we can’t afford to just fit in with the crowd? While many of us were taught in early years about how unique we are we forget that and just move with the wind. Every Christian must know the verse in Psalms 139, “I am wonderfully and fearfully made”. I believe every religion and culture must have some teaching similar to that. This means that we are each on earth for a purpose that nobody else can fulfill. We are meant to more than just exist, but rather live. I like putting this as birthday message, “May you live all the days of your life”. Many exist, but that is different from living. Many times we are caught in between this, living and existing, yet we have to move forward and decide to live. This means more than just breathing and going where the wind takes us.

The irony of life is that it’s easier to flow with the current than to stand out and be what we were created to be. Dr Munroe described a story of a girl who when lifted by his dad to see across the ocean said “I can see further than my eyes can look”. The vision means that we see more than is humanly evident, but believe deep inside that our vision will come true, that what we see is real. Once the vision is clear and we pursue it, we will achieve it.

We can get great lessons from children; I think children are more intelligent than adults in matters of life! How can growing up be making our dreams more blurred instead of making them more clear? Sometimes when I listen to kids express their dreams, desires and hopes, I am taken several steps back. However, the more they interact with adult-life, the more they are told “you can’t” and the less clear their visions. They live a minute at a time, crying when they feel like, laughing when they feel like and moving on to the next issue of life. Right now am looking at I think the happiest passenger on this flight. There is kid barely two years, moving around and doing a lot of exercise! The rest of us are tired from sitting down five hours. He has just left my side and I have no idea who he is, but he doesn’t care, he must have interacted with about half of the passengers by now! I have not even said hi to my neighbors, I have no idea how to begin! We are all so ‘serious’ while this kid is laughing and jumping around. As adults, we have faced enough challenges to know that all that glitters is not gold. We have often been told what NOT TO DO than what to do, where NOT TO GO. Sometimes the reason we have doesn’t go beyond “what will others think?” ( I am smiling thinking what would people think if I woek up and started chatting everyone around!) As adults we often minimize our vision and not live to the fullest. We often use the negative experiences instead o the positive ones to make decisions about life issues. We fear to fail hence would rather not try.

In Kenya, the whole country is still awed by a 9-year old girl surviving cancer. She has been in the media and her strength, her maturity her conviction puts many if not all of us to shame. Her innocence confidence and belief in her life has been something to awe about. Every time she appears in the media which has happened often in the last two weeks she leaves tears in each ones heart. The tears are not of pity for Rose, but I believe more out of pity for ourselves, wondering how in nine years she has accumulated such kind of positive attitude towards life that we have missed. She seems to be an angel sent with a special message to many of us. She seems to see so beyond what her eyes can look!

Going back to the quote, what is our worst fear? Do we fear that what is within is so powerful that we can’t contain it? There are times that companies start a new produce that they are not certain about, then the demand sores higher than anticipated. The management can get more shocked by this, wondering if they are able to handle this kind of demand. Are we often more scared of our potential that we would rather remain in a safe space? I wonder.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This inspiring quote by Marianne Williamson is from her book, A return to Love: Reflections on the principles of a course in miracles

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Naivasha IDPs visit – mixture of hope alive; and ailing/dead moral fabric

In the last week, an idea was floated and supported by members of the Kikuyus for Change to take a step in addressing the victims of the Post Elections Violence. The case that was chosen was of a couple that was affected by the Kiambaa fire tragedy and 4 other families. For any Kenyan, the name ‘Kiambaa’ means something different since the Post Elections Violence (PEV) in Kenya. It no longer means just an area in Kiambu county but a Church in Eldoret where lives were lost in a gruesome way. The PEV was the most horrific violence that Kenya has experienced post independence. Arguably severe PEV has been happening around every General election in Kenya for a long time but the development in ICT may have hindered the reporting and hence realizing of the full extent of the violence. However, the violence has been in most cases in one or two regions but in 200/2008 the violence rocked the whole almost country brining life to a standstill. One of the most shocking occurrences of that violence is an image of a Church burning – The Kiambaa Assemblies of God Church. Churches have represented a safe, sacred place that anyone in trouble can seek help. When women and children were caught in arson in a Church it was very disturbing. One of the pictures that Kenyans and other people worldwide have etched in our memories is the picture of a child being thrown back into the fire.

It is with this background that the five of us members of Kikuyus for Change set out to visit some of the survivors who currently resides in Naivasha. We left Nairobi around 3.00PM on Saturday 25, June 2011.

We arrived and were received by the family of Harun. Having got the brief via email on this family, it was not easy to imagine there will be much ‘news’ but it turned out that right from the time we stepped into the house, it was aha! Listening to Harun narrate their experiences as the wife (Mary) listened for most times it was not easy not to wonder how they have lived to tell the story with much energy that makes one forget the context of the information. I wish to share a few issues that stood out.

