“I was neighbours with prominent figures,” She said. “Politicians and high commissioners. I’d see these prominent people around my neighbourhood, of course they didn’t know me. I didn’t know myself either, or this life I was leading.” She lived in a palatial house in Rosslyn with a sweeping garden. High walls, maybe an electric gate, tended hedges, pop-up sprinklers. She drove the latest Range Rover that sat sparkling in the driveway like a silver coin on a patch of grass. Rather, she didn’t drive it, her driver did. “I also had a bodyguard who accompanied me everywhere.”
“Why the hell did you need a bodyguard?” I squealed in what sounded, alarmingly, like Christ Tucker’s annoying voice.
“I will come to that,” she raised her hand patiently like a priest and I shrunk a little in my seat.
There were a couple of nannies to take care of her children, a gardener to talk to the roses, a housekeeper to prepare meals and tend to her qualms. They went through the latest top of the range vehicles, a Hummer before a Hummer became mainstream. On her birthday her husband gifted her a BMW X6. There were trips around the world; landing in Japan in the heavy fog of dawn, London in bright spring, Paris in bright, rosy summer and other parts of Asia when the leaves turned yellow and pink…”I visited over 40 countries. There was money and there was luxury” She said. Their children attended those high-end schools that teach banjo lessons. The type where kids go for their summer holidays in Cappadocia. I bet you will struggle finding that on the map.
“We were in business, nothing dodgy, clean money. We had electronic shops all over Kenya and in Tanzania and Uganda. He [ hubby] was an astute businessman, brilliant and hardworking, a man truly ahead of his time. We were going to China long before anybody thought of going to buy goods in China. From the outside it seemed like I was living the life but on the inside I was the cliché you might read about in books of people who cry in Mercedeses. I was that cliché, literally. I was miserable. I felt trapped. I had no self esteem to speak of. I didn’t have freedom, I couldn’t come and go as I pleased, thus the bodyguard. I was told what to do, no free will to speak of. I was unhappy.”
There were trips to the doctors in the proverbial Range Rover; a busted eardrum, a swollen lip, a sprained arm, a shaking tooth, a rib that hurt. The doctors would ask, what happened to you Njeri? She would look away and mumble, I ran into a doorway, I fell down a staircase, a drawer fell on me…the doctors would nod and write on their pads.
“You stay because you want to maintain the status quo. You have cultivated this image to the public of a loving, successful couple, and you don’t want to disrupt that. Besides, don’t you have everything that anyone would want? Don’t you have children to think about? Then there is the church. What can I tell you about the church that hasn’t already been said?”
She got married at 16.
She got married because she was ashamed. Rather she got married because she didn’t want to bring shame to her dad, shame to her church. She got married because she missed her period the first month and the second and then her boyfriend, who was only 21 at that time, brought a pregnancy kit and she peed on it and there were two lines.
“I grew up in Kariobangi South, at the flats? I was a church girl. You know the type that everybody emulates? That was me. I was a good example for other girls in my estate but now I was pregnant.”
She lived with her dad, a single dad. Her mom bailed when she was very young. Dad toiled and struggled to raise her. When she discovered that she was pregnant she knew there was no question but to split and save her father. So she left without a note and moved in with her boyfriend’s family. “I couldn’t stand facing my dad, he was struggling as a single father, working his ass off to give us comforts and then this? A baby at my age? I couldn’t hurt him like that. I couldn’t imagine how ridiculed he would be in church. How shamed.”
A few days later, her dad showed up at the boyfriend’s family’s house. He was calm. “He told the family of my boyfriend that whatever had happened had happened and that if I choose to stay here he had no problem with that, but only on one condition, they had to make sure I finished my education. If she drops out of school I will report you people to the police, he told them. And he followed up. That’s how I got to finish my education right up to college.”
“You see why I had to stay in an abusive marriage for 15-years? Because I wanted to prove to society that even women who are raised in broken families could build marriages. And I paid for it. This left ear? I’m deaf in this ear. I can’t hear anything on this side.”
She lost her hearing in that ear because he hit her so hard she couldn’t hear for 24 hours. They went to see a doctor. “I told the doctor I had walked into a door. Of course he wasn’t an idiot, so he asked him if he could give us privacy to examine me and he said no. I was terrified of him but I had nobody to talk to, confide in. I didn’t have a mother or family outside of his. It was his family and the church, a famous flamboyant church owned by a flamboyant couple. I admired their marriage, looked up to it. I wanted their marriage or how they showed up on the pulpit so I didn’t want anyone knowing that I was actually living in hell. People admired me. I mean, my bodyguard carried my bags.”
I laughed bitterly. I always thought if I met those women who make their bodyguards carry their handbags I’d have lots of questions for them but now suddenly I couldn’t think of one question.
