Breaking The Glass Ceiling is an autobiography of Mary Gakunga, a Kenyan female educationist, who has managed to fashion her early life experiences in a humble rural background into a life transforming force.
She has dedicated her life story in memory of her late parents Paul Thuo Wahiu and Speranza Wanjiku, her late husband Aloysius Ndung’u Gakunga, her children Patricia, Brian, Jacqueline, Alfred, Jennifer and Dennis, her grandchildren, and the women of Kenya and Africa who, in her own words, in the midst of their daily toil and numerous challenges, remain resilient propelled by their conviction that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
The opening chapter familiarises the reader with Mrs Gakunga’s lineage. Mrs Gakunga was born in a simple rural family in Fort Hall District (present day Murang’a County), yet despite her ascendancy in life later, she has never forgotten her roots.
The autobiography, which is available on the online site marygakunga.com, employs a characteristic feminine style where ordinary realities are not glossed over in a hurry (as a masculine literary approach would likely do), but are finely dissected with the precision of a surgeon’s knife.
Liberal use of songs
The style adopted in writing the autobiography helps the reader to understand the worlds that Mrs Gakunga has come to inhabit from infancy. Her liberal use of songs, both traditional and Christian, adds flavor to her various points of view. Mrs Gakunga stands out specifically in how she meticulously describes the culture of her Kikuyu people, as she experienced and understood it.
“I reminisce with nostalgia about a life of folktales, riddles and tribal myths narrated to us as we sat around the traditional fire place (marked by three cooking stones) in the evening,” she writes.
She describes her intellectual achievements and pursuits with laudable humility. She has given considerable space to her educational journey from the rural Githima Primary School, Gateiguru Girls Intermediate School, Mugoiri Girls High School, all the way to Mount Saint Scholastica College and John Carroll University, both in America.
From her varied educational pursuits, the reader will encounter the amazing transformation of a rural girl into a confident and sophisticated woman who, unlike the women in her lineage before her, has allowed herself to be defined by her abilities and not by a macho culture that tends to put women down.
The reader will find the account of Mrs Gakunga’s early identity struggles as a woman within the Kikuyu patriarchy particularly fascinating. Since her father had no intention to educate her simply because she was a woman, she chose to enroll herself into school. This act of bravery became a moment of self-awareness and liberation for her.
“I had taken the initiative to enroll myself at school because my father had no intention at all of sending me to school. I had thus taken the first step towards self-realization,” she writes.
Young girls will identify with the honesty with which she describes her adolescent love affair and also learn some valuable home truths about relationships with boys. As would be expected of a mother, the book is replete with fond childhood memories of her husband and children.
Mrs Gakunga details her transformative role as an educationist and her crowning contributions at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), where she worked as a curriculum developer for close to three decades, before retiring at the Principal Lecturer’s level at the mandatory age in 1996.
Critics would portray her as a feminist, who is passionate in the pursuit of women causes due to her insistency on women issues. However, a keen reading of this autobiography shows that the lessons from Mrs Gakunga’s life are far more complex than this criticism.
“I am basically very patient but will come out fighting on issues I feel strongly about. I hate exploitation and injustice. I value straightforward, honest operations and abhor underhand deals. The saying that ‘what is worth doing is worth doing well’, best describes my philosophy of life,” she writes.