Experience of pain and hope

While we have heard/ watched the experience of the Kiambaa fire hearing it from first-hand experience is quite different. Mary, the wife of Harun was in the Church when the fire was set. It was actually shocking to know that the fire was set at 11.00am (muthenya!!). For some reasons many of us have assumed it was at night. The group of men and boys who had gone out to ‘protect’ were overpowered by the gang that came hence had to run for dear lives. The women and children were in the Church and for Harun’s family, Mary was in the Church with three children. One of them (Joyce) 3 years was tied on her back. They managed to break windows and doors so she pushed her older kids to run for their lives as she also struggled to save her life and that of the baby on her back. The fire engulfed burning the lesso she had tied her child with hence the child fell into the fire. She turned to try save her child who had fallen into the centre of the fire, crying ‘Mama niokoe’ and that’s how Mary got more burns on her arm and her child burnt to ashes as she fell into the fire and more people trampled on each other. I am sure I can’t ably present that experience. The son who was about 12 years was traumatized to the extent that he would often be seen making ‘guns’ using wood, and constructing some ‘bombs’ as he said he would go back and bomb those people. With time he got counseling and a good Samaritan has taken him to boarding school. The other son scored a B (-?) despite the circumstances he studied under. He hopes to join university; he didn’t attain the marks to get to the course of his dreams – medicine.
The experience has a silver lining in the little daughter (7 months Mercy). The jolly girl seems to represent the hope in that family. She has no idea what happened, never experienced it, and seems to be a copyright of the late daughter. Severally Harun would confuse and call the girl by the late daughter’s name. Listening to them share the experience and declare their forgiveness for the perpetrators was a picture of hope. They can’t consider going back due to the trauma of the experience but they have appreciated the good Samaritans including those from the same community that burnt them and turned their lives upside down. They cannot sit back and condemn a whole community. In fact the person who gave them the first very life saving help of blood donation was a Kalenjin, the persons who have sponsored two of their children were Kalenjins. That for me is a picture of hope in this murky situation.

The moral fabric dead?
Harun shared the experience of his housing woes that left our mouths wide open. Harun’s family was among the five families that had survivors who had suffered grievously hence needed to go for regular clinics. A certain ‘good Samaritan’ welcomed them into his rental houses through arrangements with the Provincial Administration and the government promise of resettlement. The brief of the story is that the housing was costing Kes 750 and later Kes 800 due to increase in electricity. (the electricity would be put on between 6.00pm and 6.00 am by landlord. The donkeys could not come into the compound to bring water for them hence they needed to fetch water from a distance while several of them had been impaired).

The ‘good samaritan’ also gave them Kes 6,000 each (total 30,000) as a good will to help them as they tried to settle. There was a memo signed by this man to that effect and another for the rent fee (Kes 800). First forward a few months later when the government actualized, the IDPs cash award, this landlord was handed Kes 240,000 for these 5 families’ rent. This is where the drama starts! He deducted ‘his money’ and sent them the information. This was computed as @Kes 2,000 rent per month (yes, 2k not 800) for 17months. He then deducted VAT 16%! He then deducted the Kes 30,000 that he had previously charitably given them. This rent then expired in April (I think) hence in May they were sent a notice to vacate (through a lawyer). The letter is demanding the overdue rent for May (Kes 2,000) plus Kes 2,000 fine and Kes 1,000 legal charges! (A total of Kes 5,000). This seemed like an imaginary drama but with documents to support this which we got copy. We were made to understand that other tenants have been paying rent of 800 to date!

Picking the pieces and moving on.

A certain family offered Harun’s family a place to stay for this month (June) and July for free. It a small house, their son’s ‘maskan’ hence the son moved back to the parents main house. Harun and his family reside in this small house, not sure where to go after next month. It is encouraging to see the determination that this family has for moving on and picking pieces of their lives even when they can’t locate the broken pieces themselves. Several issues come to mind that really struck me. Harun has had to change from being the bread winner to the person taking care of the nurturing and caring roles in the family. The wife cannot get near a fire and sometimes her injuries are painful that she can’t even tend to the baby. He has embraced the otherwise feminine gender roles in his household. He can’t manage to get out for long to seek for daily bread as he does the housework. He expressed that he is determined to continue sustaining his family in whatever ways he can and love his wife as he did before she got injured and disfigured.

He has chosen to look for ways of empowering his children realizing there is hope for a future. I was struck by an instance where someone gave him Kes 10,000 and he asked the person to instead pay the money to a college so that his son can do computer courses after form 4 exams! Treating education as a basic need even as he struggles for food. He expressed that the faith in God has sustained the family. ( actually the first thing I noticed as we entered the house was the Bible on the stool plus other Christian book). He has made a conscious effort not to let faith and God die and brought up his children to be God-fearing.

I was so impressed by how organized this man is. He has kept records and copies of many things that one can easily discard. He has hope that one day he and his family will have a normal life.
We were happy that by the end of our visit and a lot of talking the wife Mary laughed! Sometimes it’s hard to find hope in such a situation. Unfortunately we were so caught in this family’s story that we didn’t get time to visit the other families. I hope that we will a step at a time make a difference to these 5 families for a start. The families were given some piece of land to build, but they don’t have a single cent in their name.

Note: Kikuyus for Change has started on an initiative to fund raise and help in whatever way to make a difference in the lives of these families. Any well wishers are encouraged to chip in and give them a place they can call home)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who will anoint her?

While reading the Bible in the Old Testament I am reminded of a story of a certain young man who was anointed to be king despite all odds. In his culture like it is in many traditions, wisdom is seen to come with age, and leaders should be ‘wise’. This young man didn’t fit the ‘set criteria’ so when the time for anointing the king came he was almost overlooked. Those who seemed to qualify were lined up as ‘the young boy’ was herding in the fields.

