One Sunday, I was invited for a late lunch at the house of Dorcas Wanjiku Njoroge in Thika. Deeply seated in armchairs in the living room, we enjoyed sukuma wiki, ugali and a bit of cooked meat while she told me the story of her life.
Today is International Women’s Day, and the empowerment of rural women is the theme of the ongoing 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. At the World Bank, it is a day to “think equal and to act equal.”
It is in this context that I share the life of Wanjiku, as told by her.
Wanjiku was born on in 1933 at a tea farm in Kiambu where her parents worked. As she grew up, she took care of the many children at the farm and was not taken to school, as her father did not see the use of education to a girl.
At the age of 15 she was employed as a tea picker. There, she met her husband Joseph, who was a driver at the farm. They had seven children one after another, all girls. All was well until a bit into their marriage when Joseph started complaining and remained out late drinking. Then, “he would come back home and beat me”, Wanjiku recalls, sometimes so badly that she could not go to work the next day. But this was nothing new to her. “My own mother was also always very upset with my father, she always tried to leave the home because she was beaten, beaten, beaten all the time,” she said. “It was like in every house, the women were beaten all the time.”
After a while, Wanjiku discovered that Joseph was actually on his way to start a new family with another woman in the neighborhood. Upon knowing this, she asked him to stop drinking and to end this relationship. But things did not improve, and Joseph refused to change his lifestyle. During her free day, Wanjiku would walk to Kiambu town and deposit one shilling in a Bank account that she had opened in her name. She sealed her savings with the mark of her thumb.
When things had gone from bad to worse, Wanjiku one morning realized things would never get really better. She took her daughters and left for Thika , 40km away from Nairobi, where she had heard there was some land. She bought a plot with her savings and settled there. She started working as a day worker and managed to send all of her girls to school. Most of them are doing well today and altogether Wanjiku now has 26 grandchildren.
But life was never without setbacks – it is like for every forward step Wanjiku took, there was one back. When she finally managed to buy a cow, someone came at night to steal it. When she had saved enough money to construct a pit latrine, a distant relative took the money. When she had managed to get a water connection in the house, the neighbors started selling water so her bill skyrocketed. When she patiently saved money in a group savings scheme, the leader ran off with her money.
But Wanjiku has never given up, and she continues to help others along the way. Her house is always offered as a refuge for children, grandchildren and relatives in trouble. She now hosts two young grandchildren who have been orphaned. She temporarily houses two of her children who have run away from abusive marriages, and she takes care of the children of another daughter who works out of home. Wanjiku is one of these women who has silently contributed to building Kenya, piece by piece, and curing her wounds.
Although every life is unique, Wanjiku’s story is similar to that of many others, as shown in the recent World Development Report 2012 on Gender Equality and Development. In Kenya, Wanjiku’s tale resonates with the views of many, as emerging in the gender-disaggregated data collection that has been carried out by the Kenya Agricultural Productivity and Agribusiness Program (KAPAP). The results show that still today, around a third of Kenyan households are headed by women, and about a third of the women interviewed cannot read nor write, compared to 12 percent of men. There is also a gap in education that is being perpetuated, as girls’ transition to secondary education is much lower than that of boys. The gender gaps in resource access are wide for example, access to land, and while about half of all men have access to bank accounts, only about a third of the women have it.
The good news is that data aggregates the voices of many and allows us to draw lessons from individual stories as we think and act for the benefit of many.
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