March 25th, 2008 18:47 EST
I Met Grandma Ciku at Kenyatta National Hospital
We were so busy watching the news about the post-election mayhem, that I almost forgot something that has been very important to me over the last few years. I almost died in 2004. I contracted tonsillitis which escalated into a Kidney infection. My mother nursed me through it. But there is one other woman that I owe my life to. Her name was Wanjiku Nongo. I call her Cucu Ciku. She told me she was very old, maybe more than a hundred years old from other people`s calculations. And was she an amazing woman!
Cucu Ciku and I met at the Kenyatta National Hospital. She was visiting her great grand-daughter who also had a Kidney infection. The general ward offers little privacy, so from across the room; Cucu Ciku could look at me. Besides, she had the habit of visiting with everyone in the ward, laughing and talking to all in Kikuyu whether you can understand her or not. She would leave many of the patients smiling and looking forward to see her again. But I was listless and depressed from all the medication and pain. She was wrinkled and full of life. I am told that she took one look at me then took my mother outside and told her to make sure I didn`t die from the sadness. I have no idea how she figured that I was sad. But she did, looking through those eyes that have seen so much in her many years.
Cucu Ciku`s great grand-daughter died after a few days, and for a while we didn`t see Cucu Ciku. You could hear the silence in the ward. Then on the day I was to go home, she showed up, laughing with her bright toothless laugh, shaking her ears which had been pierced and elongated to hanging suns decorated with a wood stock stopper that looked too heavy for her head, and the smiles flashed in the ward even though some of the patients were new and had not met Cucu yet.
Cucu Ciku was on a mission. She made a beeline to my bed and hugged me hard. I couldn`t stop myself from crying. I told myself I was crying because of the pain, but I think it was the hug. While everything was being cleared, I noticed that Cucu talked to my mother at length. I did not find out what it was about until a week later.
When I went home, I just lay in bed slowly sinking into further depression. I didn`t want to talk. I wouldn`t eat if I could get away with it. I wouldn`t shower or clean up if mum didn`t force me to. I wanted to die if they would just let me.
6 days after I was discharged from hospital. My brother showed up at home and then I was being hurried to shower and dress. I was bundled into a car without being told where I was going. I was furious and if I had the strength I would have fought hard to get back to bed.
It was a long drive. We went away from the familiar sights and up into the Ngong Mountain. For a moment I thought my family was fed up with me and were going to throw me away in the forest. But after a while, we drew into a homestead farm.
The car drew to a stop in front of a wooden home. Not the rickety shack kind of wood house. It was a beautifully decorated house with an upper story. Flowers grew all around and decorated the mountainside home.
To the side of the house was a smaller building, wooden too. I couldn`t decide if it was a granary, a barn or a guest house. It was beautiful, too.
I had only just taken it in when Cucu Ciku appeared in all her glory. I was bundled into the house and then I watched in dismay and horror as my family got into the car and left me all alone with Cucu Ciku. I wondered if maybe my family had decided to have me sacrificed to Mugai or worse yet circumcised.
Cucu Ciku talked in Kikuyu, fast and non stop. I figured that she was guiding me to my new room upstairs. I complied through the instructions listlessly waiting for the moment of doom. It was all a massive paradox to me. Cucu was old, very African so what was she doing living out in the mountain all alone and in an Old American style farmhouse?
I found out soon enough. I had arrived at around midday. After settling in, that included a basin bath, changing into a dress then joining Cucu downstairs for lunch, I was allowed to wander through the house. Cucu talked all the while. She told me her three sons had lived in the US from the late 60`s with their kids and that she had lived with them for a while but had decided to come back home. She told me all her sons had died from age related illnesses. But their families were still alive and well abroad.
I managed to ask her about her great-granddaughter, the one who had died in hospital. I found out that the girl had been one of her farm workers children. They had tried the very best doctors in the private hospitals but had ended up taking her to KNH. That hadn`t worked either. I could sense the sadness in Cucu`s voice but I also sensed the acceptance of one who had seen so much life and death.
In Cucu`s house I looked through African style carvings, and a variety of art forms. I wanted so much to ask if her house was some kind of commercial gallery. In fact, my nose was already crinkling with ideas of the rich and famous who have bled Africa and all that. Instead I moved from the Art to the Library filled with all sort of books with themes from African History to Medicine. I was perplexed.
Then at 4 pm, a noise made me look out a window to see a bus. Cucu ran out of the house with a whoop and I wanted to run after her and catch her fall. But she didn`t fall. The bus rolled to a stop in front of Cucu`s house and two dozen teenage girls got off.
Yes, I was at a girl`s camp. The girls I learnt were all orphans or abandoned children with very high learning aptitudes. They all had traumatic pasts, too. All of them were being sponsored by a Foundation run by Cucu`s family on Cucu`s money. They all had a chance at an education and access to different kinds of support programs such as this one.
This was the initiation program. With the girls were 6 counselors. All of them were trained in counseling and were either teachers or nurses.
The girls were to go through cooking lessons, survival skills lesson, cultural classes and then behavioral life skills guidance. Most of the kids didn`t really have any attachment to tribe or ethnicity as a result of being raised in children`s homes. So the cultural classes were a medley of all Kenyan tribal languages and practices. Every day of the week, an older woman from a certain tribe was invited to teach the girls something about her tribe.
I had many issues about the way the program was run. But let me tell you how I became a believer. Cucu required me to participate in all the activities. I learnt how to kia ucuru wa kugagata. (make kikuyu sour porridge). I learnt about kamba and maasai foods. I finally learnt why luos remove the lower teeth. I found out that a lot of the prejudices I have formed from listening to people`s tales about other tribes are just fear of the unknown.
More than anything, when I was being forced to dance and talk at the campfires, I realized that I was very happy to be alive. So were the girls. They had been through rough deals. Losing parents, being abused, and going through life without a family. But they were doing just fine.
One evening just as the two week program was about to end, Cucu finally cornered me. That old woman had more resolve than anyone I have ever met. She got me to talk. Out of the blue I confessed that I was mostly scared because my life plans didn`t seem to be working. She told me life never works according to plan. Things go wrong, things happen out of plan. The difference between failure and success is how you take it. So, I wasn`t going to University anytime soon. What was I going to do with it?
It took me very many visits to Cucu Ciku`s farm to kia ucuru and work with other girls before it finally got into my head.
Cucu died in December 27, 2006. She was smiling when she died in her sleep. Her first memorial was on the day of elections. The family held a small ceremony in the US. I wasn`t there. I didn`t even remember until her grandson called me yesterday. I am feeling guilty for that but her son reminded me that life didn`t stop when Cucu died.
No, she didn`t leave me money. Just an old scrap book with pictures as old as independence. I look at it and I hear her voice.
Things that will go wrong will go wrong. I just need to be smart and strong enough to deal with life.