Today I had an encounter that brought this event to mind. I met a young woman, 27 years and determined to make a difference in Kenya and in her community. The young woman from the North Eastern Province is determined to vie for elections in 2012. With the current constitution of Kenya, there are various opportunities for leadership and she had her mind on Parliamentary seat; had as this is no longer an option. For one to become a leader in the community he/she- mostly he- will need ‘blessings’ from the community elders. She has been hoping for this to happen, talking with the elders and consulting with various persons. However, she was recently ‘informed’ by the elders that she “should not vie for elections, she is not fit enough”. The main reasons why she is not ‘fit’ for the role of leading in her community include the fact that she is a woman, and she is young, one of the ‘most unfortunate’ combinations to possess! Without doubt, with no support from the elders one stands no chance at all to be elected in her community. As if that is not enough, there has already been local arrangements where the ‘seats in the devolved government have been shared out’! This has been done according to clans and her clan can only vie for the senator seat. A clan is normally related persons with several families with the same lineage sharing a clan. In some communities the clan is a structured system that determines how the community runs while in some communities the clans’ role is no longer relevant to community.

This young woman stands no chance in representing her community in the senate position.
So who will anoint her? Who will anoint the young person in Kenya, more so the young woman in Kenya who has shown leadership in different spheres of life yet the community expect her to be ‘anointed’ by some elders or other ‘key people’ in the community? Who will anoint the woman who believes she has what it takes to lead the country or community yet her word is not enough? These thoughts were crossing my mind even as I encouraged this young woman and exploring options for her to ensure she impacts her community.

Going back to the Biblical story of David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, he was anointed against the odds that were otherwise put in the community. Jesse had eight sons, but only seven came to the feast. The youngest was not yet grown to manhood, and he kept his father’s sheep in the fields outside the city. When Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, came, Samuel thought, “Surely this must be the man whom God has chosen.” For Eliab was a tall, handsome young man, and Samuel was pleased with his appearance. But God said, “This is not the man. You are judging by the outward appearance; I am looking at the heart.”

David may not have had opportunities to show ‘leadership’ in the community, but he was good at what he did in the fields. Sometimes as David kept the sheep he led them far away and he could not get back to his home at night. He slept under the stars near the sheep. He led them in safe places during the day so that they had good pasture. He counted them in the evening to see that they were all there. He watched carefully for the tracks of wild animals so that his sheep would be protected. He was alone a great deal. He practiced many hours throwing stones with his sling which was his only weapon other than his staff. Herding goats may not seem anything close to leading people but this was precisely the experience David had. He was faithful in his small responsibilities and God found it fit to qualify him for more responsibilities.

He was not a perfect man, had many shortcomings, but remains the best leader that Israelites had. A shepherd boy became the king.

Looking at the stark reality of Kenya scenario which the young woman reminded me of, I wonder who is anointing the leaders? Young people have most often been viewed as an irresponsible lot of people who need guidance and who can’t give the same. Time and again we have seen young people put Kenya in the limelight more so in athletics where Kenya has become an astounding giant in the Marathon. It is great news as a Kenyan woman or a Kenyan man makes Kenya proud and we rejoice. We have situation where some Kenyans have contributed negatively in the country, violent actions among others, and it is not lost that ‘the youth’ are the culprits. Why is the emphasis of the age factor only in the negative actions? We have experienced many mishaps and currently Kenya experiencing crisis after the other with fuel crisis being a head ache in the past few weeks. The persons mismanaging and causing the crisis are not judged according to their age, why only young people? Why are women judged as not fit to lead the community while they have been doing this on voluntary basis since time immemorial?

These are the thoughts swirling in my head this evening.

Age and gender doesn’t make one a good leader, neither does it disqualify one from being a good leader. There are many deserving Kenyans, women and men, young and old who will never be given the chance.

Why should the choice of leaders in this era be determined by what some persons in the community want or view as the qualities of good leader? The citizens have what it takes to ‘anoint’ the leader through the power of the ballot, but will this happen?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

You touched hearts - Tribute to the late Margaret Mukui Kiumo

RIP- 16th April 2011

Once in a while, I interact with community members in the process of my work who leave a great impact in my life; such was the case with Margaret Kiumo. I cannot recall the first time I met Margaret but I know it was in 2004 when I was newly employed at the Women’s Resource Centre and Development Institute (WRCDI). It was my first trip to Makueni, meeting a group of volunteers for a training workshop and I arrived late in the evening. I had been given her contact “in case of anything” and I found myself at home! She was quite welcoming, calm and composed, with maturity that was just amazing. With time she became my mark for Wote Makueni, any time I was in the field I knew I “I was in safe hands”. Margaret was one of the trained community advocates who were referred to as the Violence Against Women (VAW) Advocates, a role she performed with her whole heart.
I came to meet her sister Mary and some of her friends as her salon became my ‘office’ in Makueni. I was not the only one, I often wondered when she did her business since every time I visited the salon, there was one or more clients, women abused, children with their mothers, fathers wondering about their children; you name it.

