I would often find her in the office backyard, radiant, smiley, posing, absorbing snapshots of her life that unbeknownst to me, signified her transformation. I would never have understood. There was a time she hated her pictures, she has very few of them from her past and even if they are modest, she would never show them to anyone.
At work, walks to lunch or occasional banter with colleagues would sometimes elicit distressing comments and questions from her (especially if it was about men and fathers) but she would somehow make them look general and distant from her.
There was more beneath the surface that being together in the same office would never have revealed. A recent comment on Facebook on a post about gender-based violence – seen by my wife- prompted a call that led her to sit down with me and unveil. “It is time to tell your story,” I was blunt on the call. She went silent for almost a minute muttering “wow” a few times as I let her process the solemnity of sharing her story.
A few days earlier I had sent her a ‘we need to talk’ text. Having worked with Grace for almost five years, I knew I had to be direct. She’s a hard nut
, and the faster you start cracking, the better for you.
She said yes, to my surprise. I had expected a protest, a flurry of questions, some jokes and bursts of laughter. Instead, I felt tender comeliness as we talked and planned to meet. What has this past one year done to her? I wondered. Talking of the last year, she resigned from work just before Covid (strange how Covid has become a timestamp in our lives, now we refer to events before and after Covid).
“Resigning was one of the proudest moments of my life. I was finally thinking about myself, making a decision for me. The environment had become bad for me and I needed to move on,” she beams, her eyes saying more than her words. It’s a decision that Grace would have struggled to make a year earlier, she would have feared the consequences, her provision and what people would say. She would have doubted herself, fixated at all impossibilities, uncertain, unable to make a move.
It is such self-deprecation that characterized Grace’s upbringing which she describes as a blend of many good, bad and ugly things, having been brought up by her mother, grandmother and a children’s home.
Her mum was a teacher. Her father (who she doubts was her real dad), was an alcoholic and violent.
“We slept outside more times that we slept in the house. It was war whenever he came home drunk,” she remembers.
They would sleep in the bushes and go to her maternal grandmother many times but her mum would always end up back with that man. “I don’t understand the conversations my mum would have with my grandma that would bring us back to the same place. And I have never asked to date. I remember one time my mum had bought unga and clothes. He sold them and used the money to drink. That was the life,” she says.
One day Grace saw her father being disciplined by his clansmen which left her bewildered and satisfied because it felt like justice. It must have been a result of her mother’s complaints because things got worse in the family. The violence escalated.
“I hated him. I don’t remember us playing or having a conversation like a child would with their father. I just remember the violence. I saw him hit my mum once, on the back of the head. Then some days later my mum was taken to hospital. I was coming from school when I saw my mum being carried on a bicycle, holding her head and wailing. She didn’t come back.”
Grace was six years old then. There was no convincing her who was responsible for her mum’s death. That was her last memory of her mother alive. She doesn’t remember her face but she does his.
“You didn’t go to hospital to see her?” I ask.
“No, we didn’t. And nobody told us anything but for some reason I knew she was dead.”
Grace also knew it was a grave being dug and not a toilet as her younger sister thought. Their youngest sister was six-months old when their mother died.
The day of her mum’s burial was their last day in that home. They went with their grandmother and all links with their father’s family were savored.
“Even as a six-year-old I knew I wanted to disconnect with those people completely. I also knew I must come back to revenge for my mum at some point,” she quips. The grudge with her dad was solidified as she grew up and heard stories of other wife beaters.
At her grandma’s place they were twelve. Since Grace’s mother was the firstborn, her siblings were younger and still at home. Grace had come with her three siblings (including a six-months-old baby) and the house was more than full. Ravaging privation was the norm. Favoritism and sibling rivalry always spilled down to the children. Life was hard but her grandma stood by them, refusing any suggestions of sending them to live with different relatives.
Grace kept to herself; she would never tell anyone when something wrong was done to her. She would not confront anyone. She had no one to confide in and wouldn’t even know how to.
At 10 years, Grace was shipped from her grandma’s place in Makueni County to a children’s home in Kangundo.
“How did you end up there?” I ask.
“The children’s home was associated with our church, AIC. An elder from the church had taken our pictures and applied on our behalf. I was the only one who was taken,” she responds.
It was a whole different life and a culture shock adjusting to the new life; seeing flashing toilets and electricity for the first time, living with many other children. “It was a good home, fully sponsored from abroad but no one explained the transition or the stages of life to me. You are just put in a situation and life moves on” she laments. She was in class 4.
Reflecting as an adult to life those days, she realized she struggled with low self-esteem. As a desolate child, she knew things weren’t the way they should be. Things were wrong but she didn’t know what exactly. She couldn’t perceive beyond what she knew. There was no one to affirm her and love her. No one to show her direction and no friends to help the situation. In a home with many children, she was alone and lost. The hollowness wouldn’t spare her education either. She would do well only in the subjects in which the teachers were good to her. That meant being shown her mistakes rather than getting beaten. That was the closest she came to understand love.
