We Only Come Here to Struggle: Stories from Berida's Life

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Here is the life history of Berida Ndambuki, a Kenyan woman trader born in 1936, who speaks movingly of her experiences under the turbulences of late British colonialism and independence. A poverty survivor, Berida overcame patriarchal constraints to reclaim the rights to her labor, her body, and her spirit. She invokes a many-faceted picture of central Kenyan life in this compelling narrative.

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1. “I Am Berida Ndambuki”

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My name is Berida Ndambuki1 but it was not always so. My birth name was Mathei wa Moli (my father’s name) wa Kivinda (my grandfather’s name). That’s how we do it. My mother’s name was Maria Mbatha. But now I am Berida Ndambuki. Ndambuki is my husband. He married me when I was young. But in 1957 after attending catechism class for four years I was given the name Berida, and everyone calls me that except Ndambuki when he is being bad. He then uses Mathei but he is the only one that does that. After I took more classes I was given the name Lucia to show that I am a complete Christian and accept Jesus. It is fine for you to use my real name here and those of my family; maybe if my husband sees how he looks here he will change his ways.

About myself, when I was married by Ndambuki I became a dutiful wife. We stayed together as husband and wife and got children but we were very poor and we had no employment, so it became necessary for me to come to Nairobi so that we could educate our children. I educated two children, Magdalena and Angelina. But first maybe I should tell you about my childhood so you can see how things have changed.

 

2. “No woman can know what will happen to her in marriage”

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I was very young, only fourteen, when I married Ndambuki on 1 January 1950. I was supposed to marry another man. If you compare how I was married and how you [Mbithe] were married there is a big difference. Long ago there was no courtship; your father was just given bridewealth and you were married off. If you refused to marry the man who had given bridewealth your father would beat you.1 That is what happened to me. My father had accepted bridewealth for me from a man whose father was wealthy whom I disliked. He started paying when I was small, but as I matured and saw him I disliked him. I didn’t like the way he looked, although he was not old. He didn’t know how to dress. He used to wear mikalya [sandals] made from tires; his had only one strap instead of the usual two. Whenever I saw that I felt like vomiting. I was just disgusted with him. [Laughter.] If I saw him I would go in the opposite direction. When my father insisted that I marry him I refused and was beaten. My mother could not say anything about it; if she had, she would also have been beaten. Mm mmm! Those things of long ago! Nzilani hid me. I finally ran and threw myself in the pond. Then they realized I might drown and they rescued me.2 My father quit insisting and nobody forced me again. My grandfather told the suitor to outline what he had paid and they would repay him because they realized that they might lose a child through death. He was the only one I turned down. You know, you can look at a person and the way they dress and assess whether or not they should be called your husband. And you know, I was beautiful.

 

3. “Now I was in business”

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When Ndambuki and I first married we worked together at home and on the farm. We worked together in union. Even if it was just eating, after I had cooked I would bring the food and we would eat together. If it was going to the farm he would lead the cows and I would hold the plow. When it was time to eat he would take the cows to water while I would go home to look for what to eat. I was not selling then. We had four oxen for plowing. If we wanted to build a granary he would go and cut the poles and I would cut the grass for thatching. Men were in charge of cutting the poles for building and doing the walls and women did the thatching. I would hand him the poles as he worked and he would throw the grass up to me as I thatched. We tried to find help with the planting. One person would lead the oxen while the other held the plow. You drop the seed into a furrow and cutting the next furrow covers the seed in that furrow. Ndambuki would put the seeds in his pockets and drop them into the furrow just before the next furrow was cut. We also used the oxen to weed, cutting furrows between the rows. We put a kind of net over the oxen’s mouths so that they would not eat the crops as we plowed. We weeded by hand between the plants. Both men and women did that and even children. On Saturdays when they were not in school you gave them hoes and they went to weed. People who don’t have oxen use jembes [short-handled hoes] to make holes for putting the seeds in. Now things are much the same but people might weed millet using a plow by leaving a furrow free between each row.

