What you need to know:
- She helped fight HIV and Aids in east Africa when the epidemic was at its worst.
- She has also came face-to-face with war in Liberia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
If you want a detailed account of major crises that have hit Africa in recent years, you need to have a chat with Jacinta Maingi, the woman who loves being at the centre of the action, however risky.
She helped fight HIV and Aids in East Africa when the epidemic was at its worst, came face-to-face with war in Liberia and Zimbabwe, battled Ebola in Liberia, traversed the region where Boko Haram started in Nigeria, and generally risked her life across the continent.
But if it wasn’t for her love for Africa, probably she would have been in the US now. She quit a well-paying job and returned to Kenya, where she didn’t even have a job. Perhaps she could have been in the UK, but she was once there and the life of sitting at a desk in front of a laptop did not tickle her fancy. She chose Liberia instead, with its wars and all.
Now, as Covid-19 ravages the continent, she is constantly thinking of ways to use her long experience in managing crises. And as she recounted her eventful 28 years at the heart of crises with Lifestyle at her Kilimani home in Nairobi, she said that even with her battle-hardened heart, there is one country where she cannot return to – Zimbabwe. It is because of the graphic nature of killings she witnessed while there. We will come to that shortly.
So, how was the humanitarian spirit born in her? In her teenage, she was uncertain of what she wanted to pursue in school which deep in her she knew it must be about people and households. She, therefore, registered to major in home economics but while moving to Form 5, that specialisation was scrapped by the government, forcing her into secretarial school. But her heart wasn’t at home.
She later attended Temple Secretarial College from where she graduated with first class certificate in secretarial duties. She later landed a job with Kenya Industrial Estates as a secretary to the projects manager.
Since her heart was not satisfied by being a secretary, she pursued further education and with support from the one-time archbishop of Nairobi, Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki, she left for the US, where she attended Fontbonne University.
Even though she was advised to take business administration, she felt it was not who she was career wise.
“I wanted something about helping people and not how to manipulate people’s pockets,” she says.
Subsequently, in her second semester, she changed to humanities, specialising in sociology. And, finally, she had struck the right chord. Four years later, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology but she wasn’t going back to Kenya with one degree.
So, upon graduation, she enrolled at St Louis University in Missouri State for master’s in social and clinical psychology, later graduating as the best student for the year on the dean’s list. She was the only African in her class.
She worked in the US as a family therapist for seven years with Central Baptist Family Services in St Louis Missouri, fulfilling her long-time dream. But something in her African spirit still beat for home soil.
“I missed home and the issues I was dealing with in the US weren’t as stinging as what my people go through. I knew they needed me and I missed serving them. I made the bold decision and resigned but the organisation wouldn’t let me go. They actually tore my resignation letter and said they’d keep my position open for five years in case I’d change my mind,” recalls Jacinta.
She came back home in 1987 without a promised job but to serve. Being away for eight years meant a lot had changed and she couldn’t find her way around easily. She had to tarmac for a whole year with no opportunities.
She reveals that the organisation she worked for in the US came calling enough times through the US embassy but in her gut she was sure she wanted to stay in Africa.
Later on, a social worker opportunity came up at Undugu Society that dealt with children in the streets. The pay was way low,as were the working conditions, but her heart was at peace. She was finally serving at home.
“Once a week as a team, including the late Fr Arnold Grol, we would wear rugged clothes and take to the streets of Nairobi deep in the night to speak to the children in the streets in order to give them a shoulder to lean on and an ear to their sad stories and dark past. This was in order to advise them on where they could get support and leave the streets,” she says.
A door would open again for Jacinta in February 1991 at Norwegian Church Aid, where she landed the position of Regional Programme Director for the Eastern Africa region. In that role, she was coordinating the development programme that included HIV/Aids activities as well as offering technical support to non-formal education and skills and building schools for poor children in slums and marginalised communities. Later, she also worked as a resource person for the Southern Africa region and South East Asia.
“This opportunity came with lots of benefits and I travelled the world for the 12 years I was with that organisation. It’s here that my relationship with The Sudan, as it was called, began as an HIV expert. Their government received me as a dignitary and I was supposed to train their military personnel as well as church leaders on HIV prevention, intervention and response. I can never forget how I addressed stadiums packed with men in uniform; all major generals across Sudan as well as men of the cloth.
"I knew this was the beginning of the realisation of my African dream. All I wanted was to pen a beautiful story of how to change the narrative of terror in Africa. After my training with the military personnel, I was moved when they reported that they would develop stickers with HIV/ Aids messages to put on their guns to act as remembrance since guns were their best friends.
“Tears welled up my eyes on how much difference I had made. Of course the bombings are still so vivid in my mind to date and the evacuation that we awaited each time a nearby location got hit. With my years of intervention there, I rejoiced as women danced around the fire in Juba after my sessions following years of enduring sorrow and pain,” she recalls.
As if that was not enough, in 2002, World Council of Churches (WCC) had started a HIV/AIDS programme and was looking for someone to head the Eastern African region. The Norwegian Church Aid HIV and Aids Advisor in Norway was in Kenya and he advised the council that Jacinta would be the person for that post.
And after looking at her credentials, the WCC HIV/ Aids director didn’t even want to do an interview — he believed she should take up the job, which she did after a few deliberations. She proceeded to work with them for six years.
After the six-year stint, she joined World Vision in the UK, where she worked as an HIV/ AIDS advisor in charge of Africa, India and Latin America.
