I tend to obsess about purpose. I passionately believe that every person was born wired and endowed to accomplish some things only they can the way they can, and that we are never truly fulfilled until we know we are doing what we were created to do. Idealistic, I know. Don’t blame me. I am an idealist in my DNA. I’m the kind that wonders what my epitaph will say when I am gone… the kind that writes bucket lists.
Do we all have a mission? Yes, I used that word. Last week at my place of work a HOD shared a TED Talk about DNAs and shells. Shells are what we do. You are a doctor, a teacher, a missionary, a mother, an accounts executive. That is what you do. Not who you are. Your DNA might be to teach people new things, or two care for the sick and hurting. Or to connect people. Or to create new things. Or create order or beauty in chaos. Then you have to find ways of doing these things, despite the shell that is you career because that is why you walk this planet. If you were made to bring awe to people, you will not be fulfilled unless you are inspiring awe wherever. Sometimes your DNA perfectly aligns with the shell. Other times your shells hinders you from being who you are meant to be. Other times several shells can carry and house your core you.
The TED speaker gave the example of a man who wanted to be a magician while growing up, then trained as an architect, then found himself with a hobby of trekking in the woods, had a first job as a graphics designer and had a dream of starting a company that takes people on outdoor adventures. The underlying factor is that he lived to inspire a sense of awe and wonder in people.
That is why when I met with Cucu Martha at her home in Kabiria-Satellite over the weekend, I was struck by the beauty of a life that knows why it was put on this planet. Martha Njeri is a mother, heart, body and soul – to many children, most not biologically hers, most that she meets in the most painful of circumstances, but all that she would not think a second about bringing them to her home, limitations or no limitations.
With her cheerful smile and glowing face and boundless energy, Martha sort of runs a children’s home. Sort of because she says it’s not a children’s home; it’s a home. She want to see her kids clean and fed and happy and loved and travelling abroad for their college degrees and getting married- just like any mother. And she wouldn’t give any of the 43 of them up, not even for adoption.
“This is their home. What I would want is help to make them achieve their dreams but we are not like other children’s homes. These children already have a home,” she says, pointing to Kevin who has lived with her since he was five years old. He is now 17.
And that is what most of those children desperately need. Some were picked from their houses by the police after being left for days without food or care. She has in her care a brother and sister were left in their house for four days while aged 6 months and 18 months. Others were left at her gate by mothers who had reached the end. Others were born on the streets without even the help of a midwife, to drunken mothers who rolled over for their bottle of some illegal beverage seconds after labour.
Martha remembers arriving to cut the umbilical cord of one such child who was born on a pavement somewhere in Kawangware. She wrapped the baby in nylon bags and rushed him to Kenyatta National Hospital for treatment since he had been exposed to the cold for too long. She was admitted to hospital with the newborn and while there, met a mother who had a mental disability and had an infant with celebral palsy. While she was leaving the hospital, Martha asked the hospital to waive the bill of the other mother and to release her and her baby to her care. The boy still lives with Martha 11 years later.
Her home is simple and small; it’s hard to imagine how they all fit or even how they squeeze in the sitting room to watch the tiny TV perched on a table. What is lacking in space is made up for by the love and joy that fills the compound. Martha’s love is more than enough to go around for her children and her guests and any other child out there in need of a home. In fact Martha says that as we talk, if she heard of a baby or child in trouble, she would rush to get him or her without worrying that she has 43 other mouths to feed.
Martha says she never went to school and in fact had a very difficult childhood. Born number two in a family of 13 where her father was a drunkard, they lived hand to mouth.
“I never ate till I was full growing up. I don’t remember ever sleeping comfortably at home,” she says.
She took her first job as a house help at age 9 and did this till she was 17 years old when she got pregnant. But life in her mother’s house hadn’t changed and being a new mother, she took up the first opportunity at marriage she got. A friend mentioned to her that a certain “kimundu” [man] in her village was looking for a wife, so she packed her bags and carried her three-week-old baby for the man’s home where she she was duly installed as a wife to man she had never met before and who had a mental disability.
Four years later and with three more children who all happened to have various physical and mental disabilities, Martha found herself back at her mother’s house after his family chased her away. This time she decided to live the children with her mother to go work in Kawangware as a house help. But she says when she went to visit her mother a few months later, she found her children malnourished and suffering from kwashiakor; without a second thought, she took them with her to Kawangware where they all begun life in a one-roomed mud house. They slept on a a mattress she made from grass and survived on begging or food foraged from dumps in Marikiti.
The interesting thing is that despite her lack, Martha found herself feeding other children in the neighbourhood who were worse of than her, and offering a home to others even while she hardly had enough for herself.
“I would see a dirty child and call her to my house and wash her and giver her some clean clothes. I would see those street women with hungry babies and tell them, ‘kuja twende kwangu nikupee tunguo twa mtoto,'” says the 57-year-old who likes to call herself Cucu.
And the neighbours [and schools] would wonder what was wrong with this woman, bringing in ‘strays’ while she was no better than them. She says she has begged teachers to take in strangers’ children while promising to get them school uniform when their parents were unbothered.
“I didn’t want any child to grow up the way I did. I am particularly drawn to children from alcoholic families,” she says.
Martha currently has one helper but her daughter comes in once in a while to assist at the home they call Shiphrah Centre, although on Facebook they go by Martha’s Little Angels Kawangware. We ask how she survives with 43 kids, some as young as two weeks old. The oldest is aged 19. She says she lives like the Israelites in the wilderness, trusting for each day’s provision.
On this day they have generously shared with us tea and chapatis. We joke that we will be visiting on Saturdays to eat more chapos.
“Actually, that’s all we had in the store so we decided it’s what we will eat today,” she says. Why does it sound like that widow of Zarephath in the Bible who made prophet Elijah bread from all the flour and oil she had? May that jar of flour not be used up and the jug of oil not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on this humble home.