Two selfless sisters who died two days apart leave a legacy of philanthropy

Caskets containing the remains of two sisters Fredah Kinanu Murugu and Kathleen Nkatha Murugu

Caskets containing the remains of two sisters Fredah Kinanu Murugu and Kathleen Nkatha Murugu during their burial at their ancestral home in Naari Location, Buuri Sub-County in Meru County on January 13, 2024.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

On January 13, 2024, three men stood on a red nylon carpet in Michogomone Primary School grounds, under a layer of grey clouds warning of rain, and perhaps the tears that were about to fall.

The school, named after the village, is nestled in the cold but rich agricultural location of Naari in Meru County. It is here that people from different parts of the country had gathered to bid farewell to two sisters who had died two days apart.

And so the trio – in blue jeans, and maroon and cream khaki pants – faced the mourners who sat in square tents pensively. Everyone had a view of the two white caskets that sat in the middle – Kathleen Nkatha Murugu lying in one with golden handles and Fredah Kananu Murugu in the other with silver hand-grips.

Fredah Kinanu Murugu and Kathleen Nkatha Murugu

Kathleen Nkatha Murugu.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

The time had come for the men from Alale – a remote village in West Pokot, more than 660km away – to pay their last respects.

For less than a minute, the man in maroon khaki pants expressed his shock at the death of Kathleen, whom he described as a “stranger who had immensely touched the lives of Pokot children”.

And for 28 seconds, the man in cream khaki pants only managed to introduce himself before bursting into tears.

As he spoke, the one in maroon khaki pants beside him wiped away tears with his fingers. Emotional, they walked away from the stage before the one in blue could say a word.

Kenya is still heavily grounded in the “superhuman men, weakling women” stereotype. As such, men are glorified for putting a rubber cork on their emotions, and terribly victimised for letting them out. So how touched were these ‘strangers’ that they defied the ‘patriarchal decree’?

I needed to find out why Kathleen’s death had affected them so. Although they had spoken in public, the trio preferred to remain unidentified in this story, for reasons known to themselves.The one in cream khaki pants was the most shaken.

“I saw you cry uncontrollably, I truly empathise with you,” I said.

“You don’t know how mum has changed my life and that of many children in my village, Alale,” he said.

“Please, tell me,” I urged him.

“You know as I stood there, my phone was persistently vibrating. I knew it was a distress call and I was afraid it was from one of the children who is to join Form One on Monday (January 15, 2024),” he said.

Kathleen had been educating six children – four boys and two girls – from Alale. All of them sat the 2023 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams, the leading scoring 367 marks and the last, 258 marks.

The highest scorer, a boy, was the one calling. He had received an admission letter from an extra-county school in Uasin Gishu.

“Before I left home on Wednesday, I assured them that all will be okay. Now, I don’t know what I will tell them. I’m even afraid of picking their calls,” he said.

Besides the six, more than 50 other orphans, and children living in households weighed down by extreme poverty, were also waiting for gifts from Kathleen.

Fredah Kinanu Murugu and Kathleen Nkatha Murugu

Fredah Kinanu Murugu.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

In 2019, she founded Kathleen Francis Foundation; a charity organisation purposed to raise the Pokot’s literacy levels, a need her late son, Bobby King Murugu, had identified years earlier when he spent time in the community.

The trio were her focal persons on the ground. She used them to identify and support the needy. For the six, they said she had promised to see them through college.

Since 2021, she has been providing the more than 50 children with learning materials, including exercise and textbooks, pencils, pens, uniforms and shoes.

“What’s going to happen to these children?” he wondered.

They all felt close to Kathleen. Throughout the conversation, they referred to her as “mum”. They said Kathleen never called them by their names. She used “my son”.

But there was a special connection between the man in cream khaki pants and Kathleen. He hosted Bobby, Kathleen’s late son, for the one year, he said, he spent in Alale. Kathleen too sponsored his diploma in journalism course, and a certificate in social work and community development.

The man in blue jeans said she had taught them the art of conflict resolution, skills they had begun transferring to residents through informal talks.

“ It will take time for me to come to terms with the death of mum,” he mumbled.

“I have never met such a good listener. She was so patient to listen to our needs. She gave us hope and sense of direction even when we felt we were fumbling in darkness,”  said the man in maroon khaki pants.

Kathleen had planned to build a vocational training centre in Alale, complete with a computer training lab.

“Her intention was to equip those who dropped out of school with entrepreneurial skills. Now, she is gone. I hope her family will keep her dream alive by helping us build the centre,” he said.

Then came a moment when they all laughed. It was about money. The man in cream khaki pants mentioned that mum had taught them how to trade online. And the one in maroon added that they had been making good money. The third man in blue completed the chapter with “That’s why we don’t look like bandits.”

From the accounts of the family, relatives, neighbours and locals, Kathleen and Fredah were two close sisters with similar personality traits.

Kathleen was the second born of the 11 children born to the late Solomon Kungania Murugu and the late Emily Wanja Murugu. She was the eldest of the seven girls. Fredah was the fifth born, and the second eldest of the girls.

They were described as “girls who smiled at people and greeted them with a warm gesture.”

John Rutere, the family’s spokesperson, said both were development-oriented, jovial and charismatic ladies with a heart to help people.

