The courage to start a new business venture in a viciously competitive market while raising three little children is not something many young women tried in 1980s Kenya.
But when she took the plunge and set up Parents magazine in 1986, Mrs Eunice Mathu proved she was a master juggler, raising her children, taking care of her husband and relentlessly chasing her professional dreams.
The first edition of what has become an iconic magazine covered topics like male infertility, pregnancy sickness, preparing to deliver a baby and potty training.
The title has been in newsstands every month since then. This year marks 30 years since she started Parents, whose tagline “the magazine that cares for you and your family” has been part of hundreds of households.
After decades of writing, editing and publishing, Mrs Mathu says she is keen to see a younger crop of journalists take over — not that her passion has waned.
“I’m a writer and I’m always writing. I love what I do. I do not think I can last a week without writing something,” she tells Lifestyle.
Mrs Mathu joined and worked for the Nation Media Group, then Nation Newspapers Ltd, as a features writer after completing university in 1975.
After a while, she felt she needed to explore new frontiers and left Nation to found the communications department of the East Africa Industries (now Unilever). Part of her responsibility was to produce a magazine.
“I left after working with them for five years. I was ready to launch a consumer magazine from that experience,” she said.
The idea would later develop into the Consumer Digest magazine. Meanwhile, her experience as a young wife and mother pursuing a career, and the stories shared by others in similar situations, convinced her there was a need for a family-oriented magazine.
After months of research, she realised there was a vacuum on information about health, bringing up children, education and relationships.
There was also another trigger. During the United Nations Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, she was the assistant editor for the meeting’s official publication, and challenged herself to write more about women and family matters.
“The things that I started talking about in Parents were things that I experienced. You are a young woman, you are a young mother, you are also a working mother and we were not lucky like these days when women get three months’ maternity plus annual leave. We had one month plus whatever leave days you had left,” she says.
This meant one hardly had time to rest before going back to work. Mrs Mathu decided to juggle all roles — something that required delicate balancing.
“At the end of the day, you don’t want to start a family as a career woman, and end up climbing in your career while your family is broken. It’s about ensuring that you take up your responsibilities, balance them and do them right. As a woman, you have to
realise you are the backbone of the family. It is very important,” she says.
Over the years, she says she has always had her priorities right.
FAMILY CAME FIRST
“But in all this, my family came first. My business could fail, but I would not let my family fail. I had to have a very good balance between the two,” she says.
Mrs Mathu would later decide to concentrate on Parents and fold Consumer Digest. She started by producing the magazine once every two months to give herself sufficient time to grow the business while raising her young family.
“My husband has been very supportive. If you are married and have no support from your partner, it becomes very difficult. I say with pride that I have brought up three wonderful children who are now adults and have gone into their careers. For me, I want to be judged by my family, not the success of my business,” she says.
Mathu, the first born, is a banker, Wambaa is an architect and the last born Njeri just graduated with an MBA from America’s Duke University. They are all based in the US.
She registered her company in 1981, the same year she gave birth to her second child. Mrs Mathu explains her secret to success has been proper planning and taking calculated steps. Her idea for starting Parents magazine was to provide a platform for people to share experiences.
“We did not want to have a magazine that tells people how to do things and when to do them … we wanted a magazine that lets people who have gone through marriage – failed or succeeded – tell you about marriage. If we are talking about meeting challenges; let’s get someone with a challenge. I think that has worked quite well,” says Mrs Mathu.
But some of her regular topics, especially on intimacy, have sometimes attracted controversy.
“I take pride in saying that Parents is the one that opened the space for people to talk about relationships and especially about sex matters,” she says.
She adds that when the magazine first carried an article about sexual organs and used diagrams for illustration, a journalist from mainstream newspapers went to interview her and appeared to accuse her of
“talking so elaborately about sex”.
Mrs Mathu was puzzled but decided to tackle the issue head-on.
“I opened the page and asked him: ‘You call this pornography? You are a man and what the diagram illustrates is what you have. What is pornographic about it?’” Mrs Mathu says.
“I told him that the magazine was going to continue with the same line of offering bold information because we cannot continue telling our children that babies are bought in the market.”
She felt that she could not let her children grow up the way she did, without proper information on sex.
“I decided that we would be candid, but in a responsible way. We opened the space for that, and if you open any magazine or newspaper today, people are now not shying away,” she says.
Mrs Mathu also shares some personal experiences and life’s struggles in the magazine through her column, “Sharing My World.”
“The things that I share on my column are real but I only got a very small portion. But I will write a book that tells where I came from, where I am and the kind of legacy that I’d like to leave,” she says,
adding that she hopes to start writing the book later this year.