“What is this love people always talk about? Ati I love you. What is that?” Grace says reminding me that she had asked me that question a few years back, on a lunch break, while we worked together.
“Because up to date I don’t know how to define it or how it should feel. When you experience something, you don’t know if that’s it because you didn’t grow up knowing it” she says, looking down, her hands moving around her cup of Dawa, bleakness registered in her face.
In that moment she made me question how I define love and what my reference point is but there was no time to dwell on myself. The story went on.
Between class four and five she developed a medical condition that she can’t even name. She never asked. She was taken to hospital and back but never once opened her mouth to inquire what was happening. In her mind nothing was to be questioned. The worst would be to question and look a fool or say something stupid and be punished.
One year in the children’s home, life seemed to be normal which was good enough for her. She was getting along with the other children and was able to stay in line. There were no incidences with the manager of the home, an astute, well built, fit 70-year-old master disciplinarian who kept everyone in the straight and narrow. She respected him. No issues either with the matron or the older children. You can even say she was happy.
Then one day while in the kitchen something was said by one of the college-going girls that felt like piercing a wound with a hot knife.
She hesitates. Chuckles. Shakes her head. Looks at her Dawa, orders more honey for it and then spews it. “The girl said – in front of all those who were there – that the manager said that his food should not be cooked in my presence.”
She sips her Dawa, laughs and keeps saying ‘wow’. She does that when in uncomfortable situations.
“It found me at a bad place,” she continues.
“That was a whole statement on my existence. The person who is supposed to be protecting me is the one who said that,” she thought to herself, looking down with brooding eyes.
She lived in fear and would always feel that the teacher was about to punish her. She couldn’t risk being laughed at which meant not asking questions or commenting on anything.
“Caning in primary school never helped me, it just destroyed me, some people say it helped shape them but not me,” she claims.
“Maybe you needed a stronger support system,” I suggest. She nods in agreement.
“I don’t like talking about that period because it destroyed me. I would be much further than where I am today. When you cannot say anything for a long time, something happens to you and you reach a point where you cannot express yourself. You suffer in silence. Not saying anything means doing nothing about it and it eats you inside.”
She struggled through the rest of her primary school and finished.
In class 8 the manager of the home passed away and a new one came, who, for some reason, was just on Grace’s side. He was a pastor.
“When he came it was good for me. He suggested that I repeat class 8 since he saw my potential but I didn’t want the primary school experience again,” she says smiling. “When you don’t believe in yourself, there’s nothing good that you see going on in your life and good things pass you. You are there thinking that everywhere you go people hate you but that’s not always the case.”
She hid in church. Getting busy with every activity a pre-teen can do just to distract herself from what felt like the main theme of her life.
High school went by fast for her. Things didn’t change as much. She did well in subjects where teachers valued her and horrible in the others.
She joined College of Insurance after high school and halfway through the sponsorship ended. Mismanagement of funds. All the 50 children homes sponsored under the program all over Kenya were closed. Grace always wonders what happened to the other children, especially the younger ones. With no fees she left college in 2009 but still lived at the girl’s hostel near Adams Arcade (she had been stayed there since 2006 as she attended college). Somehow, the funding for that hadn’t stopped.
She started going to Green Pastures Tabernacle, a church that was located between Prestige and Adams on Ngong Road.
“By that time, I had become tough headed and no one could play with me. Not because I had dealt with my issues but because I was hiding and also felt some kind of responsibility to defend the other girls,” she recalls.
“I had a face that became my constant appearance, never smiling, never welcoming, welcome you where? There was just space for me and it was already full. In college I would feel like a group gathered somewhere would be talking about me. If they coincidentally laugh while am passing, I would assume they were laughing at me. Self-esteem ilikuwa huko – chini ya kiatu.”
One Sunday as Grace was walking along Joseph Kangethe Road going to the hostel from church, she heard a man speaking to her from behind. She responded to him and they kept talking as they walked towards Posta on Ngong Road. She had already missed her turn to the hostel. At Posta the man offered to buy her soda but Grace refused. He sold her a hazy story of an Italian man in Karen who was giving people money and somehow convinced Grace to board bus 111 to Karen with him. She was carrying a sling leather bag, a brand-new Nokia 1100 inside it.
There was a forest that started at the end of Racecourse to Karen and people rarely walked on that road. There was no southern bypass then. The man told Grace that the place was dangerous and that they should alight at the Power Substation which is nearer Karen. They alighted and started walking back towards Racecourse. They reached a place where there was path into the forest that looked traversable. He said it was a shortcut to the Italian man’s place. They started walking into the forest.
About a kilometer on that path, Grace began to come back to her senses. “Does this forest have people who take care of it?” she asked, not really sure of how to start a conversation in such a murky situation. It just has animals roaming around, he answered.
It was about 2-3pm but the forest was semi dark. The man suggested that they take another path, creating their own way in a dreary and gloomy spot that seemed to have seen no human being.
