Self Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from my memoirs, which I have modified for International Women’s Day. Please let me know what you think, and share it with your networks.
It’s a sunny morning in mid May, and relatives have gathered for a small commencement ceremony in the courtyard of a wooden building at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. As they wait for us to emerge, a man turns to my parents.
“Who are you here for?” he asks after a brief exchange of greetings.
“My son,” my father answers. “His name is Edwin, and he’ll be the commencement speaker.”
“Oh, we know Edwin,” the man says. “Our daughter Stacey says he’s very smart and very funny.”
“I’m very proud of him,” my father says.
That’s just my imagination. I was the commencement speaker at my graduation from Berkeley, but my parents weren’t there . I was too broke to bring my mother from Kenya, and my father had been dead for nearly 10 years. But had my old man been there, he would’ve been extremely proud of me.
“Son, you have done me proud,” he might have said after my commencement speech.
I don’t know what I would have said in return. It would have been awkward to finally hear my father say that he was proud of me. And it would have been even more confusing to me because never in the 20 years I knew him did he ever tell me that I made him proud.
What I’m certain, however, is that he would have bragged to other people about how his son had excelled in one of the best universities in the world. But as much as my father would have claimed all the credit, the true champion of my education was my mother.
I don’t tell you this story to discredit my father, for he played a momentous role in my education. It was my father who created the master plan for my education. But without my mother, the plan would have been doomed. This story is about her and other women in my life, without whom I wouldn’t have achieved what I did academically. Any flaws of my father conveyed in this story are only a small part of who he was, and are only meant to illustrate how important my mother was in my education.
Even before I ever set foot in a classroom in the Gusii highlands of southwestern Kenya, I knew that my father had an educational and career path laid out for me.
“One day you, Monene, are going to be the president of Kenya,” he’d say.
Monene, is the Gusii word used endearingly for the firstborn son. My father used it only when he was drunk, for that was the only time he showed any kind of affection to me. When he was sober, his expectations of me were more realistic. He wanted me to be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, a professor, a judge, an architect, or any of the white-collar jobs many of his former classmates had.
He had dropped out of high school after only one year because his mother couldn’t afford to pay for the education of the children her husband, my grandfather, had abandoned. But after working in factories across the country, my father was hired as a primary school teacher. Although he didn’t have a college diploma, he was hired because it was soon after independence from Britain and the Kenyan government was so desperately in need of teachers that it hired anyone who could read, write, and do basic math.
To begin my journey to greatness, my father wanted me to attend one of the top Kenyan high schools like Alliance and Lenana Boys. But he said he’d be happy with Kabarak High School, in then President Daniel arap Moi’s hometown.
Every time I heard my father talk about those fancy high schools, I wondered how he – a poor, untrained primary school teacher, father of six and still going – planned to pay for my education there. Neither my mother nor I knew how much money he made, but we knew that he had no savings. Every end of the month, he had to borrow money for bus fare to the nearest bank in a town many miles away to collect his salary. In those days, the government deposited salaries in a bank and employees went there at the end of the month, provided identification, and received cash.
Although teachers didn’t earn much, those like my father who lived in rural areas could have saved enough money over the years to pay for our education. In Gusii, especially, most people didn’t need money to survive. The area gets plenty of rainfall, so much that there is a creek every couple of miles. And most people own the land they live on, where they grow corn, vegetables, sweet potatoes, and pineapples, and raise chickens, goats, sheep, and cows. Gusii is the banana capital of Kenya. Avocados fell from trees like cluster bombs because we couldn’t eat them fast enough. A person who had all that and a salary could easily have become wealthy, or at least save enough to put his children in good schools.
But the end of the month was the only time teachers and their friends met in the city to drink bottled beer, a luxury incomparable to busaa, the illicit home brews they were accustomed to. My father did not disclose to my mother how much he earned because he knew that, like all wives of employed men, she would try to get him to cut down on bottled beer and save for our education.
“Do you realize that at some point your oldest three sons could be in high school at the same time? How are you going to pay for them?” she’d ask every time she found in his pockets money that he’d said he didn’t have but had been too drunk to hide.
Although she had no idea how much he earned, my mother seemed certain that were the beginning of my high school to arrive, my father couldn’t afford to pay for the education he so cherished. Instead of saving, he continued to entertain himself and his friends. To do so he had to keep secret the real amount he made.
Men like my father went to unbelievable lengths to hide money from their wives. One of my relatives saw his father – a teacher like mine – hide money in an old tree stump. The father proceeded to hand over to his wife what he claimed was all he earned. The son informed his mother that he had seen him tuck something away in a stump. Mother and son walked there to find several bills, which they took away. On the next day the father went to get the money, hoping to go entertain his friends. The money was missing. He took an axe and began to split the stump, thinking the money had fallen through a crack into a hole beneath.
Wife and son watched him sweat as he labored, claiming to be chopping firewood for them, a task a Gusii man would normally delegate to his sons. He chopped it down, stopping only to eat lunch that he demanded be brought to him on site. After leveling it to the ground, he asked his son for a hoe to dig up the stump. It was then that his wife decided to confront him.
“Thank you for the firewood,” she said. “We found what you hid there yesterday.”
She did not give the money back to him. Her relentless efforts to prevent her husband from wasting money on alcohol paid off, making hers one of the most educated families in Makairo.
If we African men would lay aside our pride, we’d acknowledge that without this kind of relentlessness by the women in our lives we’d be doomed. They were the least educated in the family. My mother, for example, was pulled out of school to marry my father. (Men used to joke that you only needed to educate a woman enough to know the difference between her husband’s important documents and the scrap paper she’d use to kindle fire).
I look back now and I see how intelligent my mother and other women in my life were. They agreed with men that education was important. But women were the operations managers who executed the master plan.
They did it unselfishly.
Women were the only ones who believed in that famous African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. If my mother wasn’t home when I came from school hungry, I could count on my grandmother or any of my aunts to feed me. And when they managed to get money from our fathers, our mothers didn’t buy themselves beautiful dresses; the bought us school supplies.
When we excelled in school, or when I something worthy of praise, I was my father’s son. But when I screwed up, my father would say to my mother: “I’m going to kill your son.”
Not once did she ever deny that I was her son.