Two little boys are playing hide and seek outside Tabitha Wairimu’s humble home in Gathara village in Gichugu, Kirinyaga County. The young one is four years old and the older one is five. “They are called Comfort Macharia and Innocent Kega. One is in kindergarten and the other stays at home with me,” says Tabitha, 42, as she adjusts her crutches that are sliding off the wall they are perched on. These two boys are not her only children: She has a seven-year-old Class Two pupil called Alex Mwangi, a 17-year-old Form Four student called Martin Nga’ng’a, and a 27-year-old mentally challenged daughter called Mary Wanjiku.
These children mean the world to her, yet at the dawn of every day, she says that their livelihood is a constant reminder of her desolate life. A few people in her village might know that this has not always been the case. What many people do not know, though, is that Tabitha is not the biological mother of these five kids. “I have taken them as my children and I cannot give them up for anything,” she says. There is movement in her throat as she chokes on her words.
“Mary has been mentally ill for nearly her entire life,” Tabitha says. “She is Comfort and Innocent’s mother. She’s the daughter of my elder sister Angelica Wambui, who passed away in 2003 after succumbing to anaemia and malaria.” Two of Tabitha’s other sons belonged to her younger sister Mercy Njeri, who disappeared without a trace three years ago. Tabitha had been living with her and their 95-year-old mother. “Mercy had walked out of her troubled marriage and returned home. She washed clothes or worked on farms for a living,” says Tabitha.
That morning, Mercy left in search of work but failed to return in the evening. At first, Tabitha was not alarmed. “I thought that perhaps she had gone to see her estranged husband and assumed that she would show up the next day.” This did not happen. “She didn’t have a mobile phone through which I could call and find out where she was or when she’d be coming back.”
Tabitha was alarmed two days later when she called some of Mercy’s friends to find out her possible whereabouts. None of them had seen or been with her. She tried to contact Mercy’s husband to find out if she had seen her, to no avail. On the fourth day, she reported her disappearance at their local police station. “I inquired if she had been arrested and they said she was not in their Occurrence Book. I even went to the mortuary in Kirinyaga. She was nowhere to be seen.
“I did not have funds to sustain a long-lasting search for her and so I took her kids and brought them to my house. They had no one to fend for them” she says.
Despite being a mother to these five children, Tabitha does not have biological children of her own, neither is she married. Although she grew up fantasising about her Prince Charming and a wedding, her siblings’ troubled marriages disabused her of such thoughts. “I feared that this streak would rear its ugly head in my marriage and decided to keep off.”
Being a single woman in her 40s, though, does not give her as many sleepless nights as her children do. “I was doing well and meeting their needs until June last year when my legs broke,” she says. At the time, Tabitha was a tomato and French beans farmer. She had leased a farm in Mwea where she could access water for irrigation. While helping one of her neighbouring farmers load seven empty crates of French beans on a bicycle, the ropes that bound them cut and the wooden crates fell on her legs. “I was taken to Kerugoya Hospital and given some pain killers because the X-Ray scan did not reveal any injuries.” The pain persisted and she went for a follow-up CT Scan at Embu Children’s Hospital Tenri. It revealed that she had fractured parts of her lower legs.
Since then, Tabitha has been using crutches to walk. “There are times when I lay on my bed and ask God questions. Why did this have to happen to me yet I had children who depend on me? What did I do to deserve it? It is very painful that I am not able to meet their basic needs,” she says. Tabitha had been scheduled to undergo a corrective surgery in February this year that will enable her to walk again. Nonetheless, she is afraid that this surgery is turning out to be another far-fetched dream. “I have not been working and I don’t know how I’ll raise the Sh405,000 surgery bill,” she says.
Despite her challenges, Tabitha remains hopeful that she will get her life back. “Life may seem cruel to me, but deep down I still have hope that these children will have a bright future,” she says. She also hopes that her sister will one day return home. “I may never know what happened to her or if she is alive and reading this, but I still pray that she will come back. I’m also praying that Martin will do well in his KCSE later this year and secure a place at the university,” she says with a smile.