Rebeka Njau is a name that comes easily to the tongue of a generation of Kenyans interested in arts and culture, as well as in education. For she is a pioneer in many fields. She was one of the first girls to go to Alliance School — when it was a boys’ only school. She is a pioneer Kenyan Makererean. After coming back to Kenya, with a diploma in education, she became the founding headmistress of Nairobi Girls School — today’s Moi Girls High School, Nairobi.
But probably her name is easily recognisable because of her books Ripples in the Pool, The Sacred Seed, The Scar (a play in one act), a series of folktales and fables, and also because of her involvement with Paa ya Paa Art Gallery (but this is a story for another day).
At 87, Rebeka continues to write and will be launching her memoir, Mirrors of My Life (Books Horizon, 2019) on Friday, September 6 at the National Museums of Kenya. I visited her at her home in Ongata Rongai, Kajiado County, for a conversation about her philosophy of life (and not her life story, which she writes about in the memoir).
Asked about her impression of life, growing up as a young girl in colonial Kenya, Rebeka noted that in Fort Smith (Kiambu), where she was born, they had the typical colonial racial segregation, with the Kikuyu living on one side of the village and the Europeans and Asians on the other. She recalls the joy of having a shop in the village then: “ … it was exciting to have a shop at that time owned by Asians”. She remembers a white man living in Fort Smith, whom the Africans nicknamed Mr Hello, a doctor, who she says really helped locals. However, he was killed by the Mau Mau, the suspected killer being her relative.
For a girl who grew up when Kikuyu traditional practices such as circumcision of girls, which her mother rejected, determined everyone’s life, Rebeka remembers life being a little difficult because of the neighbours’ scorn for uncircumcised girls. However, she says, her parents “ … did not look down upon their neighbours”, even though her mother was an evangelist, and was totally opposed to circumcision of girls. Her mother didn’t think the Mau Mau violence was right but she also didn’t think the Europeans were fair. Still, her parents were quite strict on who they related with. “We were not supposed to mix, especially with people who did not go to school and were dressing in traditional clothes.”
What did she think of school? “In fact, I liked school; it was a new thing, especially when we were given slates to write on. It was exciting. One wanted to learn; and you know where we lived … we were in the White Highlands; we were surrounded by people who were not sending their children to school, but we were not alone. There were other families whose parents were evangelists, or they believed in God and we made friends among them because we were not supposed to make friends with all these other girls who did not go to school and accepted circumcision and so on.”
On her impressions of Makerere, Rebeka says that the university was not totally new to her. She and her mother had been to Uganda before to visit her brother, John, who “ … had gone to Makerere earlier and had made friends of different nationalities, different tribes, in fact, he got his wife from western Uganda.”
What vision of independent Kenya did Rebeka’s pioneering generation of women have? “Well, of course we all wanted independence to come because I remember whenever we went to shop on Government Road, there were Asians all over the place. I remember one day going to buy something in an Asian-owned shop, they would not let us get in. We felt bitter. I felt strongly that we needed independence and we were looking forward to having everything good, riches, no more poverty. But then after independence, people continued to be poor.”
What does she think Kenyans have not done correctly since independence? Rebeka notes that although there are people who have worked very hard to uplift themselves, the notion of get-rich-quick has seriously undermined progress. “Even young people now don’t want to start at the bottom and grow up. When you grow up with something you have struggled for, and you know it’s your thing, you’ll not waste money.”
Rebeka says she feels sad that too many young people lack direction in life. “What makes me sad is that these young people today don’t know where they are. They are wobbling here and there. They have no solid ground on which to stand because even the ones who are supposed to set an example … are too busy working and have no time to think of things that matter.” She says that in the old days “children were taught by grown-ups; grandmothers, grandfathers” who “talked about sharing; talked about why it’s wrong to steal. So now where do you think all this nonsense has come from? This stealing without feeling anything! I can’t explain.”
On how to address this social morass: “We have to slow down about looking for riches. I think people should rethink and learn and teach the young; first of all, to think of the person you are next to as a neighbour, whether you know them or not; and you do not let them go to hell without helping. We must help one another. You know that’s what we lack.”
What does writing mean to her? “To me writing means a lot. I can’t do without writing. Because there is nothing else to do. That is what I have done for many years. At night I don’t forget to put a piece of paper and a pen near my bed because something can come up, and I have to wake up and write it down. Because if I don’t I’ll forget.”
What is her philosophy of life? “Well, I’m very positive. I’m not negative at all. Even with the government, I have hope that this place can be better, and it will be because there will be people who can bring it to where it should be. And I don’t hate people. I can disagree with you but I do not hate you. And if you’ve done something wrong to me, of course, I will tell you right away. But I’m not going to hate you. The only thing is that I keep away from you if what you are telling me is negative. Well, of course, I’ve also had failures. We are human beings, we make mistakes. Sometimes you can take the wrong lane and go the wrong way but soon if you listen to yourself, you find you are on the wrong path and you get back to where you should be. Be satisfied with what you have.”
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]