“As I went to take the job in UK, I knew I was leaving Africa but I went anyway. True to my word, my heart was bleeding for Africa and after three years I didn’t want to stay there anymore. I am a community and people’s person and having a community of me, my laptop and my desk was not what I called a fulfilling job. I terminated my contract and boarded the next flight to Liberia. They couldn’t believe I was leaving such a prestigious post to serve deep in a violence front with the International Rescue Committee, but I told them ‘I’m African and I’m going back to fight for Africa’’,” she says firmly.
She served there as a senior gender-based violence coordinator.
“Working in Liberia opened up even a greater opportunity to serve. The reason I call it service is because no amount of money can keep you in such a hostile environment unless you love the people and what you do. I was there to do capacity building and to offer psychotherapeutic recovery to survivors of domestic violence. Here, I made the most unimaginable move. Instead of going to the women only, I approached the men and informal militias to train them on why they should protect the women and girls (and at times men). This move to include men in addressing GBV was documented by UN and I was highly lauded by former President Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for the boldness,” says Jacinta.
She reveals that it is during this time of celebration that an even bigger giant surfaced and they were back to the war-zone. Ebola hit Liberia hard.
Jacinta narrates that her heart sank with the burials they would hold in a day and the thousands of bodies they found at their doorstep and on the roadside each morning.
“At times too overwhelmed, I would lock my office to pray to God for strength for the next hour. The situation was so severe such that at some point there were no burial spaces. So, we were forced to order bulldozers to dig huge pits and we would pile dead bodies on trucks, which would empty into the pits and cremate them since a body of an Ebola patient wasn’t to be buried by the family due to the risk of contracting the disease. It was so traumatising to see them burn and worse still the pain of addressing families at the gate asking for their loved ones. Anything on an Ebola patient would be burnt, too, including phones, money, belts and any other personal effects.”
“It’s during this turmoil that Concern Worldwide took me in as a Psychosocial Advisor to the affected and infected, a role that the Government of Kenya needs to address seriously regarding Covid-19 as well because thousands of Kenyans have been infected and affected by the scourge,” says Jacinta.
At that time, the Kenya government wanted to evacuate her twice but she declined. All international staff in her organisation left the country and she was the only one left behind. Her motto was that she would remain with the Liberians to fight the battle together.
She says her motto was: “Ebola found me in Liberia and it will leave me in Liberia.”
The sting was so severe in Liberia and it was not long before she was called by International Medical Corps as a mental health and psychosocial coordinator, heading the second largest Ebola treatment centre in the country.
True to her word, Ebola came, found her and left her firm still at the battlefront for her people. The organisation thought that this was the toughest woman they had met so they couldn’t let her go without placing her in the next biggest battle front in Africa — the Boko Haram zone in Nigeria.
“The organisation posted me at the heart of the terror; the exact point where Boko Haram was born. I found broken people, some who were looking at suicide rather than die in the hands of the terrorists. I made history again by collecting the names of all the chiefs, other community leaders, ring leaders to the informal militia and medical personnel (doctors and nurses) in the region. I trained them on GBV and it was all over the news with lots of applause from the government. I also trained community volunteers who worked with survivors of GBV and liaised with the chiefs to respond to GBV cases. I remember one man wailing so loudly while holding to his gun saying no one ever taught him that it was his duty to protect his mother, sisters and daughters until he attended one of my trainings,” she recalls.
Jacinta was ready to face the next giant but this was not to be as easy as she thought. Zimbabwe came calling through the Centre for Victims of Torture in 2017.
“I thought I have seen it all and braved so much working in disaster response. But Zimbabwe was the most traumatising and the only country in the world where I wouldn’t go back to. My last yet but my worst,” says Jacinta with a pale face.
“There is a silent war where they kill and torture so badly and it’s all politically instigated. It’s so personal such that brothers turn against each other and young men kill their parents just because they are in the opposition. The country looks peaceful from outside but inside there’s a big wound with dark stories of killings, anarchy and rape that I would never want to hear again in my life. Everything was more than I faced in Nigeria, Liberia and Sudan put together. Honestly, I left Zimbabwe because my heart couldn’t hold together anymore and thank God my contract had just ended,” she says.
Such a tough front to be in for the better part of her life, Jacinta Maingi holds no regrets at all apart from the Covid-19 pandemic that has halted most of her operations. She tried contacting the Ministry of Health in Kenya to assist in responding the Covid-19 pandemic to no avail.
“I’m ready to serve at the centre of the current global pandemic but I want to serve only in Africa, not anywhere else. I have globe-trotted for over 30 years and it is time to settle down at home. To date I still stop my car to speak to children in the streets of Nairobi because my heart beats for them and for Africa. I have two mentors who have motivated me to be who I am. The first one is my mother. That woman can go through a wall, she is a fighter. My second one is retired archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi who has supported me when the going was getting tough. He was the chairperson of my board in WCC office for Eastern Africa and I knew I had him on my side for advice and guidance so I made every move fearlessly. As for inspiration, it’s my daughter Ngina Maingi Dyroff, who continuously tells me, ‘Mama I want to be exactly like you,’” she adds amidst a laugh.
“Anyone aspiring to pursue their dream victoriously, one thing, just listen to your heart and make that bold step to make a difference no matter how small. You’ll hear people say, I changed my mind but you’ll never hear anyone say, I changed my heart,” she sums it up.