Grandama Gathiri was a trendsetter. She was brought up by a mother, my great grandmother, who was a nurse by profession, at a time when many of her counterparts were locked into illiteracy. Gathiri’s dad, in addition to being a carpenter for Kenya Railways, had also been detained by the British Crown for associating with the dreaded Mau Mau. All these made my mother’s mother a truly cosmopolitan Kenyan; she could draw upon varied experiences: from the countryside to the expanding cities, from 1950’s professionalism to living under the constant threat of colonial military might.
It was no surprise then, that Gathiri owned a vehicle: a red mini Morris. She went through the rigmarole of acquiring a driver’s license and chauffeured herself from place to place. Eventually, so I’ve learned, the vehicle was turned into a taxi. That didn’t last very long. The business went bust. This could have been due to a whole number of reasons – perhaps the driver/operator was skimming off too much for himself and not maintaining the vehicle as needed. Or maybe the Kenyan government cracked down on private taxis, driving them out of business and reducing the competition faced by bigger politically-connected companies.
Decades later, grandma retired and moved to Juja Farm, a former colonial ranch that sustained teeming wildlife. I’d visit during the school holidays in April, August, or December. Part of Juja’s allure was the openness. The land is flatly, sparsely populated by thorny Acacia shrubs, and you can see the horizon all around you for miles and miles. The grassland provided great grazing for grandma’s cattle. I’d team up with a local herdsman, or sometimes just one of the village boys, and we’d walk behind the animals all day. Driving them towards green grass, and making sure they had plenty of waterholes close by in the afternoon.
Githu, one of my herdsmate, lived in grandma’s locality and had known her for a long time. They all called her Wa Njoroge, Njoroge’s mother. My mom’s younger brother, Njoro, was the only one still living with grandma by the time she relocated to Juja. As is customary, grandma became known for the child the community could see. The only additional moniker they gave her had to do with her literacy.
The Harris’s were a white family who lived at the original Juja Farm. Perhaps they’d bought the land from an earlier colonial settler, or maybe they were descendants of previous British settler populations. Grandma came to know them and soon she’d visit to see if my mom had called their house, the only one with a phone line within a 30 mile radius, and left a message. Fellow villagers were astonished to see Gathiri converse with the white people, in English, no less. And so fluently! From then on they called her Nyina wa Njoroge wa Githungu, Njoroge’s mom who speaks English.
Speaking English was one thing; after all even school teachers did. Driving was quite another. I once narrated to Githu that grandma used to drive. That she had once owned a small red vehicle and she’d get in, turn the ignition, and transport herself from point A to point B. This was too much for Githu. He opposed me categorically, on the simple fact that women could not drive. Githu’s point was not simply that women didn’t get opportunities to drive, but that they were physically, (emotionally?) incapable of driving.
I lived in Ngong, a fairly urbane location so had seen numerous female drivers. My headmistress, Mrs.Murithi, chauffeured herself to school, hours before her husband who worked as the head institutional administrator arrived. One of my classmates, a biracial kid with an Italian dad, was dropped off and picked up from school by her Meru mother. My grandma’s youngest brother, had married an optician who not only drove to work, but also took us to Juja multiple times. I knew Githu’s argument was false, but I also understand that his immediate surroundings, void of the same experiences I could draw upon, had led him to such conclusions. He vehemently denied the existence of (black) female drivers.
While generally a somewhat cranky person, I have few pet peeves. I appreciate my own quirks enough to allow others their own strangeness. I often get on pavements and roadways as a pedestrian or cyclist; understandably, I feel very strongly when drivers ignore traffic laws and common road etiquette. My biggest pet peeve is drivers idling their brakes until they come to a final stop right in the middle of a pedestrian walkway. It’s technically illegal, but more importantly, it’s sloppy and rude. Both of which make for dangerous driving. I cannot stand it. It blows my mind that a driver can be so ignorant of the fatal potential that her car holds vis-a-vis cyclists or pedestrians. This action smirks of entitlement, and worse, complete and utter obliviousness. Again, bad, dangerous driving.
I’d just finished going through several hoops in order to renew my expired Florida license in Nebraska. The DMV officials had looked through all my immigration documents, and successfully ascertained I wasn’t one of those immigrants awaiting a deportation trumpet to Mexico, or wherever. It then turned out that I needed to pass a written test. With no prior head’s up, I’d obviously not prepared. Nevertheless, I dove right into it, and dutifully failed. Something about parking uphill when there is or there isn’t a curb. I still don’t get the difference.