One of her most poignant life lessons was that of her brother, a hotshot lawyer in the 1970s who played hard and worked hard. But he made choices in life that saw him die a pauper, having long lost his Mercedes Benz, palatial home and the company of the who’s-who.
Even though society has changed much, from way back when she began the magazine, she believes Parents has remained true to its foundation.
“The objective of the magazine has not changed, whether you are a rich family or a poor family. When it comes to raising children, we all have the same struggles. But the magazine has changed a great deal, from the layout to the topics and the columns,” she says.
She says that the content is broader with very elaborate health and lifestyle columns.
“Lifestyle diseases are actually killing a lot of people so we look at that area. The value system has also changed. People say they want to make money by all means. We also have younger parents who are much more advantaged in terms of access to
information. Quality and content has changed because the audience is more enlightened,” she says.
Talking of today’s parents, Mrs Mathu has yet another secret for success that she offers as a gold standard.
The nanny who looked after her daughter, who is now 30 years old, is the same nanny who looked after her daughter when she was born.
“My nanny, who is now my housekeeper, is called Lilian Nyambura. Secret to this longevity? Friendship, respect and trust. Nyambura is today part of my family and I give all the credit to her – she is honest, trustworthy, hardworking and loves my children
to death. They are such good friends – these are the reasons she has been with us for this long. I would be lost in my house without her. She is like my sister – she is a single mother of a daughter who is my daughter’s age,” says Mrs Mathu.
She does not believe in “the change of the value system” where parents think simply paying someone to take care of their children is good enough.
“The relationship with the nanny has to be different. There has to be trust, love and friendship so that you can entrust them with your children. This is where I’m saying that the system has changed so much;
people think they can buy everything.
Even in raising their children, they think that you can employ a driver, take them to a good school and your responsibility ends there. It doesn’t. These are some of the things that we continue to talk about (in the magazine),” she says.
And she draws her greatest inspiration from her late mother.
“I would say my late mother has been my greatest inspiration. After the death of my father when I was very young, she took over the responsibility of raising up nine children. Through sheer hard work, faith in God and a can-do attitude, she ensured we all got an education,” she says.
Mrs Mathu credits her mother for the encouragement to work hard in school and instilling values “that have made me what I am today: hard work, honesty and faith in God”.
Mrs Mathu is also a philanthropist, something she says she is not keen to publicise. One of her outstanding achievements was her role in founding Starehe Girls’ Centre. Mrs Mathu got into the project by chance.
She met the Starehe Boys’ Centre founder Geoffrey Griffin who had a dream of one day starting a girls’ school. So deep was his passion for educating girls – though he did not have the resources – that he would raise money from donors and pay
scholarships for girls’ education in other schools.
Dr Griffin made many efforts to start a girls’ school but they all did not take off.
But he had been talking to donors over the years and reserved some money in an account.
It happened that Dr Griffin and Mrs Mathu were working on a project involving Kenya Breweries Limited. She asked the venerated educator how he felt that he had built an excellent boys’ school but there
was no similar girls’ school. That was when he challenged Mrs Mathu to get involved.
“I wasn’t sure that I could do anything but I said I’d try. We got a number of women together, including Dr Eddah Gachukia, a very well respected educator. When she came on board, I knew it would be
done,” she says, adding that the idea was modelled on the boys’ centre that catered for bright children from humble backgrounds.
Others like Dr Manu Chandaria, an industrialist and philanthropist, soon got involved. She says the then Minister for Education, Prof George Saitoti, also supported the idea and promised that the government
would provide teachers.
“Many people have joined in after that — the embassies, Starehe old boys, many women and everybody bringing what they can. The school has done well and is 100 per cent free. The government supplies the teachers and we pay the support staff. We have
a director who ensures that the school is following what we call ‘The Starehe Way’, which is a way of training students that they are supported by society and one day they have to give back to society,” she says.
So well have the girls performed that a group was invited to New York and dignitaries present – including then Prime Minister Raila Odinga – were amazed at the performance.
“They were all rushing to the podium to hug them. Many of them got scholarships in top universities like Yale. But more than that are the values that they hold. We’ve seen girls become more than what we
expected,” she says.
Mrs Mathu says that even though she plans to scale down her involvement in the day-to-day production of Parents magazine, she wants to spend more time writing and giving back to society.
“I’m on the board of Amref Kenya and also involved in the Kenya Community Development Foundation where we help people in communities to save and uplift their standards. These kinds of things and what happens in Starehe, is what I want to spend more time doing. As I let people do what I have done for the last 30 years, I’d now like to give more back to society,” she says.