The first thing Purity Karimi says when we walk into her office is, “I’m glad you kept time.”
We are a few minutes early for our 10am appointment. In her kind of business, tardiness is unacceptable. Purity is a trainer and motivational speaker working for a global company in Nairobi.
“Essentially, a motivational speaker is a role model. You have to walk the talk if you intend to inspire trust in the people who have paid to listen to you,” she informs us.
She comes across as intelligent, not to mention the aura of authority that surrounds her. It is, therefore, difficult to picture her as a housegirl, yet she was one for three years.
Her life’s story is fascinating, and proof that with the right attitude, a hard work ethic, and a never-say-die attitude, nothing is impossible.
“I am the last born in a family of eight,” she begins. Purity grew up in a stable family. Her father was a businessman whose core business involved supplying cereals, while her mother was a subsistence farmer. They were able to pay for their children’s education and provide for their needs. After completing her secondary school education at Mukuri Secondary School in Chuka, Eastern Kenya, in 1990, Purity left for Nairobi. She was 18.
“My older brothers worked and lived in Nairobi, and my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to join them as I waited to join college, instead of staying at home, where I had lived all my life,” she explains.
Purity hoped to study medicine. However, she only managed to score C+ in the examinations.
“I was disappointed and at a loss as to what to do with my life since my heart had been set on studying medicine,” she says.
After three months, Purity began to feel as though she was becoming a burden to her siblings.
“Back home, I was used to working. You just couldn’t sit around doing nothing and expect to eat in the evening. You had to work.”
But in Nairobi, there was nothing to do. Purity decided to look for a job, any job, to keep her busy during the day.
But she soon realised how difficult it was, especially if you had no idea what you wanted to do and had no experience.
Purity was frustrated and, on the spur of the moment, decided to take up a job as a househelp in Buru Buru Estate, in Nairobi.
She knew that her parents would be angry when they found out what she was doing, so she lied to them and to her brothers that she had been offered a shop attendant’s job.
She was lucky to get an employer who treated her well. Being the last born in her family, looking after a baby and doing the washing as well as cooking was overwhelming at first. She was paid Sh2,500 a month. Not much, Purity concedes, but she felt self-reliant.
Towards the end of 1993, Purity fell in love with a man in the neighbourhood.
“It was my first relationship and I was in love and giddy with happiness,” she recalls.
The relationship blossomed fast and the young man, whom she had known for only a short time, hinted at a future together.
Being young and naïve, Purity believed him. About three months into the relationship, she conceived.
Excited, she announced what she thought was good news to her boyfriend, only to get a rude shock when he denied responsibility for the pregnancy. Even worse, he informed her that the relationship was over.
“I feared that my parents would want nothing to do with me when they found out and didn’t know whom to turn to,” she says.
In desperation, she confided in her employer, whom she expected to kick her out. But she did not. Instead, her employer told her that she could stay on until the birth of her baby. She managed to hide the pregnancy from her family until she delivered her son, Kelvin Micheni.
She had to face the fact that she could not keep her son hidden forever, so she gathered courage and informed her family.
“Dad was angry and disappointed, but Mum was more understanding. With time, however, they both forgave me and allowed me to go back home,” Purity says.
From bad to worse
In 1998, her father, Nathan Mbaka, died in a road accident along the Meru-Nairobi road. The responsibility of running the home fell on her mother’s shoulders, and with time, her father’s business proved too much of a burden and eventually closed down.
“I had intended to go back to college after a few months, but with Dad gone and his business no more, I knew that this had to wait.”
After consulting with her mother, she packed a few clothes and returned to Nairobi, leaving her young son. “I planned to go back for him as soon as I got a good job,” she explains.
Her first job was dressmaking, which she learned from a tailor near where she lived with one of her brothers. But she did not do that for long because of poor pay.
A friend suggested that she try her hand at mending shoes and promised to introduce her to a person who could teach her.
“Initially, I scoffed at the idea since I couldn’t picture myself doing what was perceived as a man’s job,” she says.
But with nothing else forthcoming, Purity decided to give it a shot. Surprisingly, it was not as difficult as she had initially imagined, and she made Sh3,000 a month, more than she had ever made. She moved out of her brother’s house to rent a room for Sh800 a month near her place of work.
“When I moved into my new home, I had nothing, not even a mattress, blanket, or utensils. For two months, I slept on the floor,” she says.
Why did she not just continue to stay with her brother until she could afford the necessities? we ask.
“I was afraid that if I did that, I would get too comfortable and never move out. I needed to prove to myself that I could support myself,” she explains.
She admits that numerous times, she flogged herself for her hasty decision, but she knew that there was no turning back.
Unfortunately, Purity and a few other colleagues were laid off after a few months since the business was not doing well.
“I knew then that I had two choices — give up and go back home, or look for another job and hold on to my dream of making a better life for myself and my son.”
She chose the latter.
After these disappointments, Purity was convinced that self-employment was the answer, especially considering her academic qualifications.
“Almost everyone I talked to told me the same thing: Be your own boss.”
But she had no money to start any sort of business. “One day, I decided to list down all my strengths. What stood out was my positive attitude and confidence,” she says.
Being a voracious reader, Purity had read several motivational books.
As she sat in the single room that she called home, it occurred to her that maybe, just maybe, she could make a living through talking and encouraging other people. But first, she had to get out of her life of poverty so that she could use her achievements to convince others that nothing was impossible.
But she still had rent to pay and a son back home who depended on her. She needed to find work fast.
“During the day, I moved from house to house, looking for people who wanted their clothes washed. When there were none, I would hang around garages, where I would be paid a little money to wash vehicles,” she says.
Change of fortune
It was during that time that she heard about a networking company that wanted people to market their products.
Purity jumped at the chance, especially since the job did not require one to have a college certificate.
“Right from the beginning, I knew that this was the right job for me since I enjoy meeting new people. Also, I’ve never had a problem striking up a conversation,” she says.
Within a few months, she had recorded impressive sales. The only problem was that her pay was always delayed, sometimes for a month or two. She finally decided to quit after working without pay for three months.
Two months later however, she got a job with a global pharmeceutical and health products company as a trainer.
The company, BF Suma, also conducts team-building activities targeting companies, Once in a while, she is invited to share her story, which she says always inspires someone.
“So far, besides here, I’ve had an opportunity to conduct staff training for the firm in Nigeria, Malaysia, the Philippines, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. It’s a dream come true,” she says.
In January this year, Purity, who has studied several online courses on Leadership, released a motivational DVD titled Attitude is Everything, in which she shares her story and what her experiences have taught her.
Whenever her work schedule allows, she shares her story in schools, churches, and other forums in the hope that someone will be encouraged to keep going and not give up.
Purity, who earns what she calls a “comfortable” salary, lives in Nairobi with her son, who is in Form Three.
She discloses that she has finally found the love of her life. “The wedding bells will be ringing soon,” she tells us with a broad smile.
What would she advise anyone who may be struggling as she was?
“Don’t be choosy, don’t be afraid of hard work, and don’t look down on a job, especially if you don’t have one in the first place. Also, remember that whenever one door closes, another one always opens, but you have to be on the lookout for it,” she cautions.
However, she insists that the most important thing is attitude. Change your attitude, she says, and opportunity will come knocking.
“I may not be a millionaire, or a billionaire for that matter, but I’m not poor or helpless either, and because of my resilience, I can afford the things that were a distant dream when I was washing other people’s clothes for a living” she says.
Lest we think that she has reached her destination, she remarks, “In another few years, I will have added more inspiring chapters to my story. Let’s talk again then.”