24 hours later, armed with about 45 minutes worth of perusing the driver’s manual, plus a practice test, I returned. I felt good about this particular attempt. I’d made efforts to remember the 5 or 6 questions I’d failed the day before, and memorized their answers. I also had my priorities right. My goal was to get through the test; it had nothing to do with how I’d actually behave on Nebraskan roadways. A test is a test; driving is driving. The two entities do not always match up.
I patiently endured my 2 hour wait at the DMV. Where would we be without long waits at virtually all government offices? Imagine delivering services in a way that optimized rush hour, wait times, personnel, and scarce resources. What a lovely dream! My waiting ticket number flashed on the console, and I pulled myself together as I headed to counter #2. I handed over my ticket, immigration documents, plus a bar code receipt from the previous day. The officer in charge then directed me to choose any of the tablet computers lined up against the wall and get started with the written test. I did as instructed. I skipped a few questions, and even guessed one. I was a bit anxious to not fail, once again. In the end, I was happy to find out, I’d answered all but one question correctly. My guess on how many points you stand to lose over a 2 year misdemeanor record was correct. But my response to a question regarding residential area speed limits was not. It took me another 20 minutes to pay the license issuing fee, and I walked out with a paper copy of my DL. Success!
I took O Street back to downtown Lincoln. At the second pedestrian crosswalk, I noticed an SUV idling its way onto the zebra crossing. The driver was on the phone as she eyed the light ahead so she could take a left turn. I don’t think she even turned towards where I was coming from. In any case, the person sitting beside her on the front passenger seat would have partially blocked her view. There was no other vehicle behind her; if she’d really cared to, she could have backed up and moved away from the pedestrian crossing.
The combo of using a cell phone while driving THEN stopping smack in the middle of a pedestrian walkway was just too much for me. I went around the back of her silver Mercury. Emerging from the other side, I approached her open window and said “next time, please don’t stop on a pedestrian crossing!”
Oh my! Me calling her out got her mad. Super mad. She began shouting as I walked away, “excuse me! Excuse me!” I walked on. “What did you say?” I never turned back. I got the feeling that looking back at her would not only dignify her outburst, it would also escalate this interaction. Although I could feel her eyes literally drilling daggers through my back, I forced myself to keep walking forward. My back has never felt so exposed before, and I’ve never wished for a bullet proof vest as I did that afternoon. And yet somehow, I banked on some unspoken honor code that even if she was packing, she’d not shoot me in the back. Talk of clutching at straws. When eventually the lights turned green and she took her left turn, she drove past me on the other side of the road with sneering eyes.
She’d irked me for careless driving, and totally deserved to be told off. In retrospect, however, I should have approached that moment with more humility. Forcing myself into the bubble that constituted hers and her passenger’s personal space, I should have at least excused myself. Not doing so merely rendered her invisible – in the problematic way that women of color in particular, and women generally, are invisible in white male space (basically everywhere). Like Githu, I too was participating in a monologue that underlined women’s incapacity to drive. I call out a lot of bad drivers. Sometimes I flail my arms in frustration, and once in a while I’ve even been know to issue the finger. But I’d be dishonest to claim that my probability of calling out a white male driver is the same as that of me calling out a black female driver. Sometimes it’s worth staying mum and letting go. Or perhaps using sarcasm to thank rude drivers. In any case, I’m now very keen on rewarding good road use. I wave at every driver who’s polite enough to let me past the crosswalk. After all, it’s the little things that count!
Grandma’s house had a green wooden door. The timber had been cut into thin bamboo-like pieces, polished and put together using carpenter’s glue and nails. My great grandfather, who had made a career working with wood, had built her home right next to their own on a plot of land Gathiri had helped her parents buy.
Later, after buying land in what had previously been a colonial sisal plantation, Juja, grandma moved. Not having the capital to purchase new material and build a permanent structure, she opted to tear down her tin shack three-roomed house and re-use the iron sheets for her new home. The tin roofing was carefully pried free from the nails; and the timber was cautiously set aside in the hopes of rejoining the house. After the whole house had been torn apart, her furniture was piled into a lorry and the long drive to Juja Farm commenced. That first night, after arriving and unloading everything, they slept in the open – exposed to the elements and, back then, woodland savannah teeming with a colorful array of wildlife.
Decades later, I’ve often heard that locals warned the arriving party not to build on the site they’d chosen but their advice fell on deaf ears. During the April school holidays when I’d visit grandma, the house would occasionally seep water through the floor or through the back wall. Every rainy season, behind the house, there existed a swamp – with the mandatory, obnoxiously loud, male bull frog.
