What you need to know:
- Sarai was the first African woman allowed to perform nursing duties at The Aga Khan Hospital
Sarah Sarai was a pioneer nurse in Kenya, women’s leader, human rights advocate and freedom fighter.
From the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, Sarai worked in hospitals in far-flung corners of East Africa, starting at Fort Hall (Murang’a) District Hospital, and on to Msambweni, then to the Native Civil Hospital Makadara (now Coast General Hospital) Mombasa.
She also did nursing stints at Kilifi and Tanga in Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika.
She even ventured to Uganda where she worked for a short while at Mulago Hospital in Kampala.
As designated home visitor, Sarah followed patients to their homes especially sensitising women against traditional practices that affected their reproductive health and self-esteem.
In Nairobi, she was the first African woman allowed to perform nursing duties at The Aga Khan Hospital (then a clinic) and later as a theatre nurse at the European Hospital (present-day State House Road Girls High School), though officially she could only have the designation (and remuneration) of subordinate staff.
Sarai was born on November 3, 1913 at Kinoo, Kiambu County, the fourth child of traditionalist Jomo wa Gichanga and his part-Maasai first wife Bellewa. She had five other mothers, four brothers and sisters and 18 step-brothers and step-sisters.
Just before she turned 10 years, she ran away to the Church of Scotland Mission school at nearby Thogoto. Her father would sneak into the school and abduct her but Sarai would promptly return, until she was taken to Njoro where her family had emigrated, and forced to undergo the circumcision rite of passage.
After the circumcision, her father let her be — either because she had become an “adult” or because of distance.
Hardly 13 years old, she walked alone about 20km in the bush to the railway station where she towed away in a train back to “Mambere” school in Thogoto. She completed “Normal School” under the tutelage of the Rev Musa Gitau and the Rev Jackson Njiraine, and proceeded to train as a nurse and midwife under a Mrs Watson and Rev John William Arthur at the mission hospital.
After World War II, Sarai joined the Municipal Council of Nairobi as social welfare assistant. She initiated social and child welfare programmes in the African residential areas of Pumwani, Ziwani, Kaloleni and Shauri Moyo, among others.
She served as first African woman in the Nairobi African Advisory Council from 1949 to 1951. Even the colonialists had not prepared for female membership, because the certificate awarded her reads “in recognition of his services…” She worked tirelessly for the labour and family rights of Africans, especially women.
Her struggles led to the employment of women workers in the council, and granting them maternity leave.
Sara fought against racial segregation. She bought herself a bicycle to avoid riding in segregated commuter buses, where Europeans rode on upholstered seats up front while the Africans had wooden seats at the back. When she was breastfeeding, she would take her baby’s wicker basket on the bike to her office at Pumwani Social Hall, against all regulations. Those days, there was no maternity leave for African women and Sarai was making a statement about maternity and early childhood rights.
Shut out from the exclusively European East African Women’s League, she simply formed the African Women’s League, setting her objective to overwhelm the European organisation with the sheer numbers of the African ‘league’. The AWL worked to exact more political space for African women, and to support African women leaders to become more responsive to the needs and interests of women.
As colonial intransigency got more entrenched, Sarai joined other nationalists within Kenya African Union to press for an end to colonial rule. She led peaceful demonstrations for improvement of living and working conditions for Africans.
Sent into detention
She had just arrived home from a KAU meeting on the night of October 20, 1952 when she was arrested as she breastfed her baby in her house at Ziwani Estate in Nairobi and detained.
In detention at Athi River, she suffered terrible mastitis. Her four children (all under 10 years) and her two nieces who helped look after them, were subsequently thrown out of the council house and scattered to various family members, institutions and political allies.
Aged nine years at the time of his mother’s arrest, the first born joined street boys in Eastleigh where he learnt to inhale petrol fumes (before the advent of glue) and became intoxicated and violent for life.
The last born, aged nine years when he was finally rejoined with his mother, soon ran away, confused about a new mother. He grew up on the streets and though he returned home sometime in the 1980s, he has never overcome the trauma of separation.
Sarai died on July 14, 2003 aged 90.
Ms Jommo is a daughter of Sarah Sarai. This story is based on a biography of her mother she is writing.