I hold fond memories of Margaret. I recall the many times she would literally shield me from expectations of community members by alerting me not to go to her salon and meet her in a different place! It was known that when am in Wote, I would visit her salon, and sometimes some of the volunteers would send survivors of VAW expecting a miracle. She made it her duty to alert me of such instances and give me time to process the issue before meeting the survivors. Sometimes it was not even necessary to meet survivors as the action needed was within the power of the VAW Advocates. She is one of the few VAW advocates who would challenge the others “why should we want to engage Sophie in every small way she has trained us to do the work?” Anyone doing social work and engaging with community volunteers understands the strain that can be there when expected to do the national and then intervene in the local work that the volunteers are well versed with; work that a program person could not do nearly half as well as community persons.
I recall a time I was on my way to Wote and she alerted me of a case which needed the intervention of the District police boss. I recall stepping into her salon to the site of three kids sprawled on the floor, almost naked, and a much traumatized mother who seemed not to comprehend who she was due to the violence that had really traumatized her over time. I still recall how she described that woman, “Sophie I am not sure what strength that woman has, that she is still alive, if I were in her situation I would rather be dead”. This didn’t deter her from making her small salon space, a space for this woman and her kids, she didn’t worry it would discourage the customers but supported the other volunteers in getting audience with the police boss. Many survivors knew her salon as the office to report their grievances.

I recall the updates she gave me that helped me be in touch with what was happening at community level. We had a joke that there were always problems! She had a smile most of the times that even as she told of the ‘suffering’ one would not help but see hope. I remember her narrating a non-violence protest that the women in the area carried out. In a case where they felt that a senior person in the education department was hindering the prosecution of a sex pet, they mobilized 98 women in an innovative protest that I still marvel at.

At one time, the car I was using to the field developed mechanical problems about 10 km from Wote and she sought for mechanics and another car. I remember it took a while, and it was not until almost midnight that the car was towed as it was not repairable. The inspiring part is that she never acted in a way that implied she was doing a favour, or asking for a favour in return. How I miss her.

Her passion for justice and for the rights of women and girls was evident to anyone who interacted with her. She was the reference point not only for the women and girls seeking redress but also for administration officers. The flip side of this is that she was ‘marked threat’ by some of the administrators. She also sought leadership in several organizations and even vied for ward representative without success. After I left the organization in 2006, I maintained contacts with her and never hesitated in giving her contacts for persons who needed contacts in Makueni. The last time I met her physically was in April last year in a forum I invited her in Nairobi. I learnt of her death in shock, somehow death despite being certain always comes unexpected. Somehow, I feel that her work was not done yet, that the gap she is leaving is huge, but those are my human thoughts. She must have done her part of the work, and she deserves to rest in peace.

As I travelled to Makueni on 23rd April 2011 for her final farewell, I could not help but recall the memories of this amazing woman. Her family has lost a great person, so has the community. I am sure Margaret touched so many lives; that her memory will live on for a long while. As I listened to her children remember their mother, that she sacrificed a lot for them; as her parents and siblings eulogized her, as her nieces and nephews said what an amazing aunt she was who was there to give them advice; I knew all has not been said about her. It cannot fit in writing, but many will hold her in their hearts. We will hold her in our hearts, as the only place that the memories will never be stolen.
A quote to her family and loved ones:
“You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she's left.
Your heart can be empty because you can't see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she'd want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.”---David Harkins

Margaret, you were such a blessing to many, you were such an inspiration to me, May you Rest In Eternal Peace. May you be welcomed and rejoice with the angels. God be with you till we meet again.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Opportune moment - God loves Kenya

Opportune moment - God loves Kenya
Reflections by Sophie Ngugi

‘The day is here”
That is the sentence in the tongues of many Kenyans at this time. We have about 24 hours to commencement of the cases of what have commonly come to be referred to as ‘the Ocampo 6’. This follows the naming of six individuals by the Chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Luis Moreno Ocampo named the six as the persons who hold highest criminal responsibility on the Post Elections Violence (PEV) in 2007/2008. The PEV holds sad memories for all Kenyans, within and without the country and for the rest of the world as violence we did not think possible dominated our nation. While the violence was generally said to result from disputed elections in 2007, more so the presidential results, it is generally believed that the violence was planned for the most part. While the names of the six are in public domain and are mentioned literally every minute, I will not repeat these names as I reflect on why we are here in the first place; why ICC has become a household name in the tongues of Kenyans.

Liban, a friend of mine shared a saying among the Borana “mali hijessee, worani qooqee khutaa” (“It is the plan that kills, the spear just finishes off”). This idea is supported by the findings by the Commission of Inquiry into the PEV (CIPEV). The CIPEV is often referred to as the “Waki Commission,” after Chairman Judge Philip Waki, of Kenya’s Court of Appeal. The Waki commission was an outcome of the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Accord negotiated by Kofi Annan and the panel of Eminent African Personalities. This led to formation of the coalition government and peace agreement, which led to cessation of violence.
While we all saw the horrifying pictures of the violence, while others experienced Kenyans burning and demolishing homes, killing, barricading roads…it remains a mystery how this continued for this long. Who was behind this remains a mystery and point of contention as different people theorize as to who is guilty. Was this planned in advance and by who? It is with this in mind that majority of Kenyans according to polls carried out support the ICC process. While the local mechanisms have been a preferred option, there has not been much (if any) progress in this regard.

CIPEV reports that, there were 1,133 deaths in the PEV with 405 (35%) caused by gun shots.. The report suggests that the police were responsible for all of the 405 deaths. It also finds evidence of massive failures by the state security agencies, especially the police, to anticipate and contain the violence. The statistics indicated that most deaths in each given district took an ethnic dimension in which, apart from killings by the police, most of those killed did not belong to the ethnic tribe in the district. Apart from the 405 killings directly linked to the police, the remaining 732 deaths were because of citizens killing fellow citizens due to the political stand-off at the time of the killings or for other unknown reasons. While the whole country suffered and experienced violence and deaths, there was a pattern in the causes of the deaths in different localities.

