On December 18, 2015, Valillian Wawira sat among the thousands of graduands at the Graduation Square of Kenyatta wearing a black graduation gown with a blue trimming on the collar.
The academic attire indicated that she had achieved a recognised level of achievement. As her name boomed through the loudspeakers around the huge courtyard, she stood up with pride. Her presence here was no mean feat.
It was the culmination of a long journey of juggling between household chores and studying. But despite her busy schedule, she had still found time to read and do her homework.
So she was here to receive a certificate in early childhood education. That might not seem like much to many, but for Wawira, it was an unimaginable accomplishment.
You see, 25year-old Wawira from Gitare in Embu has been a househelp for 11 years.
Soon after completing her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 2004, she got an offer to work as a househelp for the secretary at her former school. But she left after a year due to poor relations with her employer.
“Even if I had wanted to continue with my education, my mother had already said she could not pay my secondary school fees,” recalls Wawira, who scored 231 in KCPE.
Wawira’s employer, Lucy Kavinda, who has helped her achieve her dream, says their meeting in December 2007 was through a twist of fate.
“I had told my niece that I was looking for a househelp and when she said she knew a girl called Wawira, I travelled to Embu with the intention of bringing her back to Ruiru. But when I got there, I found that the Wawira that i was meant to meet had already been hired and taken by someone else. I was beginning to despair when I was told there might be someone else available for the job. That is how I met my Wawira,” she recounts.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Wawira, who had left her previous employer only two days before, had set her mind on starting a business, so when her cousin told her of a prospective employer who was searching for a househelp she declined the offer. But she had one problem.
“After my first job I had hoped to save some money to start a kiosk in the village, but my mother took every last coin of the Sh1,000 I was earning,” she reveals of their December 2000 meeting.
“When Ms Kavinda came along, she somehow made me change my mind.”
Soon Wawira was working for Ms Kavinda. She had one goal in mind—to save the Sh2,500 she would be earning monthly to eventually realise her dream. She even opened a bank account.
But Wawira's plans changed one evening in 2009 when, while helping her prepare supper, Ms Kavinda asked her whether she would go back to school if she were to support her.
“It came as a surprise. It is not the kind of question you expect from your employer when you are a househelp,” says Wawira.
“I asked her, ‘Will you cope?’ because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Kavinda recalls of the conversation that led to the decision to allow her househelp go to school while still working for her.
“I was very excited at the prospect,” says the shy Wawira. “Of course I said yes without a second thought. I was not worried about juggling the house work and school work. I just knew I had an opportunity I could not say no to.”
She recounts secretly envying her former schoolmates who had gone to secondary school.
Ms Kavinda enrolled her at Githunguri High School in Ruiru in 2010 where she did her Form One and Form Two but later transferred her to Kahawa Garrison Secondary School, which was nearer home.
“When I looked at her marks, given that she was in a typical rundown public primary school, and given her background, I imagined she must have had a lot of difficulty studying. So I knew that, given a chance, she could do well in school,” says Ms Kavinda.
Wawira says that it was not easy being a house girl and student. After four years of away from the classroom, it was hard readjusting to her new life. She was anxious because the other students were much younger and seemed sharper than her. She had to work extremely hard.
“I made sure I was in bed by 9pm and up by 3am to study and do my homework up to 4:30am. After that I would embark on household chores. I learnt to multitask. I would get breakfast going as I mopped the house,” she says, “I slept with my books next to my pillow.
“You see, I had homework and the teacher did not care that I was a househelp girl.”
Ms Kavinda gave her the liberty to organise her work conveniently.
“I accepted flexibility around her house work, such that what could not be done during the week left for the weekend. Especially washing adults’ clothes,” she says.
But she had also made sure her kids were able to fit within the changes. For instance, she explains, “My last born, a three-year-old boy, was starting school, so they could go and come back together in the evening.”
And when shopping for books and uniforms for her two children, Ms Karinda would take Wawira’s needs into consideration. She also paid between Sh6,000 and Sh9,000 and per term as school fees for her househelp.
So as one might expect, when Wawira brought her report card at the end of the term and had performed badly, Ms Kavinda would get tough with her.
“Just like I did with my own children, I would enquire about her performance and even go to school to get feedback on her behaviour and performance and attend parents’ meetings,” she explains.
“After sometime I stopped paying her a salary. I explained to her that since she was in school, it would not be practical for me to continue paying her salary, which had then risen to around Sh3,000,” she discloses.
