It is hard to write about Wanjiru in the yesterday. Her indefatigable, vibrant energy, her love of freedom, justice and equality defy that.
I met Wanjiru in those grim Nyayo years and did not realise what a huge impact she was going to have not only on my life and the lives of many others. For instance, she was present when I had my first labour pang, and she read the eulogy for me at my sister’s funeral when I was unable to go home. These moments are not personal to me in the way they seem here but epitomise Wanjiru, private yet public in a seamless way, always present for others, compassionate and caring.
Much of her contributions in the public have been spoken about in the years she has been recovering from the fatal plane crash, which ultimately took not only her life but that of the Labour Minister Ahmad Mohammed Khalif with two pilots in the crash in the town of Busia in 2002. We all believed that she was going to pull through and even then, she managed to comfort us with her courage summing up how she lived her life, with stoicism and optimism.
As has rightly been said repeatedly in this period when Wanjiru was ill, she was a leader, activist for democracy, freedom, human rights, equality and justice and always stood on the side of the oppressed, particularly women and the poor. She worked tirelessly and with courage, using her razor-sharp intellect to focus thousands, of the task at hand in creative ways which brought her knowledge and everyday life together in very practical ways. For she was an intellectual and academic and she brought this to her activism. Equally, she brought her activism into her academic and intellectual life. One day she would be working with global power brokers in suits, and the next she was in the grass roots, engaging power in its different manifestations and locations with equal ease. This subtle ability to succinctly carry what was applicable in one context to another successfully and appropriately was Wanjiru’s greatest strength and she had many. Her sense of humour allowed her to do this.
We spent many a day and night together particularly in those tough Nyayo years when many, including her husband were jailed, tortured, disappeared, killed, exiled or harassed in other ways. What was moving during this period is the way in which Wanjiru applied herself to the personal as well as the public matters with equal fierceness and compassion. Many will attest to her generosity in these difficult days when she became the hub of activity around all matters freedom, not only for Kenyans and women, but for the international community as it is represented in the United Kingdom and elsewhere and she has been recognised with public accolades for her contribution.
Wanjiru urged particularly women and others to take responsibility for their lives by become leaders and to live their lives in the centre-fold of humanity, not its margins and she did this by example through practicing what she preached, but also training others and advocating for others. This is exemplified by her work in Akina Mama wa Africa which she founded with others and later, she took the principles of working to bring women into the centre-fold of life through her work with ABANTU where they developed policy, training and advocacy from feminist perspectives through all aspects of life particularly in Africa, but also globally. She firmly believed that feminism would benefit all of society and therefore engaged with men, women and children.
Despite her very public life, there was a seamlessness in Wanjiru’s life which made the saying the personal is political real, even her love life from start to finish. She met and fell in love in politics and she has passed away in love and politics with her loving and courageous husband at her side very publicly as they began. If you went to Wanjiru’s house, you would just as easily find her rolling out another mandazi or chapati just as readily as she would be unfurling yet another freedom manifesto for Kenya, South Africa, Grenada, Nicaragua, political prisoner or the women’s movement.
Similarly, her public life carried a great deal of her public life as she worked closely with her sisters who adored and emulated her as well as her husband and many of her friends such as those with whom she experienced the plane crash. I met her children, Wangui, Pambi and Mugure involved in the performance of the Trail of Dedan Kimathi! She was a family oriented person, and although many would wonder where she found the time, she did, and in very personal ways. She would write that card with her fountain pen when she could not come and if she could, she would trek to you at night or morning and give you her own personal touch. This is the way she was with her family and with the young ones particularly who always adored her. She was loved by her immediate and her wider global family and she had a way of making you feel that you were part of her world. Wanjiru also drew inspiration from her parents whom she kept abreast of the developments whether she was abroad or at home. This was very moving as it fed both ways and inspired everyone. She would tell us of her family’s acts of courage and said how much her mother’s acts of courage were an inspiration to her. This courage has been witnessed in the last few years as the family supported Wanjiru through her illness daily.
There was a vulnerable and shy Wanjiru which made her self effacing to a fault, as it was so incompatible with the giant that she was. This for me, is her most endearing quality and it drew many people because she did not hide it. It made her human and exceptionally lovable. I write these things with a heavy heart because I had plans like everybody else who was waiting for her to recover.
Her life spans very long days and very long nights and vast, vast spaces, cultures and individuals across the globe. Her impact will reverberate for years to come and her name is now written amongst those other greats that she sang of: Mekatilili, Mbuya Nehanda, Queen Amina of Zaria, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiyu, Muraa wa Ngiti, Anumbai Patel, Sojourner Truth and many many other living heroes and heroines of our time.
Wanjiru always sang but also told the funniest anecdotes at every possible occasion and in a very natural way, so it must be with song that we must say goodbye:
For me, what Wanjiru really epitomised came to me when I lost my sister and did not hesitate in thinking about who would represent me at the funeral when I could not go home due to my exile: She was my comrade, my sister, my friend and my ‘mother’ (I share her daughter’s name) and nobody else could be those things for me. And I know that these sentiments are shared by many others across the world in public and in private and hope that her legacy will endure, for the things that she held dear and the things that she cherished, this monumental life. This was a life well lived and much more will be said by all those lives she touched and hopefully, we will all carry fragments of what she was into our daily lives both at home and in our work where-ever we are. And us she leaves behind, we are very, very proud to have been blessed to share special time with this very special ray of hope.