These days one comes across autobiographies all too often in Kenyan bookshops. Some of the memoirs on the shelves are really informative accounts of the lives of the storytellers.
Many of these books tell of struggles by individuals to go to school, a difficult childhood, travels to places far from home and encountering new or strange cultures, success or failure at college or work, experience at work, and adult life that almost naturally involves marriage, family and then old age. A number of these autobiographies, though, tend to be long without necessarily being entertaining.
However, Susan Karanja tells the story of her life in The Child of Many Worlds (Big Books, 2022) in very few but quite inspiring words. This is what one could call a small book with a big story. The memoir is slightly more than 150 pages. But the story – or stories – packed in it is a large canvas of a life lived well. This is one of the few life stories written by a Kenyan in which the storyteller does not moan too much about how difficult life was, has been or is.
This is a story of struggle, triumph and satisfaction with life. This does not mean that Susan does not talk about problems that she has faced in her life. Indeed she does. It simply means that the protagonist focuses her attention mostly on the wins than the losses.
Like many of the life stories of individuals from central Kenya, Susan Karanja also speaks about that inevitable subject: Mau Mau. In her case, her parents grew up “under the close watch of the ruthless homeguards and powerful colonial chiefs, who were the eyes and ears of the British administration”, she writes. Like so many young men at the time, Emmanuel Karanja – Susan’s father – was arrested and detained at the Manyani Concentration Camp for seven years, according to Susan Karanja. He would later be released at the age of 27 years and sent back to Nyeri, where he would soon marry and start a family.
But one needs an income to raise a family. How could a suspected Mau Mau get a job at the time? However, Karanja and a friend used their wits to get into Nairobi to look for work. They carried farm implements and “Whenever they were stopped by police officers or homeguards, they claimed that they were making their way to a nearby farm to work as labourers.” They ended up in Kiambu where Karanja found work building roads. Nairobi wasn’t far away and he would soon settle in Bahati Estate with his village mates. Karanja would end up as a chupa na debe dealer, coffee seller, hardware shop owner, owner of a building in Nyamakima area, now Millennium Hotel, and eventually the proprietor of Emmaccra Hotel.
It is this approach of hard work and the persistent pursuit of one’s dream that Susan inherited from her father. When she failed to get admission into the University of Nairobi by just one point, she was determined to continue with her education. Her father surprised her by securing her admission to a university in India. Susan would travel from Nairobi to India, arriving in Bombay on July 26, 1980. She would go on to study for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Nagpur University for three years.
Many people would be surprised today to know that a graduate could simply write a letter to the government applying for a job and most likely get it in the early 1980s. This is how Susan, who had graduated from university got employed as an accountant by the government in November 1983.
This is what she writes about her job, pay and life, “My salary was Sh2,400 with a house allowance of Sh1,200. It was not a lot of money but was enough for me to get by as a young woman. A loaf of bread was about 50 cents, while a soda cost half that price. With five shillings you could buy basic provisions like milk, tea leaves and sugar, which would last you several days.” She rented a house in South B estate for Sh600 per month.
What Susan describes working for the government as an accountant then would appear as fiction to some people today. For instance, she says that government payments were always in cash or cheque, yet very few cases of fraud would be reported. She also writes that she would walk from Bima House to the Central Bank of Kenya carrying cash in her bag to deposit in the government account and walk back with the payment slip for filing. Was this case of honesty or just a system that worked? When did the structures change such that even with electronic payments that leave a trail in the system, employees steal millions from the public purse?
Susan also reminds the reader about the struggles that women in government employment have had to endure historically. Many Kenyans may not know or have forgotten that women were not allowed to have an Identification Card (ID) until 1978 when the law on the registration of persons was amended. Married women civil servants were not paid house allowance at the time Susan was employed by the government. Why? Because it was assumed that their husbands earned the house allowance, Susan reminds the reader.
Permanent and pensionable
She also notes that when she was employed, women were being employed on a “renewable three-year contract” before they could be employed as permanent and pensionable. The consequence of this contract was that women earned less pension when they retired. This practice was later abolished.
Yet Susan worked in these difficult circumstances to rise through the ranks to the level of a Senior Deputy Director at the National Treasury in 2020. During her time in the civil service, she served in several other capacities and continues to serve the country as a mentor, and a trainer in governance for boards of public and private institutions. When not so busy teaching managers, Susan spends her time growing vegetables and fruits, and keeping bees at Janaide Farm in Nanyuki.
One would describe The Child of Many Worlds as a call to so many other women who have served the public in various capacities to record their experiences. Indeed this book is an invitation to the reader to reflect on why the struggle for gender equality is a difficult task. One wonders if Susan would have gone on to high school and university, and sought to work for the government if she hadn’t had such strong women like her grandmother and mother, and supportive men like her uncle and father.
The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]