In the media and arts world, she is known as the slightly built white woman ever in a fast stride, moving from one assignment to the next.
Yet her name has misled hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers who have followed her writing career over the last 40 years.
“When I meet one of my readers for the first time, the shock and surprise is always evident. You see, over the years, most of them have built this image of some Kikuyu mama because of my name.
“Imagine I’m the only person waiting at a reception and the boss comes to collect me. He finds only this small mzungu. He turns to the receptionist and asks, where is she? The bewilderment is always something to see,” she tells Lifestyle.
Her byline is Margaretta wa Gacheru, a name that is as local as it can get. To her colleagues in media and friends in the world of the arts, she is simply Wa Gacheru. On Buru Buru’s route 58, she is known as mama Migwi. Migwi is her son.
Margaretta does not just have a local name. Everything about her is local. Like many other Kenyans working in Nairobi she travels in matatus and loves Eastlands where she has lived for years. Her current abode is in Kariobangi South.
Her 40-year-old love affair with Kenya, the Kenyan people and Kenyan art stretches back to 1974 when she first came to the country on a student exchange programme. She arrived as Margaretta Swigert, which was her maiden name. She was being funded by Rotary Club and in return she would work for them as a speaking ambassador in the country.
And she had everything worked out – or so she thought. See some bit of Kenya, get two years of study for a Master’s degree in African Literature at the University of Nairobi and then fly back home.
She didn’t expect problems getting admitted at the university. She had already obtained Bachelors and Masters degrees from universities back home. But things didn’t work out as she had expected.
The head of the Literature Department, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, didn’t think her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Comparative Religion had given her the ideal foundation for graduate studies in Literature and politely told her to take a walk and try her luck down the block.
Still determined to pursue the course, she sought out Prof Micere Mugo who was also in the department, asking her to intercede. Prof Wa Thiong’o relented but then threw in a rider, “First she undertakes the undergraduate Literature programme then we can take things from there.”
“He left me no choices. So I enrolled for bachelors programme. I read day and night. Somewhere in between, the university was closed for five months and I took the opportunity to study on my own. It was perhaps the most intensive study time I have ever engaged in. I finished the three year programme in just over one year.”
So she went back to Prof Wa Thiong’o, who, happy with her efforts, admitted her to the department. But whereas she was more interested in Pan African literature, the professor had different ideas.
He recommended that she takes African-American literature based on the writings of Malcom X. She turned in a thesis on the house nigger – a pejorative term for the black slaves who worked in the master’s house as a reward for their docility as opposed to the farm nigger, the more rebellious one who would be sent to slave in harsher environments in the fields.
Her journey in learning did not end with the second Masters degree. She went on to earn two more masters degrees capping up all with a PhD in 2011. With seven degrees under her belt, Margaretta could easily be the most educated woman for miles around.
Her stay at the University of Nairobi changed the course of her life forever. The Literature Department was a vibrant place which besides Wa Thiong’o had on the faculty such names as Micere Mugo, Okot p’ Bitek, John Ruganda and Jonathan Kariara among others.
She was instantly drawn to the robust drama scene at the university. “I made my debut in the play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. With me on stage was, Stephen Mwenesi, Kenneth Watene and Sibi Okumu. I was later invited by Ruganda to join the university’s travelling theatre.”
In the travelling theatre she had great friends who went out of their way to help her through cultural transformation. Some simply didn’t like her, a fact she attributes to unconscious xenophobia. Some just wanted her out of the travelling theatre.
“I used to keep a journal in which I recorded things happening around me. On a trip to Nyahururu, a colleague I won’t name broke into my suitcase and took out the journal. He read the journal to the rest of the group. I had recorded silly little things like who was flirting with whom in the group. He made it sound so bad that I came across as a racist,” she recalls ruefully. “Then some members of the group suggested they burn the journal in my presence to signify that the travelling theatre was basically finished with me. I considered a journal very private and it was a very painful experience. I would probably have left the theatre but when I told Ruganda what had happened, he forbid me to quit.”
By the time she completed her Masters, she had decided she wasn’t going back to the US. Something else had happened. She had fallen in love with her collegemate, and graduate student, Gacheru wa Migwi.
“Gacheru was the most humorous guy I’d ever met. He was fine tuned to the social, cultural and political circumstances of the times and he opened up a Kenya I could not have possibly seen on my own,” she recollects.
They got married in 1978. Exit Margaretta Swigert and enter Margaretta wa Gacheru. By the time she got married to Gacheru, she had largely adjusted to living within her means. When she was the Rotary ambassador, she was entitled to a car, a Mercedes. She was also living in Westlands.
When the contract with the Rotary ended, she had only her fellowship stipend to fall back to. The first thing she did was to acquire a motorbike on which she explored Nairobi. It was on this motorbike that she discovered Eastlands, spending many happy evenings in Jericho and Makadara estates.
With her studies complete and the decision to stay final, she started looking for a job ending up at the Nairobi Times, where the publisher, Hillary Ng’weno, was looking for an arts reporter.
Back then, there were few journalists interested in the arts and the few expatriates concentrated on European theatre. From her experience in drama at the university, Margaretta knew of the existence of a robust African theatre and she threw all her energy into it, giving it the deserved space on the national stage. She has never looked back.
While at the Nairobi Times, she got a job at UNESCO as a communications officer and quit after one week. “I found that it was a secretive place where everybody was busy trying to manipulate the systems to make some money. I went back to Nairobi Times.”
Thereafter, Margaretta was invited by Mary Okello, the pioneering woman banker, to start a regional magazine for women in banking.
In 1985, she got heavily involved in the women’s decade conference whose main agenda was to mainstream gender issues. It is during this time that she met and worked with leading lights such, Edah Gachukia, Maria Nzomo and Wangari Maathai.
In 1992, she moved to the Nation newspapers where she was assigned to write a series on women in leadership featuring Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua, Agnes Ndetei and Beth Mugo and also write three weekly columns on theatre and movies. Many of her articles have run in this magazine.
This was also the time when the first multi-party elections were around the corner and she was involved in organising the Women National Political Convention at KICC. Among the speakers were Monica Wamwere, mother of politician Koigi wa Wamwere who was in jail at the time.
Her marriage to Gacheru did not last long, ending in 1982. She believes both of them got too involved in their work and simply drifted apart. They mutually agreed to go separate ways with their only child, Migwi, remaining under the care of his father.
All this time, Gacheru had never met Margaretta’s parents and for two good reasons. One, his complete disinterest in going to the US. And then, Margaretta knew something he did not know. Her father, a medical doctor, had deep rooted prejudices against Africans and she knew he would never approve of the marriage.
She kept the marriage a secret only writing to one of her brothers with the plea that he was not to tell anyone. He didn’t keep the secret and when she next visited her family, it was her mother who saved her from being strangled by her enraged father.
In the 1990s, Migwi decided he wanted to live with his mother in Buru Buru, a decision Margaretta welcomed. Ever the busy journalist, she had no clue what her son was doing in her absence.
“Unknown to me, he was cutting school and working as a tout on Route 58. The only thing I had noticed was that his grades at Rusinga School were deteriorating. When I discovered what was happening, I shipped him off to the US where he rejoined high school. ’’
In the US, Migwi thrived through high school and university graduating with a degree in IT engineering. He went on to join the US army and served in Afghanistan. He currently holds the rank of a major.
Margaretta’s passion remains in the arts, a subject she is currently writing on for the Nation Media Groups’s Business Daily. “I can assure you I will be writing on Kenyan art for a long time to come.”
She is currently constructing a house off Kiambu Road.