Friday, April 24, 2020

In Memoriam: Pauline Njeri Njenga

Yu gonplei ste odon, Mamimami.

On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, Pauline Njeri didn't spend the night at her home along Waiyaki Way with the kids as she had done each and every day of their lives. She spent that night at Aga Khan.


"Lives of great men," wrote an esteemed American poet and educator, "all remind us that we can make our lives sublime. And departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time."
Njeri was a great educator whose life epitomized clarity and transparency. She leaves behind indelible footprints. And fond memories.  For she loved deeply, and she was loved in return.

* * *

Njeri spent that night at Aga Khan in Parklands, Nairobi. But not at Aga Khan school where she had taught for many years. She was in Aga Khan University Hospital. Specifically, at the morgue.

Today marks exactly one month since her death on March 24, 2020.


When Njeri got her first child Zipporah, it was during a tumultuous time in her life. The reasons why this was so are well beyond the scope of this post, but I'd be remiss in not saying that I was wowed by how gracefully she coped with those difficult times. And she did emerge stronger at the broken places eventually.

Njeri lived in Kasarani at the time, and as Zippy learned to talk, she had this penchant for voicing words twice. Zippy nicknamed my dog "doggie doggie" and each of the cats was called "miau miau." Her mother, as expected, was christened "mamimami."
That is how my sister Njeri became Mamimami, a name that everyone in the family stuck to forthwith. Even our parents.

Njeri was, and forever remains Mamimami. And as it'll become evident elsewhere in this post, she was also the quintessential deputy parent. In particular, to my sister Winni and I during the many years she worked at Juja Preparatory & Senior School while we schooled next door at JKUAT. And to our last-born Magda who practically lived in Mamimami's house throughout her college days at UoN and for some years thereafter.


Being the first born, Mamimami had our best interests at heart - all her six siblings as well as our parents. To this day, each one of us can point to a tangible item whose purchase Mamimami either significantly contributed to or financed entirely. And endless moral support that we cannot even begin to quantify.

At JKUAT where my sister Winni and I schooled, Mamimami was a regular presence. She was both parent and sister to us, and at no time did we have fees arrears or lack pocket money.

A number of furniture items in my house once belonged to her. She has always had my back and financed innumerable projects I've had over the years. And that goes even to other things in the family that I need not mention here.
I shall, however, talk about the two things that I make a living from and the role she did play in fashioning my life in bits (see what I did there? Only someone proficient in computing will appreciate the byte-sized pun)... I digress.

While I was a 3rd year student, I did my Industrial attachment at BIDCO in Thika. We used to get a small allowance and at the end of the 3 months, I bought myself a Nokia 2300 (yeah, among the very first phones to have an FM radio and polyphonic ringtones!) I was striving for higher ideals, however. I wanted to own a Computer in 4th year. Ordinarily, it became truly necessary in final year (in my case, 5th year) due to the unique demands of a student's practical Engineering Project. I therefore started saving cash from my pocket money and proceeds from the audio amplifiers and speaker cabinets I used to make and sell to fellow students.

I had only managed to purchase a CRT monitor, a keyboard and a mouse at the end of 3rd year. I had no cash to buy the main unit - the CPU and this would cost anywhere between 15k and 20k. Mamimami knew I had these computer parts, in any case I would keep them at her place at Juja Preparatory & Senior School.
You can then imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when she one day asked that I join her in going to Nairobi CBD to do some computer "window-shopping." And I happily tagged along. In town, she asked me to take her to the computer shop I was buying the other parts from and once in there, she asked that we check how much a good P4 CPU was going for. To cut the long story short, we eventually walked out with an AMD Duron CPU, and it cost her 18k. This happened to be a very big percentage of her salary back then.

And her benevolence goes on to this day. The HP 630 laptop I am typing this on was once hers, she generously gave it to me in December 2019 after my long-serving Toshiba L300 notebook of 11 years stopped working back in November last year.


Sunday, April 13, 2008. The day President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga unveiled the Grand Coalition Cabinet. At around 8pm, I was accosted by thugs just near Kenya Tents in Roysambu. Those guys forcefully took my laptop, two phones, a significant amount of cash, National ID, bank cards, then cut my hand with a machete and broke my left arm. Horrified, I rushed to Mamimami's house in Kasarani and she took it upon herself to wash my bloodied white trouser. But that was only after taking me to a nearby medical center where my badly cut hand got stitches.
Early the following day, she didn't report to work but instead accompanied me first to Kiambu Hospital for X-rays and thereafter to Nazareth Hospital where my arm was put in a POP cast.

