As I sit on the floor, holding together the last pieces of a conversation with my mother that has left me reeling, I find myself considering the words that she has just let loose between us. Words that I can see boldly stacking up and building a clear connection from her heart to mine that I am afraid of embracing; of thinking about even for a moment, because it would mean that everything I have considered to be fact up to now is barely solid enough to even rest a feather on.
And there are things in this world that will never change she says, some are set in stone and others are just there because no one has stopped long enough to ask searching and pertinent questions of them. But don’t let that fool you. When you were born, you became the very definition of all the failures and struggles of every Njambi that has gone before you, and if there have been victories then your life in this moment has become the very example of those victories…
And she goes on, explaining to me again that I have a legacy and that I therefore am not who I am by my own design; consequently, I cannot decide to run my life as I wish. For everyone knows that when you are born a Kikuyu girl, there are expectations, and when you are born to the Muchiri family, there are limitations to add to those expectations and when you are born to Wanjiku, more commonly known as Alice—a name she received at the age of seven, when it became fashionable to have an English designation—there are standards to live up to, because no daughter of hers will…
On the 12th of December 1963 a fledgling east African country breathed its first as an independent nation. On the same day in a village not too far from Nairobi, Kenya’s heartbeat, my mother was born. I know that she was one of eleven children, mostly boys. I know that her own mother was a strong woman, as she had to have been after bearing so many, twelve if you count one that died prematurely. I know that Shiku (the name that others would use to address my mother with up to the day that she got married), came to the world to find that her father had just settled back into the family way of life, after being detained for seven years in a British Prison camp as a suspected member of the Mau Mau—Kenya’s guerrilla fighters whose cruel methods of waging war made their punishments, when caught, crueller still.
The story goes that on the day that Kenya and my mother were born, my Guka took some marigold seeds and begun planting them in his three acre piece of land, so that as my mother and Kenya grew older, the marigold’s bloomed brighter and bolder, their orange-and fire-red petals colouring the entire length of my grandfather’s farmland. It is said that when Kenya did well; the flowers in my Guka’s garden were a sight to behold, but on the days this beautiful baby country was crowded with death and disease, political unrest and raging battles over who was truly master, the blood of Kenya’s children seeping into the earth would cause the flowers to slowly decay and die, and for a long season, my grandfather’s three acre land would simply be a sore sight of brown stalks and dying dried out flowers; their beauty disappearing rapidly to be replaced with a repugnant and torrid smell. My mother often told me, that Kenya was her mirror, that she could look at Kenya and see the scars of unrest and pain that this country bore reflected back in her own life, in her own eyes; sometimes even on her body. For instance, the day that Kenya’s first president and son died, my mother tells me that a part of her was buried that day also.
At the age of fifteen, my mother discovered that she no longer desired to live her life in the confines of the hybrid religion that was a result of two differing cultures attempting to meet in the middle. There was on the one hand, the kikuyu man who sought to hold on to his belief in the god of the Mugumo (fig) tree, and on the other, the English man whose God belonged to men like Abraham and Isaac, Wesley and Livingstone. My mother, with a fire in her bones that she could not deny chose to take it a step further and became, in my grandparents’ sight, a believer in far worse than just the God of the English man. My mother spoke in tongues. She spoke of God as loving, declared that he had left his spirit on earth that we mere men may have it and be as Christ had been but above it all, my mother propagated that this God would be found in her leather-bound English bible.
Now on the 22nd of August 1978, my grandfather’s marigolds were not smiling. Their colour so bold before was washed out, as though there were a curse upon those petals which forbade them to stand out any brighter than a rain cloud before a storm. As Kenya felt the piercing loss of her first son, the president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, so was a deep scar branded onto my mother’s heart as her parents called together the clan. A council of fathers and brothers sat in a circle outside the small kitchen that was situated in front of the main house as is custom in the countryside; she watched them debate her fate back and forth, a basin full of water placed deliberately in the middle of the floor before the men, her father on one said arguing that she should be disowned, her brothers on the other stating that she should be sectioned: to them, her belief in this God that wanted to talk to her, and gave her a whole new language through which to speak was madness, after all, even the English man did not take it this far.
On the 22nd of August 1978, on a BBC broadcast, an account was given of Jomo Kenyatta—‘the light of Kenya’ and his death—and there was much sadness as many hearts mourned over this quenched flame. And in a village not too far from the city, away from the world’s eyes, a young lady’s light was similarly doused, if but briefly, as she faced her family and considered the symbolic ritual about to take place. Her life discussed and debated and a conclusion reached swiftly so that they could literally and figuratively wash their hands off of her…
And there are things in this world that will never change she tells me, some are set in stone and others are there because no one will stop long enough to ask searching and pertinent questions of them; but don’t let that fool you. She is fiercely fighting on my behalf the indolent despondency that has slowly curved its way into my heart and turned me into one of those teens she is always speaking of; caring for nothing and no one wanting nothing more but to eat and sleep. She tells me of the struggles she’s faced; that she is who she is because she pursued God first and cared not where the chips fell. She’s passionate, tirelessly persistent in searching out the root cause of my depression and now I cannot help but blurt out:
“Your God doesn’t exist! What good has he done us? Even if he’s there, look at all the awful things we’ve seen, look at—“and I have to stop, as I realise what I have said to the woman who was for years disregarded by her family because of her faith, this woman who has followed after God until her name has become synonymous with her faith and I realise I can’t undo those words. There’s a silence.
“Mum…mummy, I don’t mean it; I’m just tired that’s all”
I say as I wait for her reaction; my breath now coming in small puffs, tears streaming down my face because at least, at last I can stop the pretence. And now that I’ve begun, I feel a lethargic carelessness take over me, so I proceed:
“It’s just, I can’t…I mean, I don’t want to go to church anymore, or listen to more lies about God, I’m done. I’m really sorry…mum…but I just can’t do it anymore…and…” the tears overwhelm me instantly; relief at letting it all out because now, I can justifiably refuse to go to church and not feel guilty, I can take the bibles on the bedside table of my room and stash them away in a corner and never have to search their pages again in order to hear this God’s voice. Finally I can stop; I can just stop.
Feeling small and crushed on the floor, I expect her judgement; her disdain as I know how well she loves her God and I brace myself to take it, telling myself that it will not affect me in the least. So when she stands up and walks towards me, I prepare myself for her hand on my face perhaps or her cold shoulder as she walks past me, disgusted by my weakness and heathen-like mind-set. It’s a shock to my system when she reaches out and pulls me up off of the floor; grabs a hold of my tear-stained face and looks intently into it. My heart beats hard against its cage and then stills for a moment when she wraps her arms around me, and folds me neatly into her, into the spaces where I fit comfortably as though I have not grown any bigger in the last five years, as though I am still that nine-year old girl with a smile too wide to fit the conditions of her life and I crumble into various pieces that seem too many to gather yet they somehow cannot escape the case of her arms around me.
It’s at that moment that I connect myself to her heart, finally. And realise how she gives me strength, how her love is unyielding even at this moment, and it inspires me; forces me to take up arms and fight alongside her, to regain my faith if I ever had it or find it for myself if I’d never owned it. And that night, as I fall asleep, I can hear my mother in her room, talking to her God about me and praying that He shows me who He is; and her words ring again in my ear; I have a legacy, there are expectations and limitations and above all of these, there are standards to live up to and it hits me that to do any less than what my mother has done is an insult to her struggles and victories; that if she has loved God faithfully, I must come to love him even more completely and fiercely than she has done. If she has sacrificed for love then so I must give of myself more thoroughly, whatever lines she has drawn in the sand; they are my starting point. And it’s that truth that drives me.