The report shows that:
• “Most shootings took place in Trans-Nzoia district recording 77 deaths, followed by Kisumu with 64 deaths and Kericho with 33 deaths.
• Nakuru recorded the highest number of victims who died of injuries inflicted by sharp pointed objects with the number standing at 148; while, Uasin Gishu recorded 92 deaths.
• Most burns were documented in Uasin Gishu district with 32 deaths followed by Naivasha with 22 deaths.
• Uasin Gishu recorded the highest number of deaths, as a result of fatal injuries with 42 deaths, while blunt objects caused 24 deaths in Nakuru followed by Uasin Gishu at 16.
• Fatal arrow wounds were mostly used in Kipkelion standing at 17.
• Webuye district recorded 11 deaths as a result of hanging.”

These are not only factual figures but individual persons, mothers, daughters, husbands, sons…of Kenyans. High cases of sexual violence were also reported for both males and female with more cases against women and girls.
The fact that all of these deaths and violations are as a result of ‘machineries’ within the reach of ordinary Kenyans, is a cause for worry. There were not deaths caused by far off causes like nuclear…just ‘normal’ weapons. It means the PEV can recur, and one year and four months to the next general elections,… this gives me goose bumps. Ethnicity was used as the dividing factor, and the debate on ‘Ocampo six’ has dangerously shown this kind of trend. The guilt/ not guilt judgment on the accused persons has been more inclined towards ‘our person/ their person’ kind of mentality. While this is largely understandable, it begs the question, is it about guilt or about alignments? Do we care about the root cause of the PEV? What will make us not go back to the PEV come August 2012? It calls for a moment to refocus, follow the ICC process, waiting and eagerly so, to hear the facts that will come out in the proceedings if we hope to start addressing impunity. There has been violence during or around elections for a long time in Kenya, way back though the extent sometimes not well known due to the technology and communication then; yet this has never been addressed. Violence is easily wished away waiting for the ‘next’ elections when the players shift with the same ‘dancing shoes’ and the trend continues.

The ICC for me represents a step in addressing impunity, not an end in itself. It is a call for Kenya to get back on track in making Kenya the ‘haven of peace’ that we have claimed in the East and Horn of Africa region (until the slap to reality in 2008). It is call for truth and justice; truth about what happened and justice for the aggrieved, and punishment for the perpetrators. Then, true reconciliation can happen. The Waki commission had suggested a special tribunal, which was to handle the PEV issues, and the last result was the Hague process. Why are we at ‘last result’? Where is our will? Can we retract and while allowing the ICC process to take its course continue addressing the rest of the ‘issues’? Is it even viable possibility to have mechanisms of justice that would allow recalling the ICC cases to Kenya? The reason that most Kenyans (and I proudly stand to be counted among this) support the ICC process, is due to lack of evidence of political will to prosecute perpetrators and address PEV. The 2008 violence was evidence how much we can sink, and we have to be afraid, very afraid.

Will 2012 find us disagreeing on issues than persons? Focus on people’s ideologies rather than their surname? Can we have a peaceful election, like we did in the constitutional referendum? I believe we can, but only; and only IF, we decide to. We can focus on the ‘innocence of the Ocampo six’ while all the local media houses have set camp at The Hague; but we cannot forget where we came from. We can appreciate diversity without losing our identity, and our ethnic belonging should be a point of celebrating this diversity, not hacking each other to death, physically or verbally.

There are various patriotic songs that I sang in choirs ( in my younger years…) with message that ‘God Loves Kenya’; and truly God loves Kenya. God has given us another chance…let’s make use of it. We can commit to accommodate each other, and make PEV history in Kenya.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Going back to the roots- Old girls reunion

I recall the day like it was yesterday. I was sitting outside our house in rural Thika, bored after the afternoon house chores. I don’t remember much anxiety apart from wondering if I had performed well enough in my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams. My family kept assuring me that I had done quite well. The KCPE exams determines much of the future for a young person in Kenya. It determined the kind of school one would get admitted to for high school education. January 1991 was a significant year for me. Apart from waiting patiently for secondary school admission, there was also the Gulf war and I remember my young mind disturbed that we will all get bombed. It was in such moments that a boy from the neighbourhood arrived with a letter. He had been sent from school with my secondary school letter of admission. I don’t remember the circumstances under which one of my siblings was not given the letter, but it seems the headmaster (Mr James Muiru who was a great inspiration) came from the district education office with the letters when the lower primary school had mostly gone home but he had to make sure I got the letter that day!

I could tell the boy had run all the way from school, and he excitedly handed me the letter. The girls who performed well in my school got admissions at the provincial school that share a fence with my (former) primary school; St Francis Girls High School Mang’u. I somehow knew I would be admitted to this school so was not excited at all. I had not wanted to be in a school that is within the locality, a school I had known since childhood. As I opened the letter and in my head saw St Francis and with no excitement went ahead to start reading the contents of the letter. I realised the boy was not moving an inch, as if waiting for reactions, and I knew he would get disappointed, there was no excitement for a young girl imagining taking a walk to secondary school every opening and closing day! One didn’t need to board even 5 minutes of public transport from my home to the school.