After this, she bought me another phone and was really instrumental in helping me get back my bearings after that near-death experience that saw me nearly slip into depression.

And I could go on and on and on...
Mamimami was always there when we needed her. At times, she would come to our aid long before we realized we needed her. She took good care of each one of us as if there was only one of us. Her affection was wholesome, her concern genuine. Always benevolent.


To Mamimami, family meant everything and she did all within her means to ensure those in her care never lacked. It is for this reason that she oftentimes worked long and odd hours.
Many are the days that she was essentially both the father and mother to her kids, because as far as these fabulous four were concerned, their interests invariably preceeded hers. She wanted the best for them and was quite unrelenting in this regard, right to the very end. And the clarity and transparency that characterized her life will forever stay with us.

Altruism was Mamimami's second nature and this predisposed her to the ever present risk of an unscrupulous entity keen on taking advantage and using somebody so good, so generous and so kind for hideous and evil exploits.
So graceful and selfless was Mamimami that someone uncultured would easily take that as a vulnerability or naiveté to maliciously exploit. But in hindsight, Mamimami was wise enough to never feel bad when such a self-seeking person would remember her only when in need of her. She instead felt privileged that she was like a candle that comes to mind when there is darkness. To shine the way for others without ever losing the light within her.


On the day that Mamimami breathed her last, my sister Winni and I shared something that each of us had individually wondered: "Why her and not me?" We each had felt that Mamimami had so much going for her, what with four young kids to take care of and a very bright future for them all thanks to her dedication and focus in selfless parenting. We each felt that we do not have as many responsibilities as hers.

And life ain't no beauty show
We don't know where tomorrow ends
And when we're sad
It's kind of a drag.
- Matchbox Twenty (All I Need)

It is then that I remembered a story I once read, about a girl asking her grandma why God had called her mother to Heaven just when she needed to be there to take care of the girl and her siblings. The grandma replied with this question: "When you go out to pick fruits, don't you pick the biggest and ripest?"

Upon her passing, this reminder that it is the very best that are taken away gives me the strength to realize that much as I may currently see no good in her dying, it was for a reason. A good reason. One that I may one day come to acknowledge and appreciate. I am persuaded that there is something good and I may be able to perceive it should I look hard enough. My biggest consolation is that this world no longer deserved Mamimami and she just had to go. She is survived by four fantastic children Zippy, Sophia, Spencer and Stanley whose best days are definitely ahead of them.

She needed us, and we needed her...

...and now all we can do is remember and let go. And move on.

That's why I do not mourn Mamimami, I celebrate her. She is without a doubt in a much better place. I keep thinking of her each and every day. As I go about my duties and as we talk with my parents and siblings, (something we do every day) not a day goes by without mentioning her. I'm learning to let her go, even as I continue to miss her dearly. I bet this is what Christine Georgina Rossetti advises us to do in her poem:

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me,
I want no rite in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little - but not for long.
And not with your head bowed low.
Remember the love that once we shared.
Miss me, but let me go.

For this is a journey we must all take,
And each must go alone.
It's all part of the master plan,
A step on the road to home,
When you are lonely and sick at heart,
Go to the friends we know,
Laugh at all the things we used to do.
Miss me, but let me go.

* * *


Mamimami's last moments found her at work, her other passion in addition to family. It was her joy to each and every day put life into the words of that American poet with whom I began, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, when he wrote: "So let us be up and doing, with a heart for any fate. Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait."

We buried Mamimami on Saturday, March 28, 2020. It was a brief ceremony that was attended by only her children, immediate family members and few close friends. And standing by her grave, I was reminded of Mary Elizabeth Frye's poem:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

* * *

When he spoke at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs spoke of death as life's change agent. Much as no one wants to die.
That last day, much as we all try to delay it all we can and avoid thinking about it as much as possible, is an inevitable certainty. Despite death being both permanent and irreversible, I find great comfort in the fact that many of us who live to become adults always have so many other days at our disposal to do with as we please. Until that final day, which catches some completely unawares as it did Mamimami. Hers happened to be a swift, relatively painless death.

And given the very personal reminder our family got on March 24 that life is both fickle and fleeting, I have since elected to try all I can to seize the days I still have left.


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