Caroline Chemnangoi pulled herself up by the bootstraps and find a better life.
“I was born in 1978 – an era when female genital mutilation (FGM) was prevalent and early marriages common. As such, when I sat for my Kenya Certificate of National Examinations (K.C.P.E) in 1993, I was eager to go through the cut. Then, female circumcision was the epitome of womanhood, an entry pass to senior women’s circles and a pre-requisite if one was considering marriage.
“As the second last child of 17 siblings born of a polygamous family, I wanted to be part of the rite of passage but still continue with my education as I always had an inclination that I was cut for a better life than what my village offered.
“My good performance and persuasion aside, my father wasn’t planning to enrol me to a secondary school.
He chose to educate my brothers and nephews over me leaving me with no other choice but staying at home in Nanyuki, helping in the farm. After the seclusion period was over, he sent me to his sister who lived in Kapsabet, Narok County.
“My aunt’s place was a popular drinking den and she taught me the art of preparing and selling busaa and chang’aa. However, I detested the place as her customers kept making passes at me. Realising that my life and future was at risk, I decided to go back home.
“It was a tough decision to make as our home was no longer what it was when I was a child. The environment bore traumatic memories of two counts of sexual assault and the pain of education dreams cut short. The rape incidences, a secret I kept to myself because I didn't know how to start such conversations with my parents.
“After staying at home for some time, one day in 1994, my elder sister came visiting and she informed me that one of her friends needed a house help. I was more than excited to leave home but on arrival at my employer’s place, I realised that I might have got myself in a far much worse situation. The man of the house had his eyes on me. On many occasions, he would pretentiously leave for work early in the morning but return during the day, while his wife was still at work. I knew I wasn’t safe here, so I left back to my parents’ house.
“Life became bearable as I struggled to make ends meet. People kept reminding me that my friends had married or pointing out a suitable suitor. For some reasons, unlike with many girls’ situation, I was never pushed to a man’s hand for marriage.
“Convinced that the village had nothing more to offer, I left for my elder sister's place in Meru. There, she introduced me to another employer who besides subjecting me to overwhelming work, I was underpaid. It was 1995, I was 16 years old and after working for a few months, I left vowing never to work in another household.
“It didn't even take three months before my sister pleaded with me to help look after her friend’s granddaughter. The child’s mother was still in college and was about to resume her studies. When I met the potential employer, they warmed up to me and furthermore, the pay was handsome and the work less strenuous. I, however, made it clear that I would only work for one month as they looked for a replacement. That was not to be as I chose to stay as it was home more than home.
“One morning in 1997, having worked for the family for two years, I was serving breakfast to the family when the lady of the house, Mrs Kabiti, asked if I wanted to go back to school. They said that they had seen my determination towards education and wanted to help. That I was 19, it didn’t matter. I was ready to go back even if it meant going back to class seven.
“At school, during break time, pupils from other classes made my class their meeting place as they would come to see the learning house help. I was laughed at and mocked but my good grades worked in my favour. I did exemplary, topping the class and my employer supported me all the way to secondary school.
RETURNED THE FAVOUR
“I returned the favour by doing exemplary work that earned me a spot at the University of Nairobi in 2005 to study social work and community development. By then, I was almost 26 years. During my second year, I got a scholarship to study in Norway at Nordes University. It really made me happy although inside, I was anxious that I was advancing in age yet I hadn't accomplished much. I didn't even have a boyfriend!
“There, in the midst of all challenges – new language and environment I found my partner, a few months to my 30th birthday. I now had to juggle as a student, wife and mother. However, eventually, things got into place and I managed to complete my studies in social work from Volda University College and get a job in Norway where I work as a Milieu therapist under the services for person’s with special needs programme.
“It has taken me 30 years of my life chasing after my dreams. So many detours along the way, many reasons to give up, but I am glad that I pushed through. In 2014, I founded a charity organization, Hekima Foundation as a way to give back to the community. My family lives in Kenya and every time I am home, I embark on different community awareness programmes. As I turn 40, I have authored a book, Resilience, a motivation book to encourage people out there that it is never too late to dream again.”