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.
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.
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.”