Grandma in a white blouse with a colleague during a 1961 trip to Israel
My mom says grandma was not an especially gifted businesswoman. Having spent much of her career in white collar positions, she was slow in adapting to the rigors of the jua kali (self-employed) sector. Some of my earliest memories of her are as a charcoal seller, operating a kiosk in Gikambura, on one of the back alleys that faced away from the market. It was in those same shadowy spaces that I’d hear Zaire’s Mbilia Mbel and Franco take over Kenyan airwaves with their seductive Lingala rhumba.
Grandma was, however, a gifted farmer. She could wrench the fruits of the earth from what had been previously barren soil. Her Juja neighbors thought her mad when she planted, of all things, trees on her farm. “Trees don’t grow here!” they vowed, using the same warning tone they’d invoked about the swampy building site. They were wrong. My grandma’s compound became one of the few where you could see trees. The area is flat, grassland savanna; trees can be seen from miles away. Whenever we went to visit, the landscape mostly populated with thorny acacia trees, the tall blue gums and the flaming Jacaranda outside her house served as a navigational bearing. Her fruit orchard was soon producing pawpaws and passion fruit – previously unheard of in Juja. During the passion fruit season, her visits to our house meant an abundance of fruit. It was from her that I first observed the, yet unproven, (pseudo)science of identifying male vs. female pawpaw seeds. Apparently, if you dangle a needle from the end of a thread just on top of, but not touching a pawpaw seed, the needle will be magnetically attracted to the seed if it’s male – or female, I forget exactly how this works. All the same, I have memories of my dad and I attempting to separate viable male vs. female pawpaw seeds under grandma’s keen tutelage.
Her attempts at animal husbandry were equally successful. She could turn a single ewe and ram into a worthy herd in no time. Sheep give birth about twice a year. We’d visit one year to witness her flock dwindle to 5 – courtesy of hyenas as the sheep were grazing, worms, or coughs – and return a year or two later to see a flock of almost 30, all reared from the original 5. We used to make fun of how lambs that were left behind as the rest of the herd went out to graze during the day, would follow her around the house and garden. She had Abel’s gift and was a veritable sheep whisperer.
I’d travel to Juja in the company of my mother, younger sisters, and grand uncle and his family. Usually we’d use their cars – split between two convoys. Our first stop was often the newly opened Uchumi Hyper Supermarket. Over the years Uchumi Ngong Road has lost the prestige with which it was first opened. Back in the day, this was the height of middle class respectability. The red and white plastic shopping bags spoke volumes about a family’s ability to climb up the ladder. This was the spot to pick the (almost) mandatory groceries: packets of sugar, tea leaves, salt, cooking oil, maize and wheat flour, loaves of sliced bread, etc. On times when we’d make the journey without my grandma’s brother, my mom would hoist the package onto her back – the quintessential Kikuyu woman.
Using public transport to get to Juja was arduous. It meant a bus to town, then a number 237 van to Thika, though we’d actually alight at Juja/Muchatha. And yet that was just half the journey. At Muchatha we’d have to sit and wait until one of those fame-me-face-you trucks converted into passenger vans arrived, and got fully packed with people, goods, and often domestic animals. Kids such as myself and younger sisters, obviously didn’t need a sit so we’d stand in between rows of adults – lost in the dank, sweaty interior of the van. It was usually much better if the van was not covered with a tarpaulin sheet. That way I could stretch out and swing back and forth as the vehicle lurched in and out of potholes. But that also meant exposure to the midday savanna sun and dust. Often we’d alight at Juja Farm and embark on the last quarter of the journey by foot. This route often passed by the Harris farmhouse – a white family that had settled here ranching and practicing horticulture. With all these adventures, accompanying Baba Kamau to my grandma’s, his eldest sibling’s, house was always a lot more enjoyable. Often we’d get to grandma’s place by about midday; this gave us a couple of hours to prepare lunch – usually a couple of chickens or a goat if there were enough of us AND we’d informed grandma before hand so she could prep the barbecue. If we drove there, it was also more likely that we’d all head back home in the evening, often getting back to Ngong very late in the evening eager to forego dinner and jump straight into bed before school the next day.
