She squeal’s with delight when she spots her mother’s car driving through the gate. As she runs towards the vehicle, a huge smile lights up her face and there is no mistaking the love that Sophie Neema Wambui has for her mother.
Ann Mwangi, looking equally delighted, scoops her up, gives her a warm hug, and plasters kisses on the little girl’s face. It is difficult to remain untouched by this endearing scene.
For a few precious seconds, mother and daughter are locked in their own little world, oblivious of everything around them.
It was on a Sunday in June 2009, when Ann received the call that would change her life. She was in church. Normally, she switched off her phone before the service started, but on that day she left it on vibrate mode.
A few minutes into the service, her phone vibrated. Ann ignored it, telling herself she would call back whoever it was after the service.
However, the caller was persistent. Finally, a distracted Ann decided to find out what the urgency was all about. It was a friend calling from Mlolongo town about an abandoned baby at a dumpsite and could Ann, who had a children’s home, help?
Ann drove to Mlolongo, where she found a crowd gathered around a green plastic bag with a tiny baby squirming inside.
“They were just standing there staring, doing nothing to help the baby, who was still alive,” she recalls.
Gently, Ann picked up the baby girl, gently wrapped her in her jacket to keep her warm, and put her in her car. She then went to report to the area chief.
“The process was taking long, so I requested to be allowed to take the baby to the hospital for check-up, promising to return as soon as she was attended to,” Ann narrates.
At the hospital, she learnt that the baby was about two weeks old and that apart from being thirsty, she was healthy.
By the time the check-up was completed, however, it was too late to return to the chief, so Ann decided to take the child home with her and return to Mlolongo the next day.
“I was apprehensive about what I would do should Sophie start to cry. My two children were adults with their own families and I had forgotten how to look after a small child,” Ann, who is 54, says.
She says that were it not for her elder son, John, and his wife, who helped her look after Sophie, she has no idea how she would have coped.
The following day, Ann drove back to Mlolongo to hand over the little girl. However, when she got there, the chief took her telephone number and promised to call her in case someone claimed the baby. Ann was surprised at the immense relief she felt that she was going back home with Sophie.
A love like no other
“It is then that I realised I had fallen in love with her. I even secretly wished that no one would come forward to claim her.”
Two years on, it seems that call will not be coming.
“I consider Sophie to be my daughter now and I am in the process of legally adopting her. I love her so much,” she says.
Ann named the baby Sophie, after her own mother, Sophia Wambui Mwangi, a woman whom she looks up to, her role model.
Ann is a business woman and leads a comfortable life. However, it was different when she was growing up.
“We were poor during my childhood. Many were the days when we did not even have food,” she recalls.
Her mother, a single parent, brewed chang’aa to feed and clothe her many children. Ann’s father abandoned them when she was about eight years old and remarried.
“In spite of what she did for a living, mum was an exceptional woman. Tough, yes, but a compassionate woman who shared whatever she had with others,” she says of her mother, who is now 99 years old.
Ann’s was a big family — 11 children, to be precise, but it is only when she turned 15 that her mother told her that five of her siblings were not her biological brothers. Ann’s mother took them in because their mother, a neighbour, was too poor to feed them.
“This revelation had a big impact on me. Mum wasn’t wealthy. She struggled to feed us and could barely raise money to educate us, yet she had the heart to embrace another woman’s children and treat them as she would her own. She inspired me, and even though I didn’t know it then, she planted a seed of generosity in me.”
Ann went to St Mary’s Girls School, a boarding school in Nakuru run by Catholic sisters. After watching her mother struggle alone to take care of her and her siblings, she longed to get married and raise a happy family. But she intended to first complete school and get a job.
However, it did not work out as expected. Ann got pregnant at the age of 15, and had to drop out of school in Form Two to look after her son, John Mwangi. The next year, she gave birth to her second son, Timothy Mwangi. Her mother was heartbroken.
“Mum had such big dreams for me, I can’t begin to explain how disappointed she was. Initially, she was very angry, but eventually, she made peace with what had happened and supported me the best way she could.”
Although Ann had hoped to settle down with the father of her children, it was not to be.
“As often happens in our traditions, a delegation from his family’s visited my home to introduce themselves and get to know my family,” says Ann.
However, when they learned about Ann’s background, especially what her mother did for a living, her boyfriend’s father opposed the union.
“He said that it would be a disgrace to his family,” she recalls.
That was the last time that Ann saw or heard from her boyfriend. “My life fell apart. I cried until I could cry no more,” she says.
But despite the disappointment and heartbreak, she resolved to do everything possible to give her children the best that she could. The first step was to go back to school. She left her sons with her mother and went back to her former school. Three years later, she enrolled in a college in Nairobi to study typing and shorthand. She got a job as a receptionist at a printing press. Her salary was Sh700 a month.
“I felt confident that I could start life on my own, so I moved with my children to Nairobi and rented a room in Eastleigh,” she narrates.
Her rent was Sh250 and transport cost much less. Therefore, she could provide a relatively comfortable life for her children. But Ann was far from comfortable.
“One night after coming home from work, I wrote a letter to God, stating 12 things I wished Him to do for me and my family,” she says.
She prayed for good health for her sons, a better-paying job, a nice house for her mother, nice furniture, a car for herself, university for her sons, a bigger house, a chance to go abroad, be successful, own a business and a house, and when she had accomplished these, to serve God.
“That night, I felt as if I had been given a new lease of life and vowed to work even harder for the sake of my sons,” she recalls.
Her dreams came true, gradually. By the time Ann went into self-employment, she had worked as a receptionist, a tour guide, and a secretary, in various companies.
“I had always been fascinated by beauty, so when I quit my job, I decided to set up a salon with my savings, even though I had no experience. It is only when the salon started to bring in money that I joined a hairdressing college,” she says.
She called the salon Lady Ann Beauty Parlour. She started off with two employees and within three years, she had set up five other salons in Eldoret, Kericho, Nakuru, Kapenguria, and Turkwel, employing 12 people.
In the early 1990s, she ventured into designing clothes, a hobby and passion she says she was born to do. Within a short time, she had more orders than she could handle. This is one of her most successful businesses.
In 2004, tragedy struck. Her only sister’s son died in an air crash. A few months later, her sister followed. This affected Ann’s mother, who had a pacemaker, so much that she fell ill.
“As I contemplated the tragedy that had hit my family, it occurred to me that even though God had fulfilled everything I had asked of Him, I was yet to fulfil my promise to him,” she says.
This motivated her to set up a children’s home.
“I had a friend who had a children’s home in Thika town. I visited the centre to borrow ideas. I also found out that there was no shortage of children who needed care.”
Ann owned 21 rental rooms in Githurai estate, which she converted into a Children’s Centre. Sophia Children’s home is now seven years old and cares for 17 children between three and 15 years. Ann has two live-in caregivers to take care of the children.
“My experience has taught me that while money, a big house, and a fancy car will enable you to live comfortably, they will not give you happiness or fulfilment. Happiness comes from sharing what I have with others who need it.”
She adds, “I may not be able to erase all the suffering I see around me, but if I can break the cycle in just one family, it is enough for me.”
You do not have to look too hard to see the contentment on Ann’s face. She especially seems to be happy to be a mother again, while many women her age look forward to a life free of such responsibilities.
“Sophie changed my life,” a smiling Ann says, and admits that it hasn’t been easy. When Sophie was younger, she would sometimes take her on errands when she had no one to leave with her.
“I couldn’t have managed without help,” she says. But Ann does not regret her decision.
“Sophie makes me feel much younger, more energetic, and more purpose-driven, just like when I was bringing up my sons.”