“Kwaheri mommy, mimi nimeenda (goodbye, my dear daughter, I have left).” These are the last words that Winnie Wadera heard her father utter to her in 1994, before he vanished without a trace.
“I was four years old, and I remember my dad coming home with a truck. He and the people who had accompanied him to our home packed everything from the house, said goodbye in the most uncharacteristic manner, jumped into the truck and zoomed off,” says the 31-year-old student of gender and development at the University of Nairobi.
She was an only child and did not immediately comprehend what was happening in the world she was trapped or had been living in before. But, with the absence of her father becoming gradually louder and more pronounced, and especially with the lack of evening hugs just before bedtime, she started to feel the change.
Teased by playmates
“His absence was made even more conspicuous by the neighbourhood children who could tease me asking where my father was. Others would beat me up as they knew there was no father to whom I would report their assault on me.”
At the time, Winnie and her mother, a primary school teacher then, were living in Mombasa. After her dad left and life became unbearable, her mother decided to move them to Kisumu, where they lived in a slum.
“Moving from a mansion to a slum meant culture shock for me. I had not been prepared for the drastic change, or maybe I was too young to be prepared for it. We had to compromise the quality of life to afford the basic needs and survive.”
Bad to worse
“Life in Kisumu was different, not only because my father was away, but also because adapting to a new environment was taking a toll on me. At four years old, I was quite affected by the drastic changes in my environment without understanding what was happening. I became sickly and malnourished. It was evident that the move had negatively impacted me in numerous ways, including psychologically.”
It did not help that she was enrolled in a new school to continue with her studies. She met unkind children and could not understand why she spoke exclusively in Kiswahili and English.
“In Kassagam Primary School where I was enrolled in continuing with my studies, I had to endure the impact of the language barrier. I moved from a place where I was speaking in English and Kiswahili to Dholuo, which I did not understand and could not speak at that time. It was a great challenge that affected my self-confidence and esteem.”
As days passed, she understood that her world had transformed. Winnie’s mother never spoke of her father’s absence. “I was surrounded by feminine energy because that is what was available, and I tapped into it.”
While in Class Eight, she heard from her father for the first time since 1994 when he left. He sent her a success card via post office to her school address, wishing her the best in her exams. As if hoping that she couldn’t be worried about his being away, he signed off the card with his name without many details. She never heard from him after that until she was in college.
The fangs of poverty
After completing primary school, Winnie joined Migingo Girls High School. While there, she experienced first-hand her mother’s struggle to fend for herself and afford hefty school fees for her.
“When she came to visit me, I could see that she was losing weight drastically. But it was not until I was in Form Two when she came to our school in torn shoes that I realised things were harsh on us. She could no longer afford school fees for a boarding school, and so I had to transfer to Kassagam Day School in Form Three.”
In day school, she was entering into a new world for which no one had prepared her. The rapid transition demanded that she create her own niche and an identity that her new schoolmates could see.
“The changes that had happened in my life came in quick succession that I had no time to absorb one while awaiting the next move. I decided to hide in peer pressure.” That’s the period when she started partying heavily and abusing drugs to fit in and to “have a tale for my friends in school”.
“I thought life was intended to revolve around proving yourself to others for their approval.”
Her lifestyle choices saw her focusing less and less on schoolwork. She performed dismally in her final year examinations.
Her mother eventually noticed something was amiss.
“After Form Four, I would come home unusually late into the night. I had also started wearing new, expensive clothes. This alarmed my mother as she did not know from where I was getting the money to buy the nice dresses.”
By that time, some potential suitors were offering her gifts in the hope she would have sex with them. She continued receiving gifts from older men who could afford it and whose sole agendum was to win over her. That was until her mother decided to send her to the village, to her grandmother’s.
“My mother had seen very many girls in the slum who had ended up pregnant and miserable. She was sure that I would follow the same trajectory sooner than later and acted upon that knowledge by sending me to the village.”
Transitioning from an urban setting to the village was a difficult phase for her, but one which she believed was necessary.
“I started farming in my grandmother’s garden, an experience that was difficult for me.”
She used the opportunity of being in the village to see how other girls were leading their lives. She knew that she would likely follow their path if she did not do something differently. That is when she decided to send an application to Nairobi Aviation College.
“I knew that I needed to increase my chances of survival and a better life. When I wrote the letter, I expected that a response would be available in a fortnight. I travelled to Kisumu just about the time the response letter inviting me to join college was sent to me.”
Her mother was happy about improving her life and decided to take a loan to send Winnie to Nairobi for a journalism course. In the city, her hollowness and naivety were exposed bare. It was her first mature attempt at adulthood.
“My naivety and hollowness was exposed in college. I got into wild partying and sex with older men for alcohol, food, clothes, and approval. I wanted to tell a story when my peers did. I was engaged in all that oblivious of the impact it had on me, my health or my future.” She felt that she needed affirmation from men and needed to hear them tell her that she was beautiful, loved, and worthy.
“I was looking for something more than just material stuff from men; I was seeking their validation. I was looking to fill a hole left by my father-little did I know that no man could replace my father.”
“My dad never looked for me. I looked for him. The first time was while in college in my second year and I needed some money for upkeep. I knew that my mother was straining financially and was genuinely doing all she possibly could to sustain me in college.”
She looked for her father in Mombasa and sought financial assistance, which she readily got. Her aunt had informed Winnie where her father lived, making it easy to find him. Their relationship was cordial, although distant. She needed it close. She knew that her father was in Mombasa − her aunt used to tell her she would see him around.
“After graduating from college, I rang my dad up and asked whether I could go and live with him at the Coast. He said I was welcome.”
She hoped to meet him at a secluded place and extend her forgiveness to him. When she called her father and requested him to show up at a hotel, it turned out to be impossible. Hence, she had to meet him at his home, alongside her stepmother.
“It was understandable that he could not meet me at a private place, you know. Although my intentions were pure, he could not readily tell that. I met him at home, and we had lunch to break the ice. I gifted him with a wad of cash as a giving Christian and said I had forgiven him.”
However, her main objective in going to Mombasa was not to live with her father. She hoped that she would find potential men who would help transform her life. She never did.
“I did not find a man, and it was around the same time I got born again. That was in 2010. After a while, we disagreed with my dad, and I left for Kisumu to my mother’s house.” The fact that he now lived with his new wife made it a little harder to stay longer. She woke up one morning and left without a word. In the same attitude, her father never followed up to find out where or why she had left.
After eleven years of silence, in 2021, Winnie hit the road again, eager to meet her father. She had carried the burden of hurt in her heart for a long, and it was time to lift it off, forgive her father and rest.
“I decided to go and offer my forgiveness to him. I knew that I needed to forgive him for lifting the veil of bitterness off my heart. I knew that being bitter could affect how I related with others too. By forgiving him, I knew I was set free.”
A Christian and a student, Winnie also runs an organisation called Winnie-ng World, whose motto is “Knowledge transfer.” She and her team teach life skills to adolescents and young adults and are supported by well-wishers.
“Fathers play a key role in their child’s life. Looking back, I can confidently say that everyone needs a father, and every daughter needs a father even more. Having a father around you will teach you how to negotiate with masculine energy and coexist with other men.
“Living with a father in the same house shapes you, covers and protects you. You learn affirmation from how a father compliments you. When he says he loves your hair, your dress and mannerisms, you believe that infinitely and that raises your self-esteem. It does not matter how much of the affirmation your mother does, as that cannot compare to that of your father.” Borrowing from her life’s experience, she says that a father’s position in a daughter’s life is irreplaceable.