“Do you remember his face?” I ask.
“No, I have tried to recall his face but my mind fails me” Grace answers.
As they were going deeper Grace suddenly stopped.
“Wewe ni nani na tunafanya nini na wewe hapa?” She confronted him already convinced in her mind that she has do everything in her power to get out of her predicament.
He held her by her blouse at the neck area and said “It’s either you are going to cooperate or else….”
She could only see thick bushes around her. It was a make it or make it situation. Her mind was calculating her options in supersonic speed. It told her to scream. Mistake.
“I don’t know if the guy was holding something or his hands were that hard, he hit me on the forehead, I saw blues, I saw stars, I saw rainbows. But… I did not go down. I shook my head and stood my ground,” she recalls laughing. I can’t help but join her in the laughter. It’s the way she narrates it.
“Kichwa yako ndio ngumu,” I tell Grace as the laughter died down.
Grace asked the assailant what he wanted in darkness that he couldn’t ask in the light. The audacity. He must have been shocked that she stood her ground. He took her hand bag and started checking inside. As he started checking, Grace started running, in the direction that they came, in heels.
She didn’t see the man behind her. As she ran something dropped, it was her phone. She had somehow removed it from the bag. She picked the phone, removed her shoes and ran for her life. After crossing Ngong Road, consumed, her adrenaline depleted, she collapsed.
“The next thing I remember being surrounded by people, a policeman speaking to me and my head banging with pain.”
It was hard convincing her to go to the police station. She wasn’t going to trust anyone after that ordeal. She had to see the policeman’s two IDS, and match the names before she could go with him. In the police station she was taken to a private room and questioned. It was almost two hours after she met the man, a mystery how that time was spent. The policeman told her that when he arrived at the scene, a man was trying to help her up. He thought that could have been the assaulter but it was late.
“The police were convinced that something had been done to me. I told them it was only the blow to the head. They insisted but I told them nothing else had happened. They said every week a body is retrieved from that forest, mostly rape and murder victims.”
The policeman told Grace to keep praying to the same God she had prayed to on that Sunday. He gave her bus fare to go back to the hostel. The other girls were crying on her behalf as she narrated the story. Grace never shed a tear, it’s only the headache that stayed with her for another month.
“I have never understood how I followed that man. I recalled everything after it had happened. I have never forgotten that spot, even with the southern bypass built,” she says.
In 2008 she got a job with Faulu Bank. She worked in Nairobi, Muranga then back to Nairobi again. All this while she still worshiped at Green Pastures Church. One Sunday, the pastor’s wife, Ann Mwalili preached about self-esteem and it sounded like she had been sent to Grace. Her examples sounded like they had been copied from Grace’s life book.
“I finally understood my problem, my chronic low self-esteem had been diagnosed,” she quips.
“Before that nothing good was happening in my life, apart from the work. I was bitter with the man I once called dad. I could not take a compliment from any man; I could not accept someone saying they love me. In fact, I would differ badly with anyone who brought that ‘love talk’ to me. I couldn’t get attached to anyone for long. I felt that they didn’t deserve it. I was punishing them for what my father did.”
That sermon changed her life and she began working on herself, alone. Trust issues were still very alive in her and she couldn’t allow anyone to come in and help her.
“I slowly started to appreciate myself and started to feel that I need people and people need me. I started having more friends. I never had friends who knew each other before then. This Grace and that of 2013 and before are two different people. I was even a burden to myself. When you know what has been eating you, you become free. Before I would hate people just because they stopped talking to me,” she says.
In 2016 Grace went through an inner healing session as part of a Leadership development program she attended in church. That is when she was able to forgive the manager of the children’s home where she grew up. After that she would start to be remorseful for wronging others and would even attempt to apologize, to her own surprise.
The new phase of self-discovery brought with itself a new realization; that many things had passed her as she wallowed in low self-esteem. It had taken her 5 years to finish her college project so that she could graduate. “Nothing was a big deal to me; I was just there. I wanted good things for myself but just didn’t know how to get them. Trying to figure out things for yourself can be dangerous. You vaguely know what you want but you never come to a decision of starting to do things. That’s what low self-esteem does to you.”
She can easily identify a person struggling with low self-esteem, it’s a field she has played in for many years. And now having started her transition to the more confident side, she’s keen to help others find themselves as well.
“I am not there yet, I am still figuring my life out, untangling the web to find my new starting point, sometimes it’s overwhelming, but I will get there,” she concludes.
I ask about her dad.
“We never reconnected. He died in the late 90s, strangled by his own brother. Land issues. I got to know when I was in college and I was disappointed because I wanted to have my revenge on him. I was sure of that. That’s how I felt at that time in my life. But that’s not me now. Not anymore.”
If you like this story then you will enjoy the story of Viola, a lady whose struggles in life led her to take poison and also give it to her two young kids, but lived to tell her story. Read it here.
Read about the incredible lady who would pray in the first bus from Jamhuri Estate, every morning, here.