Songs for my Ancestress

It was a sunny afternoon; my mom was home, and I was up and about the house staying busy. I’d just done some school work – Physics had a tendency back then to kick my ass and I reciprocated by dedicating a lot of study time to it. My maternal grandma had moved in with us a few weeks before  so she could be closer to medical help in Nairobi. I was aghast to see her when she arrived. She was extremely weak, and her previously slim but full frame had all but withered away. It was clear that the attention she was getting at the hospital was neither  sufficient nor effective.

I was in the living room when I heard her hoarse voice calling out for my mother, “Annie, Annie.” I rushed to my bedroom – which I’d vacated since her arrival – to see what assistance she needed. The door only opened partially, shut from the inside the old school way, with a nail that was partially driven into the door frame before being bent. I looked through the small opening and saw my grandma sitting on the Tily cooking oil container she used when she was unable to make it to the toilet on her own. Having finished with her call of nature, she was now stuck, or her upper body simply too weak to lift her up, out of the plastic can and back onto the bed.

Seeing your elders nude is still, like back in the days of Noah and his son Ham, a taboo. Although my grandma clearly needed help right away, I had to go fetch my mom to come assist her. It would still be difficult for my mother to see her own parent in such a vulnerable, partially nude state, but given the state of grandma’s health, it was excusable. Mom walked into grandma’s room, pushing the door and bending the restraining nail out of the way.

Several days later, grandma was out in the yard. She’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, and having previously had to rely on her daughter to complete her bathroom needs, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her weak voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet.

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Of the many interactions I’ve heard with my grandparents, this was the most difficult to reconcile. Margaret Wanjiru, my maternal grandmother and my mother’s mother, was not a woman who fell flat on her face and asked for help to get up.

She was the eldest girl child of Harrison Kamau Karabi, a carpenter at Kenya Railways, and Gladys Wahu, a nurse. Gathiri, as she was known to her siblings and close relatives, led a charmed early life. She went to school at a time when educating girls was considered an anomaly. Thanks to her parents being both skilled professionals, she was schooled to lead the life of a career woman, years before the phenomenon of an independent woman had become the norm in Kenya.

Working with an outfit of the Kenya Transport and Allied Workers Union, Gathiri lived in Nairobi, using some of her income to educate younger siblings. Grandma would later relate to me business trips that she took with colleagues to the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa. Then, as now, travelling cross country, especially to such a major tourist destination was a big deal. For comparison, neither of my paternal grandparents had benefited from formal education. Mombasa remained a far off dream, constrained as they were within the narrow confines of their home and work locations. When my dad’s dad did travel, it was involuntarily. He was arrested by the British Colonial government as a Mau Mau sympathizer. Having taken the secret Kenya Land and Freedom Army oath, he was sentenced to political ‘rehabilitation’ at Manyani Detention Camp- ironically, situated on the route towards Mombasa’s holiday spots.

Grandma was also involved in the Mau Mau effort. At the height of this 1950s anti-colonial movement, she worked at the then King Georges’ Hospital – later renamed Kenyatta National Hospital.  This meant she had access to drugs and medical supplies that the forest fighters desperately needed. My mom recounts stories of how grandma and her colleagues would smuggle medicine from the hospital and on to the men and women out in the Aberdares range and Mt. Kenya bush fighting for the country’s freedom.

Under Pax Britannica, movement was a privilege only granted to those docile enough not to threaten British interests. The only item from my grandma’s life that I’ve inherited, through my mom, is her colonial-era passbook. Unlike my paternal grandma’s which is empty, Gathiri’s demonstrates just how mobile she was – quite a feat at such a difficult time in Kenya. Grandma Gathiri’s passbook shows her travelling between her work location in Nairobi’s Maringo neighborhood to her parents’ home in the country. To say that the trips were bureaucratically intensive is an understatement. One had to apply for permission to travel before actually leaving. This involved going to the closest chief or district officer’s office and submitting the requisite paperwork. Imagine what this would have meant if you had to also appear for your 9-to-5 job. Having received permission beforehand, on the day you were leaving, you’d get a stamp from your local D.O. confirming that you’d left location A on your way to location B.  As soon as you got to location B you were expected to report to the local authorities so your passbook could be stamped that you’d in fact arrived. Any inexplicable time lapses would be grounds for suspicion and possibly detention. The return trip involved you reporting, and getting a stamp that you were departing, and a stamp in your passbook upon arrival. Essentially, the civilizing mission of the British monarchy had balkanized Kenya into separate regions; to cross from district to district your passbook served as a passport, allowing you passage, if the colonial officer on the other side of the desk felt that you deserved it. In addition, the passbook enabled my grandma’s younger brother to travel with her for school.

By the early Sixties, the political climate had certainly improved for members of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities who happened to be residing in Kenya’s budding urban areas. If things were lightening up politically, on the eve of Kenya’s colonial mishap, economically there were still challenges to be tackled. Hence, my grandma’s trip to Israel would have been groundbreaking. Surely she would have been held up as a role model for her nieces and nephews to emulate, her career the iconic demonstration of why working hard to gain an education mattered. I recall her stories about travelling to Jerusalem, washing her feet in the River Jordan, and the nostalgia that she related these adventures.

There was a photo on one of my grandma’s wall of her and a colleague on the Israel trip. These two were clearly women of the 60s. The hairdo and the short dresses tell it on a physical level. Thinking back, however, the sexual revolution that characterized this decade must have influenced my grandma’s married life and the fact that she lived as a single mother for the last half of her life. I’ve heard tell of how she once owned a car, a small red mini Morris that initially served as a passenger vehicle before its demise. That this was an extraordinary feat is best demonstrated by the utter disbelief with which a childhood friend once reacted when I described that my grandma once owned a car. In this kid’s experience, women could not drive, let alone own a vehicle.

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