“I told her, ‘Please feel like my daughter. Everything you want is here.’ I made her understand that if she needed anything that wasn’t available, she could always talk to me,” relates Kavinda.
Wawira sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2013 and scored a C (plain), so she could not get admission direct admission for a degree course under government sponsorship as they had hoped but that wasn’t going to kill her dream, or rather, the dream Ms Kavinda had for her.
She was good in the sciences and mathematics and had hoped to undertake a degree in education and later teach these subjects in school.
Despite the setback, Ms Kavinda says. “Personally, I was happy with the results. I told her she had done well. She had been in class with kids who had all the time to study after school while she was busy with the housework. As far as I was concerned, that was a good effort,” Ms Kavinda says.
“But to be frank, when I took her back to school it was not like I was expecting her to get an A. An A would have been excellent, but I could see she was doing her best. She tried, given her circumstances,” she says. “For me, even just finishing secondary school was good because it changes you as a person.”
Wawira was usually ranked between position 10 and 15 in her class of 35pupils. But she was also very active in school’s extra curricular activities, and was one of the top athletes in her secondary schools. She has a trophy for Sports woman of the Year in 2012, as well as a stack of certificates.
“We had hoped she would make it direct to the university, but she didn’t. Still, I told her, you will not go to just any college. That is how she registered for the certificate course at Kenyatta University in September 2014. She completed the course in July 2015,” Ms Kavinda explains.
A lecturer at the same university, Ms Kavinda paid some Sh70,000 for the course. She reveals, “There are times I didn’t have the money and had to run to my sacco or ask my husband for money.”
Wawira will be signing up for the continual diploma course in April for a school-based course, even as she continues with her housework. It will take a year, after which she will register for a degree.
Ms Kavinda says she will be with Wawira throughout her academic journey.
“I started it with her and I will be with her until she can fully support herself. I also don’t want her to be my dependent forever. I don’t have a plan B for her and we have talked and agreed about this.”
To which Wawira adds, “From here I want to continue with my education up to PhD level if possible so that I can eventually become a university lecturer.”
She is currently employed as a teacher at Wankan Academy in Ruiru, where she started doing teaching practice as she waits to be absorbed as a full-time pre-school and pre-unit teacher. She has worked there for the last three months.
“I want to stay under her wings so that she can guide me in this beautiful journey of seeking knowledge. I have no plans of moving out of her house,” she says of her intention to continue staying in Kavinda's house.
Regarding the expenses she has incurred and will continue to in her support towards Wawira, she says, “Compared with the benefit she will derive from this, I feel it is no burden. I believe that a girl should not live in my house for many years, only to go and look for a similar job in another household. I know I have the capacity to change that. Not that I have much money, but what I am doing is not too much, given what this girl has done for me. Every coin I have spent on her doesn’t come close to the love and care she has shown to my children.”
Ms Kavinda says that, knowing her children are in safe hands gives her peace of mind and what she has to sacrifice financially is a very small price to pay for it.
“And schools are cheap these days. Day schools are not that expensive; anyone who wants to can do what I have done. I don’t know what else I could have given her to appreciate her efforts in ensuring that my family is well taken care of at home.”
In her perspective, employers need to rethink how they engage with househelps. “The question we should ask ourselves is whether we require househelps full time.
“You hear women complaining about househelps wasting electricity on TV and eating all the food. Or bringing strangers to their houses…this is because they are just idle most of the day. I know not everyone can do what I have done, but why can’t we give them technical skills when they are not occupied and improve their lives? They are not condemned to this life of toil and servitude for life,” remarks Ms Kavinda.
“If you are a woman pull another woman up the ladder. Even as you help your juniors and deputies rise up the corporate ladder at work, remember the women who are at the very bottom rung of your life. Pull them closer to the ladder. Give them the initial support and they will find their way up.
“It is the best gift we women can give to other women. There are so many women suffering at the bottom for us to be able get up and remain up there in our work places and they deserve better."
“You hear women saying, ‘I am trying to groom my assistant or deputy to replace me’ but these are women who are already on their feet.”
Indeed, Wawira is not the only househelp she has helped. Her previous house girl of four years left after graduating from a hairdressing college.
Wawira agrees with her boss: “This has changed my life completely. I don’t know how to ever pay her back. I never dreamt I would set foot in a university lecture room, let alone get a teaching job. Now I am on a better footing to take charge of my life.”