“I was living a very abnormal life. I couldn’t walk in the streets alone, unless I was abroad. My life has been controlled and prescribed, dos and don’ts. I was not allowed certain things. I didn’t know who I was or what I liked. In fact it’s only later that I would find myself and I would discover that I liked wine. That I actually loved to drink coffee. There are foods I wasn’t allowed to eat because I was expected to be skinny. I only ate salads and soups. I’d go swimming at Stanley to stay trim as the bodyguard waited. It was wild. I had no voice to decide what I wanted for myself. ” She chuckled. “I was timid.”
There were two types of beatings; there were the usual occasional slaps across the face. Then there were the savage beatings, like the one she woke up from in the bathtub where he had poured water on her to bring her back to consciousness. From that day she started planning an escape, buying households, scouting for a house, and furniture. In 2016 she ran away. “I had run away from my dad’s house, now I was running away from his house many years later. I left like I left my dad’s house; with only my clothes. I left everything there; the cars, the help, the jewelry, my children, my shoes…everything.
She moved into a house in Mucatha. (Pronounced mushadha). A small two bedroom house in the middle of other houses. It was a different world from Roslyn in that it was a peaceful world. Being at peace was strange because it’s nothing she ever experienced. She always felt like she was living by someone’s rules, living in someone’s life. Now she had her own place and she found it strange that she had to make decisions alone for the first time. Her life was in her hands for once. No church, no family. Making tiny decisions like whether not to cook or sleep, leave the house, or stay in, were both strange and refreshing. Happiness was a weird concept. She felt like a child learning to walk by holding onto things for support.
“The very first time my daughter came to visit me, she was six at that time, was quite hilarious. She was attending those white schools and so she had an accent and when she visited she looked around the house and in her accent asked, [puts on an American accent] “mom, where is the rest of the house?” Because as compared to where they lived my house was literally a store. When her friends came to visit they told her, “your mom has an adorable dollhouse!” She roared with laughter.
“Can you imagine being married at 16 before you even know or understand yourself or the world around you and you have had things handed to you, decided for you, given to you and then suddenly you are 31 and single and alone and you don’t know your identity because your identity was rooted in church and in being a wife and you are free but lost in your freedom. So you start by asking yourself the basic question; who is Njeri Migwi? I grappled with that question for a long time.”
The church was no help during this time. “The church turned its back on me because the church hates embarrassment. The church doesn’t like bad apples.”
In the meantime she had to earn a living so she started an interior decoration company and soon she got conned 3m because what did she know about doing business in Nairobi. She then found herself homeless and would sleep under the stairway of her client’s office. But she started again, building small, day by day as she went through therapy where things spilled out of her like a burst pipe with murky water.
“Therapy showed me things I didn’t know I had; unresolved anger, insecurities, baggage and damage. I did so well in therapy that I got married again.” She laughed. “I don’t even know why I got married again. You’d expect that after my experience I’d completely shun marriage and men…to say all men are trash and sometimes in my work I feel that way, but are they all trash? I was raised by a good man, an excellent man. I have a very good son. I have good brothers who treat their wives right. But again good men are a paradox because good men don’t talk to their friends who beat their wives. Why can’t good men tell these men, bro, what you are doing isn’t on? What use is being a good man if you can’t stop bad? What do you use your good for? Gender Based Violence isn’t going to end without the efforts of good men.” She paused and took a breath. “Sorry, I was talking about my second marriage.”
It was to a good man and it lasted for five good years. “I carried a lot of baggage to that marriage and I think I also changed a lot during the marriage and when it ended it was very amicable, very decent.”
One day – six years ago – she was listening to an album by her friend, a poetry album and it resonated with her so much she broke down in tears. So she started writing about her experience on Facebook. “I was this strong feminist online and just speaking about what happened to me shocked people. They were like, oh my God you were timid and took all that? You are the most outspoken person we know! If somebody like you can go through that, then who are we? It sparked a conversation that led to her and Stella Khachina starting Usikimye an organisation that works towards ending sexual and gender based violence.
When Njeri’s phone rings – and her phone is always ringing – she gets out of bed or walks out of a meeting or stops stirring her tea or puts it on speaker-phone when she is driving and 95% of the time the person on the other end of the call is usually a woman or a child in trouble. She rescues women and children from gender violence or abuse but sometimes she’s too late because they are dead. She’s constantly in hospitals or police stations or in court. She’s lost the number of times she’s rescued little girls who have been raped, torn. Children burnt by iron boxes. Children locked in rooms for days, weeks, their ribs pressing against their skin, eyes empty, fearful and near death. She rescues sodomised boys. And women with broken legs and split heads and ripped souls. Women thrown off balconies and stabbed in the eye.