 

4. “The Akamba are a peaceloving people”

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A long time ago the Kikuyu and Akamba were brothers and sisters, friends. But the Kikuyu did not have cows so they used to get products from cows in exchange for maize and nzavi.1 They would even arrange for meetings where the Kikuyu would bring their foodstuffs and exchange them with the Akamba for livestock products.2 They intermarried. Even one of my grandmothers was called Mwihaki and she was a Kikuyu. When the Akamba would go in search of food in Kikuyuland the Kikuyus would capture them and take them as hostages. Likewise, if the Kikuyu girls came to Ukambani the Akamba would also capture them. My grandmother was captured and married an Akamba man. She was from Gaichanjiru in Kiambu.3 She was married before colonialism. My father was friendly with a Kikuyu from Gatundu. One time that Kikuyu brought us three bags of maize and my father slaughtered a goat for him and gave him a cow.

You know, even in the fight to send away the colonialists [the Emergency from 1952 to 1960] there were Akambas and Kikuyus involved. Oh, the British were not always bad. For instance, in about 1947 there was a bad famine. (I remember when because there was an eclipse of the sun and it frightened us badly. We were out gathering firewood far from home. Everything got dark and we ran all the way home because of our terror. By the time we got there the light was returning.) Anyway, we got famine relief during the Makopo famine. They brought us sorghum, cassava flour, wheat flour, and lima beans. There was a governor we called King George [VI?], whose house was here in Nairobi. They would give a sack of food to share between two people, or a big family would get a whole sack. There was enough to feed us all.

 

5. “I ask myself, why did I have my children?”

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In Nairobi my day begins when I get up at sunrise at about 6 A.M. I wake up because the neighbors make noise with loud radios, and there is a bell that rings at the Shauri Moyo police station. I can also hear the Muslims praying. Then I know it is time. I heat water on my paraffin stove and bathe. I make tea and put it in a thermos. I have to buy the water by the can at Ksh.1, 1.50 a jerry can [four gallons] or more.1 It comes from a tap at Kinyago, which is not far from my room [about a half a block]. There is no toilet at my place and no electricity. We go to other people and ask to use theirs, like where Jane stays; she has one. We also don’t have a shower so I bathe in a basin in my room. Even without all those things I still pay Ksh.800 for the room. By the time I have finished bathing and made tea it is usually 6:30. I take my tea and then I leave my room to go to Gikomba. Or I might do the laundry before I go. If I am not feeling well I may not get up until 7:00 A.M. and then I wouldn’t get to Gikomba until 8:30 or 9:00 A.M. I take a matatu or I walk to Gikomba.

 

Update and Analysis: 1999

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In July 1999 I returned to Nairobi and found that, like Nairobi itself, whose skyline changes constantly with the addition of glossy skyscrapers built by corrupt government officials, Berida’s life and family had also experienced a number of changes, generally not for the good. In Domitila’s house in eastern Nairobi the conversation centered on the financial plight of Kenya and of the family, while a collection of nephews and sons were erecting a wall outside to improve security, an ever-increasing concern. The sudden death of Dominic in December 1998 had shocked everyone, including Ndambuki, who stopped drinking. Berida felt this was permanent, a change for the better but not a compensation for Dominic’s death. However, Muthama had lost his job as a matatu conductor; his wife’s teaching job now supports the family. Martin Wambua was in Mombasa looking for work. Angelina Ndinda had recovered physically from the severe beating by her (ex-?) husband but had gone into a severe mental depression verging on insanity. She moved back to Kathonzweni, leaving her three children to be cared for by Maggie in Nairobi, with the assistance of Mwenye, Monica’s daughter. Maggie also recovered but then required surgery to remove a lump in her breast. The Kenyatta Hospital surgeon missed the lump on the first try so another surgery may be required, which she is putting off because she cannot afford it or the time away from her beauty salon job. Maggie is overwhelmed by the support of Angelina’s children and Mwenye, and with helping Dominic’s family. Dominic’s wife earns no cash and his four children require school fees. Therefore, of Berida’s nine surviving children, all adults, only two are helping the family with their earnings in 1999, Martha1 and Maggie, no sons. In 1998 there were five earners.

 

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