As I continued reading, I saw ‘Kikuyu’ and realised how absent minded I had been. I went back to the logo and introduction of the letter, and that is when I saw it ‘Alliance Girls High school’!! I remember screaming at the top of my voice barely believing and giving my siblings to make sure I was not imagining! That was unheard of! Alliance Girls was (is) one of the most prestigious national schools and I had not even dreamt of ever getting there. I had filled this as my first choice of national school since it was a requirement that we select schools in all categories. This was my favourite in national schools but never thought I can get there.
Fast forward, 20 years later, I was back to the school! When I saw the invitation for the reunion at the school on February 12, 2011 at the school, I felt the excitement of 20 years ago when I had stepped into this school that has shaped who I am now. I made sure my camera was well charged since I wanted to recapture every memory of this school, and I was not disappointed. Alliance Girls was the first school for African girls and was hence referred to as the African Girls High School. At the beginning, the first 10 African girls from all over the country were admitted to this school and 63 years later the population was 975 students! Most schools had nicknames and hence for Alliance our nickname is Bush hence we fondly referred to ourselves as Busherians for both the girls’ and boys’ school. The school was started in 1948 by the Alliance of Protestant missions and is founded on the values of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. For that reason, we participated often in the Kikuyu Church of Torch where all the schools started by the mission went for joint services once per term.

For the old girls of the school, it was therefore nostalgic to be back to this place that had formed us to who we are today and offered as great opportunity for holistic growth. On arriving at the school, we were ushered to the registration desk where we also signed the visitors’ books according to our houses. At Alliance, the houses were like a ‘birth right’ and I realised nothing had changed. On asking ‘where is McPherson house’ some excited girls shouted, here! here! These are girls born after I joined the school but somehow we felt a common bond of McPherson house. I was ‘labelled’ with colour of McPherson house, Grey ribbon!

The issue of house colours was new. Each house had a different colour and from that time onwards, walking in the corridors one could tell which house you ‘belonged’ to. The sense of belonging was still there.

Houses at Alliance were a precious place to belong that there was a policy to make sure that if one had a sister in the school they were allocated the same house. The houses were normally named after women who had passed by the school in different ways as either head teachers, reverend or other significant ways. During my time, there were 8 houses McPherson (Mc), Joan Waithaka (JW), Stevenson (Steve) Dorcas Luseno (DL), Watson, Kenya, Bruce and Burns House. Two new houses had been added to the school in the last 2 or so years; one being Rebecca Karanja house named after our principal at the school who was the second African principal after Joan Waithaka.

We were welcomed for the mid morning tea which we had fondly referred to as ‘para’. For some strange reason, this and not any other meal was the most popular meal at Alliance. The two slices of bread of Levillas bread are still memorable meal for all ex-busherians we were disappointed that there was no Levillas bread this time! After tea we took short trip in the school before settling at the tents for the formal program of the day. As usual we sat according to the houses so once again at peace with McPhersoners and catching up. One of the interesting events of the day was the ‘bush project fame’ where we all joined in inter-house singing competitions. We were very enthusiastic in the competitions and it brought back memories of the inter-house competitions. We had competitions in sports, music, drama, science congress, swimming among others. Swimming was done in conjunction with our brother school, Alliance high school popularly referred to as Acrossians’. We were across each other hence the term ‘across’ where each house had a brother house for joint activities. For McPherson our brother house was Arthur house. On this day the competition was fun and it was interesting to see that as old girls we were so enthusiastic about winning!

I was touched by the slogan that the current principal Mrs Kamwilu recited with the girls; "When people sit, we stand, when they stand we stand out, when they stand out we become outstanding, when they become outstanding we become the standard measure." This has become the Alliance Girls slogan. It took me back to my days in the school with the Principal Mrs Karanja whose quotes and words of advice I remember to date. One of the most popular which I like using is that ‘there is no platform in life where you go to give excuses why you didn’t succeed’ and ‘ It doesn’t matter what happens to you but rather how you handle what happens to you’. Most of the ex-busherians who went through the leadership of Mrs Karanja will recall a word of advice and the most uttered being ‘girls you have the potential’. She made us realise that we had what it takes to be the best in life. She also gave tough love rebuke when we misbehaved. I recall when she was annoyed by actions that were not in line with what was expected of us and she would tell us ‘you have got a head above your shoulders’ or ‘use what is between your ears’. She was quite an inspiration and I believe that my teenage years were empowering for having passed at Alliance.

I have fond memories of the school as there was a lot that made this a different school to be in. some of the practices that marveled other schools was the freedom that we had in the school. To start with, every Saturday was a visiting day from the first day to the last day of the school term. We were also allowed to go outside the school compound on Saturdays with the places allowed to visit being Kikuyu town, Alliance High school and the Kikuyu hospital. Saturdays 2.30 to 5.00Pm therefore used to be memorable moments. The one place that was out of bounds (for obvious reasons) was the Kikuyu campus of University of Nairobi. We also had guidance and counseling sessions with structured program every second term. We looked forward to this time when we had 3 full days of guidance and counseling and watching educational movies.
In teenage years that are mostly spent in secondary school, it is the time that boy/girl relationships are a big deal and an issue of concern. In Bush we were allowed to socialize, actually it was encouraged, or should I say it was compulsory to socialize with boys! Each house had one or two joint activities every school term with their brother house . Each school year in Kenya has 3 terms. The functions were referred to as ‘house games’ where we had a session after classes and engaged in games, socializing and refreshments’ or the socials which were afternoon event of socializing on a Saturday. These functions were compulsory for girls in form 1-3, but optional for the form 4 girls. We also had school programs joint like joint Christina fellowship rallies at every beginning and end of term, visiting the sick in hospital, visit to old people’s home, teaching Sunday school, joint movies, Christmas carol services, mass for Catholic girls among others. This made us realize the harmless and empowered aspect of friendship between members of the opposite sex. Valentine’s Day was introduced to me at Alliance where we were matched and one had to do a ‘love letter’ to the secret friend and came to meet the person during socials!! The songs of Solomon Bible verses therefore came in handy. I can narrate many fond memories of this school. The school promoted holistic growth, while emphasizing the main aim of being in school, academic performance.