“When we started rescuing these women and children we didn’t know what we were getting into. We were naïve. So you rescue a woman most often she has a child. What do you do with her? She can’t go back home, she will be killed. You can’t take her to your house. That’s how the idea of safe houses came up. We needed a safe place to hold them. I had 20K and Stella had the same. So we rented a house in Mucadha, our first safe house which now has grown to five in different secret locations in Nairobi. Cops frequently send victims to us, and we are overrun. But they can’t just stay in the houses, apart from food and medical attention they need rehabilitation, so we got counsellors to help them.”
Covid period were her busiest period. “The violence was on another level. I have been to morgues a million times to identify bodies. I have seen bodies without heads. Humans really do horrible things.” She said, “There was a woman hospitalised in Naro Moru, for breast cancer; very weak, very sick, stage four cancer. Her HB was 4. Normal blood HB is 15. This woman’s husband somehow came to the hospital and raped her and she fell pregnant. How do you explain something like this? People are capable of unimaginable acts. I’m not making these things up. I have seen a ten year old give birth and lose her baby. I can show you pictures…” She reached for her phone.
“No, no. I can’t bear it.”
She was angry.
“Just when I thought I’ve seen enough, something happens that just takes it to another level. There was this case. A man had raped a six month old baby. Covid time. Six months!” She paused and folded her arms across her chest. “The baby died. We went to court for the case. The photos were so so bad, Biko, horrible photos of this baby. The judge looked at them and she broke down and cried in court. A judge, crying. She gave him a life sentence, yes, but nothing ever feels right when someone kills a baby. These things happen a lot; yesterday, there was a case of six month old baby being raped. I have stood over the bodies of dead women in the morgue so many times.”
“Why do you think you keep doing this?” I asked.
“If I don’t, who will?” She posed. “Who do you think should do it if you don’t? Someone has to commit to it. It’s a responsibility, a calling even, even through the cynicism that sometimes I get online that I’m only trying to get donor money.” She chuckled. “Sometimes I spend my own money to help these women and children. There are people who will read this story and say, oh, she is exaggerating her story to get funding. I won’t pay them heed because life outside this table, outside this restaurant, is a nightmare for some women and children and we can’t expect that situation to auto-correct itself by sitting in our houses and offices ready with comments. So I beg for money, I fundraise online on our website, I ask for professional volunteers because we have over 50 women in safe houses that we have to feed and help and on top of this we have a feeding program that feeds 3,000 children in Soweto every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday serving 3000 plates of food, 1500 cups of uji every week. And lots of bread.”
She laughed. “That’s funny.”
“You are doing the Lord’s work?”
“Am I really?” Pause. “It’s tiring…and sometimes it’s damn near impossible….damn near impossible…”
She looked away and stayed looking away at the parking lot.
“Your phone seems to only bring bad news. What was the last good news you got from your phone?”
“A German couple donated their land somewhere in Kitengela to build a safehouse, a whole acre.”
“A white couple?”
“That’s great news.”
“It sure is.”
We sat in a brief silence, soaking in the good news before I spoiled it with a question. “Are we all evil?”
“I think we all have a capacity to do evil,” she said thoughtfully. “Everyone of us has a capacity to do evil. It is how you control that capacity. I mean, look at these men who do these unimaginable things. These people who stab and kill and rape children they don’t look like monsters, they look like us. The problem I have, the biggest problem is how much they’re able to get away with it. We live in a jungle. There is no justice for the poor and downtrodden and the weak. A just country. Sometimes I just want to pack my things and go and never come back because just getting justice is a very long process.”
We talked about purpose and how experience leads us to where we are and what we do. How everything she had to go through prepared her for this moment. How experiences build your skillset to enable you to navigate your next phase. “I think my experiences were simply building my sense of empathy and compassion because those are the only tools you need to do what I do and what I do isn’t possible without kindness and compassion. Where do I get that from? My dad is compassionate and empathetic, I learnt that from him from watching him. He fights for the rights of people who are not seen. All these things are in you and they boil to the service from experiences. And I think people should be more empathetic and kind.”
Long after we parted ways I mulled about that statement, her dad being empathetic and kind and compassionate and how it’s akin to a simple gene we can transfer to our kids by doing and showing and they in turn employ it to the world in acts of kindness and compassion and empathy. But even beyond kids, just being empathetic and compassionate as a human is enough: small biscuits that make big impacts.
I also remember asking her if she would come back as herself and she said. “Not really but if I do I would want to come back as a simpler version of myself. I don’t want to be inspiring or courageous or brave or even a mother. All those things can be tiring.”
This article was facilitated by Zizi Afrique Foundation, who are assessing life skills and values in children and young people and how that affects society and their lives in general in future.