Kathleen started her elementary education at Michogomone Primary School in 1966 before she moved to other schools in Mombasa and Thika.

She sat her Certificate of Primary Education exam at St Xavier’s Primary School in Nakuru. She later joined Kiambu-based Limuru Girls and Nyeri-based Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls for her O and A levels respectively.

She proceeded to Ranchi University in Bihar, India, from where she earned her bachelor’s in accounting. She advanced her skills at Strathmore College in Nairobi upon her return.

For 35 years, she worked in finance, accounting, auditing and tax analysis fields both in Kenya and the US. She rose from a payroll accountant and compliance specialist at Indo-Africa Finance in Nairobi to senior tax analyst at Verizon Business in Ashburn, Virginia, US. At the time of her death, she was 63 and lived in Washington, DC.

Kathleen, who had become a US citizen following her relocation in 1995, had since retired.

John, a cousin, said Kathleen was in the process of returning to Kenya to fully devote her time to charity work. She had four children, two are deceased. John also lives in the US, where he works for the United Nations.

While Kathleen warmed up to community development work, her younger sister, Fredah, had built a near four-decade career in the development and humanitarian field.

She was 59 when she died. The sisters went to the same primary schools. After completing her secondary education at Uasin Gishu County’s Loreto Girls, Fredah proceeded to Kianda Secretarial College in Nairobi, graduating with a diploma in secretarial studies.

She joined the humanitarian world when she was only 20 years old, and for nearly four decades, her work touched the lives of many in Kenya and South Sudan. She had six children, but her twin sons died shortly after birth.

Fredah Kinanu Murugu and Kathleen Nkatha Murugu

Family members of the two late sisters Fredah Kinanu Murugu and Kathleen Nkatha Murugu during their burial at their ancestral home in Naari Location, Buuri Sub-County in Meru County on January 13, 2024.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

She worked with Non-Governmental Organisations and USAid-funded projects in Kenya. Her last deployment was in South Sudan, where she had worked as a country representative and operations manager for the Japan Centre for Conflict Prevention from March 2015 to October 2020, when the project folded.

It may be argued that they followed in the footsteps of their father, Murugu, one of the first learned people in this village who went on to become an influential civil servant.

In the 1970s, he served as the Rift Valley Provincial director of social services. Locals lauded him for sowing seeds of development, which continue to this day.

Thanks to him, the area’s access roads were graded, electricity reached the homesteads and the Gitimene Market was started, residents said. His legacy can also be traced to Naari Hospital and Michogomone Primary School, where his late wife was a teacher, according to the neighbours.

The locals said he was the brains and power behind the social facilities. The hospital has a maternity wing. On the wall was a plaque that read: “This foundation stone of Naari Health Centre, maternity ward project was laid by Mr Solomon K. Murugu, the Rift Valley Provincial Director of Social Services on December 1976.”

“Had it not been for Murugu, this village would still be far behind in development,” said Patrick Muirigi, a 60-year-old veterinary physician who on few occasions interacted with Murugu. He has an office at Gitimene Market.

The hospital is less than 400 metres away from his homestead. From the home, it takes one two minutes to cross over the murram road to Gitimene Market.

This market may be in the middle of maize plantations and bushes, but money moves here. It has bank agents for Equity Bank, Kenya Commercial Bank and Co-operative Bank.

Emotional funeral for two sisters who died two days apart

Back at the burial ceremony, visibly sad children sat at the front row of the tent with red banquet chairs. They carry inexplicable pain. For 4.58 minutes, Eli Mutethia, Fredah’s youngest child and second son, groaned into the microphone his last love letter. He was flanked by his siblings and cousins.

“You taught me to praise God and appreciate Him even when life threw issues and obstacles your way. You taught me and told me that I should keep fighting. This is exactly what I’m going to do, Mummy, I will fight for you,” he read.

For Gwendolyn Mwarania Murugu, Kathleen’s first daughter, she has lost her best friend.

“All I know is I will miss you every second of my life… Rest peacefully, Ma.”

Meanwhile, Naari residents had a question. “What really happened? This is a mystery to me,” remarked a 23-year-old Evans Mutuma, whose home from the Murugus is a stone’s throw away.

According to John, Kathleen had, in the past year, been making frequent trips to Kenya to prepare the ground for her relocation. She had plans to extend her charity work to Naari. She would stay with her sisters in Nairobi.

On November 11, she arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Thereafter, she attended her aunt’s memorial ceremony in Meru. Later, she travelled to Isebania in Migori for a cultural festival that began on November 20 and ended December 20.

While there, she was informed of some 150 needy children who faced a bleak Christmas.  And she decided to spend the festive season with the children, bought them gifts and hired a DJ to entertain them.

Then on December 27, 2023, “she suddenly died in her sleep,” read the eulogy. John said her body was found in a hotel room in Isebania by staff.

Fredah, having heard of the heart-wrenching news, travelled the following day to Isebania to transfer her sister’s body to Nairobi. She spent a night at a hotel in the town.

“In the morning, she woke up feeling sick. She went to Migori County Referral Hospital, she died while undergoing treatment,” John said.

By January 16, the family had not revealed the results of the postmortem.

Meanwhile, as the three men travelled back to Alale, the questions that lingered in their minds were: What are we going to tell those 50 plus children? Will the six join secondary school? Will the family carry on her legacy?