There were also not so memorable events and practices. The compulsory cross-country that we did about 3 days a week were particularly torture for many of us! There were punishments, popularly known as ‘detention’ since it meant that one was not free to go out on Saturday afternoon but rather be engaged in some manual work. I was in a class that often got into trouble due to making noise. We sometimes escaped as we ‘explained’ to excuse ourselves but we often got into detention due to noise making. The community work that we did every Friday was not so appreciated since it meant quite substantial manual work but now I realize how important these were. It felt like the worst torture to wash toilets which was a duty for forms one’s and oh unto you if there was water scarcity and the toilets were meant to be sparkling clean. I still recall girls crying helplessly in form 1 when one used soap solution that was very thick instead of the scoring powder in the bowl of the toilet, meaning the more water you used the more the foam. This was despite the limited time of morning chores before classes began. We had a practice of house mothers hence the Form 2 girl who suffered any mishaps of the daughter did in form 1! I still recall trying to clean a blocked toile.
One can’t not remember Bus Girls without remembering the school song ‘Friends are precious’.

Friends are precious, they're the best of all things that one can ever have,
Nothing material can take the place of the comradeship between you and I.
Genuine friendship has no jealousy no pride, it has no envy and no lies,
It has no room for loneliness and pain, because it's all based on love.
Based on love
The light of Alliance has always been and forever will be our guide,
Challenge can never alter the course of the goals we've all set for our lives.
The light of Alliance stands for unity and hope, it binds us together, makes us one,
It gives us the strength to courageously go forth, all in the power of the Lord.
Of the Lord

The reunion was a refresher of the memories of being a ’Busherian.’ I visited most of the memorable spaces especially my former dormitory. It was nostalgic going through the rooms that I slept in for the years I was in school. Some things have changed others remain the same, all in all I could feel the sense of belonging. It was interesting to chat and connect with the students who were basically born around or after the time I left school. I am still amused at the way the young girls jawed dropped on telling them I left school 16 years ago!

Memories are made of this, and I cannot trade anything for the lovely memories of having passed this school. I realize I was privileged to get to this school and currently engaged in mentoring kids from my former primary school where no other girl has gone to Alliance Girls or other national schools since my year when four of us got admissions at national schools, with two of us at Alliance Girls. I believe that much as not every girl can get to such schools, there are many with potential that is not tapped.
Long live Bush! I can’t wait for the next reunion.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Curiosity, hidden in books

There is a common saying that curiosity killed the cat, and a belief in that saying precisely denies us the opportunity to explore and learn. Growing up, curiosity was my second name. In fact I feel, I have missed out on getting the maximum from life, due to reduced level of curiosity in the name of growing up and knowing that the world is not a straight line, that life is not always as it seems; that people are not always as they seem. When I look at my nephews and nieces I can’t help but see aspects of my childhood in them. My niece Bridget in particular reminds me of my childhood curiosity with books! I grew up in the rural, where newspapers and other reading materials were not common. But this didn’t deter my curiosity, as a child, the world was a whole as it could be, after all as a child you don’t know what’s missing, just what’s available. One of the issues I was curious about was how the body ‘knows what the medication is meant for’! As young as 7 years I used to really wonder why when one takes pain killers especially Panadols for different kinds of pain! How does the body ‘know’ the pain is in the head and not the leg?? Of course I had to wait until secondary school to learn about nerves, and I remember that biology class was an Aha! moment for me.

Back to my niece Bridget, who is 5 years now, I used to empathize before she joined school; the was so eager and curious when her older sister Valerie (7yrs) was reading and more so when singing and referring to a book. The sadness in the eyes of the just over 2 year old (then) that she could not read! At one time eager to go to school ( she was not yet 3 yrs) she decided that fees must be the issue. She asked her mother how much ‘her sister’s school cost! The mother tried to explain wondering how to conceptualize the cost of setting up a school to a kid! But, when my sister shared the story I realized the young girl was asking about school fees! She must have reasoned that the money needed for her to go to school must be a lot that her parents had not yet been able to accumulate it, she must have thought of various reasons why she was not yet in school.

It didn’t help matters that when the mother would often go with her to pick the elder sister from school, the teacher made the joke about her being welcome to class. Later, the girl had to literally be unplucked kicking and crying from a desk! she went home crying and refused to eat until she was bought uniform and school bag. At long last she was old enough to go to school, (actually she joined school in the middle of the year) and I pray that her curiosity remains. The last time I bought her a coloring book, her mother didn’t get to close her eyes till 1.00am! She must be lucky to have a teacher for a mother!

