In Summary
  • Painfully, I watched as old age take a toll on her health. The once strong woman before me, turned into a shadow of her former self after years of hospitalisation in the mid 2000’s.
  • And on June 28,2008, just a week after my university graduation, my Mwaitu, the woman who called everyone ‘my child’,  passed away at 106 years.

Growing up, my grandmother Teresiah Mathembo Mutisya was my second mother, if not my first. The truth is, she was the mother of everyone: to my parents, her step-children, her nephews, nieces, the extended family, neighbours and her friends’ children.  Indeed, I could not easily tell who my biological aunties and uncles were until I was of age.

Mathembo was a mother to everyone. She played host to anyone who had a problem, listened and dealt with it until she was satisfied that the person was comfortable enough to leave and the issue had been successfully resolved. Her house in my father’s compound had three rooms – a kitchen with a three-stone fireplace, her bedroom and a guest bedroom where Mwaitu, as she was popularly known, would host any children who had a problem.

I remember when I was in Standard Seven, Mwaitu hosted a young teenage mother. I later came to learn that they young mother was Mwaitu sister’s grandchild. She had run away from her parents’ home after a strained relationship with her parents. Mwaitu allowed the girl to stay with her for three months, counselling her and taking care of her and her baby. And when her parents came for her, Mwaitu send the girl to the market, quite a distance away and remained with the baby. She wanted to talk to the parents alone. I remember Mwaitu saying that the girl would not leave her house. I remember her asking them what they would do differently if she went with them back home.


Their responses were not convincing enough to Mwaitu who had already made up her mind. The only deal she would accept was that the girl was to go back to school. If not, she would better stay with her. That day, the parents went back home without the girl.

My Mwaitu, the woman who called everyone ‘my child’,  passed away at 106 years, just a week after my university graduation. PHOTO| DENNIS ONSONGO

Mwaitu was happy about it. That evening, she explained to my father why she could not just let a young girl follow her parents and waste away her life at home only to later become a nanny or gardener. ”These days, education is everything. My child is going back to school. The parents will only come for her with an admission letter to school.“ That was Mwaitu for you. The communal mother who stood for the rights of all her children. Today, that girl is a lawyer, advancing human rights in the society.

Mwaitu had never been to school, yet she exuded the wisdom and intelligence of a modern educated mother. In fact, the closest that she had come to going to school  was when she joined an adult class at the local Kikongooni African Brotherhood Church. It was in the late nineties and I was in Standard Five then. I would accompany her to ‘school’ on Saturday afternoons. Immediately after Mwaitu could write her name and signature, she opted out.

As we joked around, my sister and I would give her a pen and a paper to see if she could remember how to write her name and signature which was more of an animal drawing. Then we would laugh at her for days on end. She eventually forgot how to write her name, but she kept the hilarious signature.

Mwaitu was a hardworking subsistence farmer and cereal trader who walked long distances on foot from Ngelani Hills in Machakos to Kikuyu and Banana to fend for her six children, and those of her co-wives and other relatives. Her house was always full. She fought hard to raise resources to educate my father, Mwololo Mutisya, Her efforts were rewarded, when my father and my aunt later became teachers.

In her old age, as Mwaitu slowly lost her eyesight, she always told me that I was her eyes, since I could understand those things that she could not.

Page 1 of 2