It is seductive to call Rebeka Njau a pioneering Kenyan feminist. But one doubts that she would accept the tag. She seems too self-effacing, and too much of a pragmatist to accept such a title. Yet her memoir, Mirrors of My Life (Books Horizon, 2019), which was launched last week, seems to suggest that she belongs to a community of women who ‘mothered’ postcolonial Kenya in different ways.
Her story invites the reader to travel with her back into the life of her Kikuyu community during the colonial era, into the immediate postcolonial moment, to the whirlwinds of Kenya of the 1980s and 1990s, into retirement from employment and what to be a quiet and fulfilling life in her home in Ongata Rongai.
As a poet as well as dramatist, Rebeka writes her lifestory in Mirrors of My Life as if it is stanzas of a poem or acts in a play. Because of the style of the work, in which the stanza seems to have been merged with the act, we can read the memoir as a story told in cycles. This is a story of a Kenyan women pioneer in many ways. Of a village girl whose ‘modern’ parents confront and disregard the customs of her people. Of love, ambition, success, disappointment, hurt, despair but eventually triumph — if one could call it so — over seemingly insurmountable tribulations.
Cycle one tells the story of Rebeka Nyanjega Njau from when she was born at Kihingo in the then Fort Smith (in today’s Kiambu County); elementary education at Kanyariri Primary; secondary at Alliance Girls High School; to when she was admitted to Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, in 1953. The Rebeka of the early years is a child of a rapidly transforming society. On one hand is the European tradition; on the other, the Gikuyu custom. In the middle, one could say are the ordinary children, women and men.
Thus Rebeka grows up in what can be described as a ‘modernising’ homes, where her parents are Christians (of the PCEA persuasion), educated, working (her father, Paul Wainaina, worked as a telephone operator in Nairobi, and retired from the civil service in 1963), and progressively rejecting some of the ways of life of the Gikuyu. Here, we meet Rebeka’s father, mother, seven brothers, four sisters and a cast of relatives. Although raised in a strictly Christian tradition, where they are not allowed to mix with neighbours who still practice Gikuyu ‘traditions’, Rebeka and her siblings still visit relatives, such as her maternal grandfather, “ … a warrior, a medicine man, a blacksmith and a diviner.”
On the other hand, though, her mother confronts the Gikuyu practice of female circumcision by teaching young women to reject it. According to Rebeka, her mother’s rejection of Gikuyu traditions, embracing Christian evangelism, and condemnation of the Mau Mau violence nearly costs her life. Apparently, the Mau Mau had decided to kill her but abandoned the plans when they were near the family homestead. This cycle of the story ebbs and flows, with its drama of part idyllic village life, tension and anxiety because of the rejection of Gikuyu customs, joy of schooling, to the adventures of adolescence. But Rebeka successfully finishes school and is admitted to Makerere University College.
However, she doesn’t report to the college immediately, shocking her relatives. She is promised marriage by a former graduate of Makerere and a teacher at Alliance School who was on his way to Cambridge University for postgraduate studies. Nothing comes of this arrangement, and Rebeka applies for admission to Makerere in 1954. She is admitted for undergraduate studies but doesn’t qualify for the Bachelor of Arts degree. She opts to study for a diploma in education, which she completes successfully.
It is at Makerere that Rebeka catches the writing bug as well as immerses herself in drama, and also writes her plays In the Round Chain and The Scar (a meditation on the fate of women). Rebeka ends up back at Alliance Girls High School in 1958 as the only African teacher, teaching English and History.
Cycle two narrates Rebeka’s life after Makerere and Alliance. It is the whirlwind of meeting Elimo Njau while teaching at Alliance, being introduced to him, courting, a wedding at the chapel of Alliance Girls’ High School, travel to Moshi, the setting up of a gallery at Kibo; living in England while Elimo was an artist-in-residence at Corsham Court, near Bath in England; having their first child; and returning to Kenya. Then follows the much more predictable path of founding Nairobi Girls School in 1964; resigning from the school after five years; relocating to Dar es Salaam; a very challenging life alone with the now two children in Dar es Salaam after Elimo returns to Kenya; return to Kenya ‘towards the end of 1971’; and a different line of work.
Cycle three traces Rebeka’s life back in Nairobi, in what is increasingly a strained marriage (her side of this story makes up a significant part of the memoir); work with the husband to establish Paa Ya Paa Gallery as the premier arts and culture centre in East Africa from the 1960s into the 1970s; employment at the National Council of Churches of Kenya from 1975; personal research on pioneer women leaders from various parts of the country, leading to a compilation of stories on 16 women; ending with a part that Rebeka calls “Struggle for Survival” — life after being dismissed from her job at what was an increasingly disjointed NCCK; and moving out of her marital home in Ridgeways to set up a new home in Ongata Rongai, where she lives to date. Along the way, Rebeka made tie-dye and batik clothes to sell and earn an income; she managed an apparently “exclusive” pub in Ongata Rongai; and helped in writing Kenneth Matiba’s memoir.
Rebeka’s is a story that on the one hand reads like a ‘lamentation’ — indeed the memoir opens with a verse, “Lamentations 1” (and there is “Lamentations 2”); and ends with an untitled poem, which pays tribute “to all those who stood by me and encouraged me as I struggled to achieve justice”. Yet at the end it isn’t a “cry of anguish” (title of another poem in the memoir) but a proclamation of freedom.
Mirrors of My Life is a story of defiance, of path-breaking, of triumph of personal will, all which seem to draw from the family — a pioneering evangeliser; the whole family attaining higher education; two brothers who married Ugandan women; Rebeka married a Tanzanian man, among other unexpected feats by the kin. It is not surprising that Binyavanga Wainaina had Rebeka Njau as an aunt.
This is a book that should provoke conversations about Kenyan women leaders — in various fields — who have contributed to this country’s development, in their own ways, without demanding recognition or lamenting the seeming abandonment by the rest of the society.
As a teacher, artist, designer, editor, poet, dramatist, Rebeka’s story has a lesson or two to offer Kenyan women (and men too) in these seemingly not-so-much acknowledged professions.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]