My fascination and curiosity with reading and was inspired by my siblings, more so my elder brother, who I used to see reading novels most of the times. (Now, my brother George you never told me university there was more than just reading novels at the university!). I always used to admire the size of the novels he read, and for sure I thought university was all about reading novels, and I did read enough novels in campus anyway!

In our family I seem to be the one who had so much drama about school and stories are retold to-date. I loved school! I loved reading (loudly most of the times) and I wrote on any surface that I came across using chalk and charcoal, whichever was close at hand at any particular moment. It didn’t help that our primary school head teacher told us that one would get a stomach ache if they stayed a whole day without reading during the holidays and weekends. I was never one to get the stomach ache, I obeyed.

I have fond memories since nursery school. In my days, one went to nursery school at 6 yrs of age to mainly know how to write 1 -10, your name and A-Z (if you are lucky). We used to write on the floor, walls, and books were reserved for only main class work after one had practiced on the walls, blackboards and the floor. As kids we were taught as individuals so it came as a shock when one day a certain boy was asked to write on the blackboard and he wrote numbers 1- 10, while I had only been taught 1-5! I went home running and ‘reported’ the teacher and my dad promptly taught me 6-10. I proudly ‘showed off’ this newly found knowledge to the teacher the following day.

The curiosity of discovering what is in books was so strong I must have been such a bother to my elder siblings. I was eager to know what was in the books that any new books that I came across meant trouble for my older siblings. I developed the love of books at the early age, and luckily I got away with failing in household chores since there was something to show for it at the end of the month with the monthly tests. I especially loved English books as they had many stories that I hoped could turn real. In those days, while in class 1-3 we learnt 4 subjects: English, Kiswahili, Maths and Kikuyu. Somehow there was something new to solve every day, curious questions some of which I didn’t think answers would be discovered in this life time! Like when a certain older man put us on the spot when he asked us if we knew how to add and subtract! Of course we did; then he gave us a test of 5-8! We were sure that is not a possible mathematical problem and went home disheartened since he insisted there was an answer and my older siblings effort to explain negative numbers didn’t make sense!

As I grew older, with more books and more subjects, my favourite books were stories in the three languages we learnt. I will never forget the magical calabash and used to imagine some magical calabash that would fulfill the childish dreams that I had in my imaginative mind. The Alladin lamp…the ogres in stories, the beautiful Wacici the beautiful girl who was mistreated by her jealous step-sisters; Waceke the girl who got lost and cried in the market; elfu Lela Ulela; you name them, what a fantastic childhood. Unlike in real life, the stories always ended with the good winning over the evil. I believed that was what life was all about. Curiosity worked just fine, as a lot was hidden in books. I am not sure if there is a difference between reading and cramming in childhood. I know I read/ crammed, since I can still remember cramming several pages of the books in lower classes. No wonder Maths get left out, what was there to read/ sing? We sang the Baba, Mama, Kaka…. And I felt an achievement when my elder sister learnt from me that ‘uteo’ is the winnowing tray. I am not certain if she really didn’t know (before 844 system, Kiswahili was optional) or she was flattering me, but it worked just right. My late sister Jane Wangari/ Mama Gitau,Amos and Kevin(May she Rest in Eternal Peace) was such an encouragement for me. Despite the fact that she was a teacher I actually thought I was teaching her what I had learnt. Such is the faith of a child, such is the nurturing a curios child’s mind requires.

I am not sure when I stopped believing in the magic calabash, or who introduced the Pacesetters to my life. By the time I finished class 8 I was reading novels, not sure if out of curiosity anymore or a stage in life. The first book outside of the African writers’ novels that I read was the Sidney Sheldon’s ‘If tomorrow comes’. I still love the name 'Stacy' the main character in that book. I can’t count the number of novels and other books I have read ever since then. I can’t count the number of books that I buy, every month, but I know that books have formed an important part of my life. Books are a treasure. When I am feeling low, I need to buy books, and there is such a calming relief from reading books. Some people find it strange when I say that visiting a book shop is my favourite shopping spree when am feeling low. If I step out of a book shop without buying a book then that is quite an achievement ( cant remember doing that though...may be in 5% of the cases)

I hope my niece will continue having curiosity to learn more and more. Often I wish I can recapture the curiosity of childhood. The curiosity of wanting to know more and more. In the current world with ICT revolution where there is overload of information, there is often more to read than curiosity can allow. There is a lot of relevant and irrelevant information, but there is something unique about written books! There is always an expectation of opening a new book, of wondering what is in the next page. Every book leaves the mind different. Right now I am re-reading Paullo Coelho’s ‘By the River Piedra, I sat and wept’. Some of the quotes in this book, like in many of Paullo Coelho’s books are inspiring, that I can repeat over and over. Here is one interesting quotes ( and you can now only guess what is in the rest of the book, and the many others of Paullo Coelho's)

"You have to take risks, he said. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. Every day, God gives us the sun--and also one moment in which we have the ability to change everything that makes us unhappy. Every day, we try to pretend that we haven't perceived that moment, that it doesn't exist--that today is the same as yesterday and will be the same as tomorrow. But if people really pay attention to their everyday lives, they will discover that magic moment. It may arrive in the instant when we are doing something mundane, like putting our front-door key in the lock; it may lie hidden in the quiet that follows the lunch hour or in the thousand and one things that all seem the same to us. But that moment exists--a moment when all the power of the stars becomes a part of us and enables us to perform miracles."
— Paulo Coelho (By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept)