We drove on in silence and it felt like someone close had died. Mrs. Susan tried to say things to ease the guilt she felt but none of us was interested in small talk. She was the enemy now and she knew it. All our lives we would tell our story, and find a way to blame her for our failures. There was no mystery to what was happening to us. Our lives were falling apart, and we had no one to turn to except ourselves.
“You are going to love your new home,” Mrs. Susan said. “It’s only temporary until we find you something permanent.” She liked to use the word ‘healthy’ a lot. Like a ‘healthy arrangement’ for example. She said she was taking us to a ‘healthy arrangement’, and I figured she used such terms to detach herself from the emotional pulls of her job.
“Why can’t Wanjiru come with us?” Wairimu asked. All three of us were holding hands in the back seat with Wanjiru in the middle crying softly.
“She’s too young and needs a lot of personal attention.” Mrs. Susan smoothed out her weave with one hand. Her voice was laced with guilt. She knew we loved each other dearly, and looked agonized by her decision to break us up.
The van deviated away from Kamoyo and drove past Tetu Boys High School. I liked the way the trees swayed in the wind, the green of the land blending seamlessly with the horizon. Soon we pulled in front of a wooden gate and Mrs. Susan jumped out to swing it open. As much as we were scared, our eyes hungrily searched through the gate to take stock of what would be our home for the next phase of our lives.
Tetu Mission was managed by Consolata Sisters from Northern Italy; a community of nuns committed to both mission and the Kikuyu people. Mrs. Susan drove through the gate and parked in front of what looked like an office. We all got out, brown eyes brimming with tears, our heads on swivels picking out the dispensary, wooden houses and a small church on the far side near the barbed fence.
“You will attend school in Kamwenja,” Mrs. Susan said as we followed her swinging hips. “It’s the only time you will be allowed to leave the compound.”
The office door suddenly burst open and a white Sister came out with open arms. She had an ageless, timeless face, and it was hard to guess her age. I figured maybe forty five, no, thirty. She wore a white habit and her hair was covered in a white cloth. She smelled really good too and her smile was enough to light up the darkest room.
“Muriega? (Hello children),” she greeted us in fluent Gikuyu language and hugged everybody including Mrs. Susan. “God works in mysterious ways. You must be Wairimu, and you must be Wangechi. And who is this lovely little girl?”
“It’s our sister Wanjiru,” I said, eager to make an impression. Wanjiru’s eyes were red-rimmed and puffy and it was obvious she had been crying for a long time.
“She’s very cute. I long to erase the lines of fatigue and anxiety that cover her face. I wish we didn’t have to let her go, but most of the Sisters are too old to take care of someone so young. Please call me Sister Catherine.” Her voice was full of compassion, warmth and wisdom.
She was right. A few Sisters dressed in habits nodded at us as they walked by and I noticed that some of them were very old. Later on I would learn that Sisterhood was a life-long commitment to the work of God.
“I have to go now,” Mrs. Susan suddenly said. “Duty calls. The girls are in good hands I see. Thank you Sister Catherine for agreeing to do this. God bless you.”
“God bless you too,” Sister Catherine said.
We hugged Wanjiru and cried a lot. She clasped my neck in a death grip and Wairimu rubbed her back to let her know that she was loved. Wanjiru had been the glue that put our family together in times of difficulty. Like the times Wairimu and I fought and stopped talking to each other. Wanjiru would walk into the room oblivious of the tension and chat us up. Watching her face through the van’s rearview window as it drove away nearly broke my heart. I would cry all night, I knew.
Sister Catherine took us into her office and invited us on the brown sofa meant for visitors. We were in good hands, according to Mrs. Susan. We were in white hands to be more specific and I was curious about a people so different from mine. I stared a lot at the sister's blue eyes, her white teeth and white skin. I mused at the way words rolled out of her mouth, and how polite she was.
Sister Catherine talked to us like we were grownups, telling us that we now belonged to a religious order devoted to active service of God and meditation, and that children were already in a relationship with God. “As Sisters, we cut ties with our families and friends, deny ourselves material possessions, take a vow of silence and rarely set foot in the outside world,” she said.
The office smelled good and the rattling fan kicked up a cool breeze. There was a big window behind her desk and sunlight sipping through brightened up the room. The bookshelf behind the desk looked organized with religious books labelled alphabetically. Every surface including the desk reflected neatness and a reminder that neatness was next to Godliness.
She sat in her simple wooden chair, handed both of us a Rosary and told us to repeat after her while clutching at the beads. There was fire in her and energy oozed around her, and yet there was also something vulnerable and loveable about the way she carried herself.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
We repeated the words and she made us recite the prayer ten times. It was only the beginning she said. “The Rosary is a gospel prayer. The orderly and gradual unfolding of the Rosary reflects the very way in which the word of God, mercifully entering into human affairs, brought about the Redemption.” The mission would teach us to live in the grace of God and purpose ourselves to His work.
“You will receive clothes and uniform for school. You will both be attending school not far from here.”
The door creaked open and another Sister stepped on the red rug. Sister Elizabeth, as she was called, would escort us to our quarters at the request of Sister Catherine who had other matters of importance to attend to. Sister Elizabeth looked young and wore a grey habit with a blue head cover. I liked that she walked like a bride down the aisle with both hands clasped as though in prayer. Her voice was soft and calculated like someone incapable of anger and I really admired her.
We stepped on a pathway covered with rocks and found ourselves in a very neat compound. The mowed grass was green and colourful flowerbeds graced the building entrances. This was a sanctuary of tranquility, prayer and silence and according to Sister Elizabeth, there were around twenty Sisters, ranging in age from 18 to 80 from many countries including Italy, England, German, Netherlands, and Norway.
“Mother Superior has set extremely high standards for herself and everyone else,” Sister Elizabeth said. “Honesty and integrity are some of the values we believe in. What the Mother Superior says we must obey and believe.”
I thought Sister Elizabeth sounded honest. She spoke highly of Mother Superior or Sister Catherine as we knew her. There was also a presence about her that made us feel safe. It felt like she was holding our hands and yet she wasn't. With her we would be okay and that was very clear to us.
“The day always starts with prayers,” Sister Elizabeth continued as we walked into a large wooden building with numerous rooms. “All the Sisters live in this building, and you two will share a single room. There’s a lady who will be coming every day to look after you, and mostly guide you on chores, like washing your own clothes. You will eat with the other Sisters in the dining room and you will respect their space. There will be no shouting, yelling or talking inside the buildings and all play will be done outside during recreation time.”
We met a few Sisters in the building who nodded at us and smiled. There was none of the usual buzz of conversation and Sisters drinking tea in the lounge did not chatter about the day’s events. Each Sister had a wooden cross in her room, Sister Elizabeth told us. The cross was plain with no image of Christ. It was meant for the Sister alone. A Sister’s ultimate goal is to be accepted by God, and put on the cross; to surrender her whole self in order to share the suffering of the world as Jesus did.
“This is your room.”
The room was big enough to fit two spring beds, and it was the cleanest and most beautiful room I had ever seen. The floor was cemented and white wallpaper covered the wood. I could tell it had belonged to one of the Sisters before our arrival, everything in the room was soft. Like the pink curtains on the window for example, or our white bed covers. The room smelled like roses and we figured the smell came from the laundry detergent used to wash the beddings.
“My own bed!” Wairimu exclaimed as she jumped on her bed.
Sister Elizabeth smiled and took a step back. “There’s everything you need in here including blankets, sheets, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion and combs. If you need anything else, you will come to me. You will not talk to the other Sisters. Do you understand?”
“I will come and get you for supper and bring you new clothes,” she said. The level of comfort and reassurance in her voice was far superior to anything we had heard before.
We jumped up and down on the beds as soon as the Sister left. Shortly after the excitement was over, we lay on our backs and the joy that had blurred our perception quickly faded. I remembered my brother being carried away, and I ached inside.
“I miss home already,” Wairimu said as fat tears coursed down her innocent face. “I miss Nderitu and Wanjiru.”
Tears pooled in my eyes but didn’t fall freely. I sighed on the mattress, the strain of the evening outlined in every muscle of my body. Beside me, Wairimu propped the pillows underneath her head and looked pensive.
“Do you think we will ever see it again…our home?” I asked in a hesitant voice. There were so many things I missed about my home. I missed the funny old men smoking pipes, the scary old women chasing us with canes, the sound of children at play and the barking noises of unchained dogs. Everybody knew everybody in the village, from one side of the hill to the next. The thought of home made my heart constrict and I averted my eyes to the rosary sitting on the end table between our beds, confronting me with the hard truth of my present circumstances.
“Yes,” Wairimu said in a strong voice. “One day we will go home and be a family again."
My thoughts drifted back to Sister Elizabeth and I felt greatly attracted to her life and what she represented. With the loss of my father I had finally known death, and yet here at the convent I was reminded of life; a beautiful life where black and white people lived together. As much as I missed home, I had to admit to myself that I was intrigued by the convent. There was something comforting about the silence in the air.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...