Sometimes though, my sisters and I would be left behind – especially at the beginning of school holidays. We’d stay there for 2 to 3 weeks, until my mom came back to pick us up, or we’d head back home in the company of Njoro, my mom’s youngest brother. Staying in Juja for the holidays meant taking the animals out to graze in the morning. Sometimes I’d only have to get them to the herdsman and he’d keep them for the day before I picked them up in the evening. One school holiday I accompanied Wa Ngoiri, grandma’s herdsman, everyday. I remember having to do a lot of walking, and always coming back in the afternoon famished. Or I’d join other village boys and together we’d herd the animals, often under the supervision of an adult. Working in bands of boys, we’d get someone’s dogs and recruit them into a hunting party. I remember once capturing a baby antelope, courtesy of one of the dogs, killing it and taking half of it as my counterpart took home the other half.
Sometimes Njoro would not only take us back home, he’d also visit Ngong at the beginning of vacation and take me back with him. Back then he was wild enough that my parents felt the need to warn him not to spend too much time in Nairobi’s movie halls before getting to Juja. He’d partly grown up in Maringo section of Nairobi – as a “born tao” (someone born in town) he was suave and cool in a way his village buddies could not comprehend. For instance, he could navigate the city’s traffic at a time when most of his Juja friends had only been to the city once or twice – if at all – mostly on day trips organized by the school.
One such trip from Ngong to Juja unraveled into much drama. We’d already made it to Nairobi CBD, embarked onto a 237 minibus, and we were just about to alight at Muchatha. As we standing up, and Njoro was maneuvering a bag of dried maize my mom had given him for grandma, he accidentally hit one of the window panes next to him and broke it. The bus conductor as well as the driver were up in arms. There was no way we could leave, they said, without having paid for the damages. Needless to say, we missed our Muchatha stop and kept on bickering with the bus operators all the way to the final stop at Thika. I think there was even mention of police station to force Njoro to hand over cash for the damages. I’m pretty sure he had some money on him, courtesy of my mom, but being the smooth operator that he believed himself to be, he had no intention of parting with it. The decision was finally made that I’d head back with the bus, get down at Muchatha, go see grandma about some money for the broken window and return with it. Meanwhile, Njoro plus all our luggage would be held ransom until I returned.
Disembarking from Muchatha, I caught the face-me-face-you truck and made it to Juja Farm. My twelve-year-old mind calculated that instead of walking all the way to grandma’s house it made more sense to go to Mr. Harris’s house, take money from him which he’d surely get back from grandma, and hence set right back on rescuing Njoro. I walked to the white farmhouse, raised on a platform above ground, and with a verandah all around it. I’d never been here before, and we’d not been previously introduced to each other. I knew of him based on what both grandma and Njoro talked about. Grandma would visit his house once in a while; and Njoro would eventually work on the family farm tending vegetables. I’m fascinated to think about what they’d have talked about – grandma and Mr. Harris. Language was certainly not an issue. Grandma’s English was impeccable, so much so that her Juja neighbors nicknamed her Mama Njoroge wa Githongo, i.e. Njoroge’s mother who also speaks English. That she could converse with a white man in his language, without any fear, must have endlessly astonished her neighbors.
For them, this was another reminder of how much Gathiri, or Nyina wa Njorogo, as most of them knew her, had attempted to break away from the female gender roles pre-assigned to her. If I remember correctly, I met Mr. Harris and 2 or 3 other family members. I introduced myself and explained what had happened. I underlined that grandma would get him his money back but that I needed it urgently, before Njoro ended up in prison. Mr. Harris indeed handed over KSHS 500. I can’t imagine what he’d have thought of the tale! I rushed back only to meet Njoro at Muchatha. He’d walked away by leaving my bag full of clothes with the driver, and made it home with the bag of maize. He was to return the next day to retrieve my clothes and compensate the bus operators for the broken window. There was nothing else to do but to get back onto another face-me and finally head to grandma’s house, minus my luggage. In the subsequent weeks, a never-ending twist of events resulted in me permanently separated from my luggage. Njoro went back a few times but never came back with the clothes. One pair of jeans had plastic gems embedded underneath the front waistband and I was quite fond of it. I hated having to part with it!
The rest of the vacation was thankfully uneventful. In addition to herding grandma’s cattle, goats, and sheep, I’d run errands to the village shop. When my cousins were around, grandma only entrusted me with purchasing cigarettes for her. This was a big job for me; and I remember her asking me to bring them straight back to her without showing my cousins. It felt thrilling to be entrusted with such an important task. Eventually, however, smoking prematurely ended grandma’s life – a result of lung complications, most likely lung cancer.
Years later, Gathiri would move in with us in the last months of her life. One day, 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, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her frail 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. Her previously full bosom had now turned flat and emaciated; and she was hoarsely calling out to my mother, “Annie, Annie!”
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.
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.