When we meet Linda Kajuju, the first thing that strikes us is her bubbly nature and how at ease she seems in the sea of eight-year-old pupils.
Linda is an active pupil who needs no prompting to participate in class. Several times, she raises her hand and tries to catch the teacher’s eye, whispering almost childishly, “Teacher, Teacher, Teacher!” She does this without fear or embarrassment, oblivious to the camera.
At break time, the Standard Three pupil walks to the playground and enthusiastically engages in a game called katii with other girls. It is an interesting scene to watch, interesting because Linda stands out like a sore thumb among the group of girls shrieking with excitement. You see, Linda is 29 years old, 20-or-so years older than her playmates.
What, then, is she doing in Class Three? You are probably wondering.
Her story begins several years ago in the harsh backstreets of Nairobi, the only home she knew until a good Samaritan rescued her and gave her a decent home.
“I’m not sure who my parents are or whether I have siblings,” she says, explaining that in the streets, various adults played the role of mother and father in her life until she was old enough to fend for herself.
Linda says that she often dreamed about a life away from the streets, which she found difficult and miserable. But she knew that unless a miracle happened, the cold, filthy, wet alleys would be her home for the rest of her life.
She says that she cannot count the number of times she went to sleep hungry or the number of times she got beaten up by police, City Council askaris, and the public, who considered street people a nuisance.
The hunger and the beatings, she says, she could stomach to some point. It is the discrimination, perception, and demeaning attitude that decent people directed at her and others like her that were too much to bear.
“I hated being referred to as chokora. Nobody cared to know my name, I was a nobody to them just because I wasn’t as clean as they were.”
Being referred to as chokora or street person, she says, became a constant reminder of who she was and who she would remain for the rest of her life.
“I often felt that I was condemned to live like that and that I would never become a better girl. It broke my heart.”
While in the streets, Linda struck up a friendship with a woman called Joyce who had a small shop near where she and her friends often hang around and scavenged for food.
“Joyce would sometimes buy me lunch and in return, I would help her to empty charcoal bags or sweep her kiosk.”
In 2001, Joyce introduced her to a friend, Purity Kinyua, who needed a house help and convinced her that Linda was hardworking and trustworthy.
“She told her that I was a good and obedient girl even though I had lived in the streets all my life and though Purity was hesitant at first, she agreed to hire me,” Linda says.
Unknown to her, this would turn out to be the miracle she had for years hoped for. With no real family or siblings to say farewell to, Linda bid her friends goodbye and left with her soon-to-be employer for Meru.
“On the way, she explained that she had two daughters, Daisy and Makena, and needed someone to help around the house. Both girls were in school. One was in Class Eight, the other in Form Two.”
Life in a proper home, she says, was initially overwhelming, and it took her some time to get used to simple comforts such as a bed and chair. She says that her employer treated her well and that she got along well with her two daughters.
However, she would feel her heart skip a beat with longing whenever she watched Purity’s daughters study or read out aloud in English, a language she could barely understand.
“I wished that I could do the same, but I dared not share my longing with anyone — I was lucky enough to get out of the streets in the first place. I had to be content with the lucky break I had been given,” says Linda.
In church, she would carry a Bible and a hymn book and pretend to read or sing whenever the pastor asked the congregation to open their bibles or hymn books.
In early 2005, Purity, a high school teacher, was transferred to Thika. When Linda learnt that Thika was a “big town”, she declined to move with the family, fearing that going to a town similar to Nairobi would expose her to street life again. Instead, she continued to live with Purity’s extended family as a house help.
After a few months, someone she knew convinced her to leave, telling her that could get her better employment. Linda agreed and travelled, ironically, to Thika, the same town she had feared moving to.
This decision turned out to be almost tragic.
“My new employer constantly accused me of stealing from her and often commented that I was just a street girl who had taken a bath. This remark hurt me a lot but since I felt I had nowhere else to go, I stayed.”
At one point, her employer beat her unconscious after she accidentally dropped a tea flask while washing the utensils. When she came to, she was locked up in a room for three days. She later learnt that during that time, her employer lied to neighbours that she had gone to a relative’s funeral upcountry.
When she finally let her out, Linda reported the matter to the police. Her employer was summoned for questioning but according to her, no action was taken. “I had no place to go and was, therefore, forced to return to my employer’s home — I wasn’t surprised when she beat me up for daring to report her.”
It is at this point that she realised that someday, her employer would gravely injure or even kill her. She, therefore, decided to take her chances and run away.
“I went to live with a friend in Section 9, a nearby estate. With this friend’s help, I began to make chapatis for sale and wash clothes around the neighbourhood for a fee,” she recounts.
One day she bumped into Daisy, Purity’s oldest daughter. They had not seen each other for about seven years, but both girls remembered each other. When Daisy returned home, she told her mother that she had met Linda and that she no longer worked as a house help.
Assuming that Linda was doing well, Purity did not follow up. What she did not know, however, was that while she was away, Daisy would often invite Linda to their home. Linda says that when she was reunited with Daisy, she realised that this was the family she had always hoped to have. She wanted to go back to work for Purity, but was not sure whether she would want her back. Therefore, she decided to be content with the next best thing — her secret friendship with Daisy.
In 2011, Linda contracted malaria, an experience that would force her to dare make her dream a reality.
“I went to hospital and got some drugs. The doctor indicated that I take two tablets in each of the three containers three times a day.”
Embarrassed to say that she could not read, she walked out with the medicine. When she got home, she took five tablets from each container, an overdose that almost killed her.
“I was hospitalised for two weeks,” she says.
It is after this frightening incident that she decided to do what she had feared doing for so long; she decided to go to school.
“Had I known how to read, I wouldn’t have endangered my life that way,” she says.
Heart pounding, she approached the headteacher at the nearby Muslim Primary School, who advised her to join the adult classes. Unfortunately, in the one month she was there, she made no progress and decided to drop out.
“The teachers assumed that I had some basic education and I was too afraid to say that I knew nothing,” she says.
In July last year, Purity, who had learnt from her daughter about Linda’s hospitalisation, visited her.
“Putting my fear aside, I asked Purity whether I could move in with her and she agreed,” Linda says.
“I am now studying at Mugumo–ini Primary School, which is closer to my new home,” Linda says.
The school agreed to waive her fees, therefore she learns for free.
Last term, Linda was position three in a class of 46, with 476 marks out of 500. She smilingly shows off her exercise books. “I can read the alphabetical chart and speak a bit of English now.”
Her guardian, Purity, who is present during the interview, tells us that Linda is now catching up with the childhood she missed.
“Last term, she came home and asked me what I’d buy her for performing well,” says Purity, who considers Linda her a daughter.
Purity gives her upkeep money every month, which Linda supplements with what she makes from the chapatis and other food that she makes over the weekend.
Her typical day is almost like that of every other pupil. She attends school from 7am to 5pm, and since her case is special, goes for evening tuition from 6pm to 7pm.
She says that she would wish to go on with school as far as she can and get a decent job or learn skills that can enable her to get children out of the streets and help them earn a decent living.
“My dream may seem unrealistic to many; in fact, there are people who have discouraged me from going to school, saying that at my age, it’s a waste of time. But I will not quit. I am confident that I am doing the right thing,” she says in Kiswahili.
She also dreams of getting a family of her own, “just like Purity”, her surrogate mother.
“I’m also learning to read and write so that I can help my children with their homework.”
With such a determined mother, her children will be lucky indeed.