Guest Post by: Leonidah Nanjala – 2016 Akili Dada Fellow
My name is Leonidah Nanjala, first-born daughter in a family of three girls. I am 30 years old. I lost my father at the age of 11 years. Life was very difficult after my father’s death.
I remember it was on the 6th December 1996. This was the darkest day of my life, even before the news of my father’s death was broke to me, I was literally experiencing blackouts, I was absent minded that whole day. I understood when I was older that whatever was affecting me has a connection with my father’s death. He died of meningitis.
My paternal grandparents accused my mother of killing my father; they claimed that my mother killed him so she could inherit his property. It was so painful having to watch my mother cry every day, every hour because of the harsh words she had to take from my paternal relatives. They had told my mother that they would take everything that belonged to my father, even his children, which are my two sisters and I.
My mother did not have any issue about them taking away all the property, but she swore never to let us out of her care. She worked out a plan together with her brothers to hide us on the day my father’s corpse was to be transported to the village for burial. This plan worked out perfectly well.
Because of this and because my mother did not go through burial rites and tradition, we were considered outcasts. Traditionally, my mother was to be inherited by my father’s youngest brother as his wife. We were not allowed to burry my father and my mother did not get any of his property, we had to start life a fresh. It was not easy at all.
My mother lost track of her life after everything that she had gone through, her business collapsed at some point and life became unbearable. We were out of school most of the time for lack of school fees. I had to start supporting my mother immediately after high school so that we could raise money for rent, food and school fees for my sisters.
This was not an easy role to play, we could hardly pay rent or even buy food, I remember several times we were chased out of different houses because of rent arrears. We had to seek help from our uncle who had a bigger house; he turned us down but we insisted because we had nowhere else to go to. He offered us a very tiny store where he kept his spare items. This room could not even accommodate a small bed, but we had to take it, and at least we had a place to sleep at night. My mother taught us to be thankful for everything that life offered so we hardly complained about life.
While trying to find something to do or even apply for college scholarship after high school, I joined the Mombasa Youth Counseling Centre. I remember talking to one Mr Peter Macharia who was the youth coordinator at that time, he told me about the centre and mentioned that they had a drama club. I was excited, as I have always loved drama; I knew my soul had found joy.
I joined the centre’s drama club and went through training on theatre for development, started going for community outreaches and my journey as a theatre artist began. It was not an easy journey because it did not pay much in the beginning and life was getting harder each day.
I never gave up though. I kept attending more theatre workshops and trainings, started getting artistic contracts that paid well. Through my art, I changed the lives of my sisters and my mother. It is also after I joined the drama club that I let go of my frustrations. Art was like therapy to me.
We lost our dear mother in the year 2012. Luckily by then, I was on an artistic contract that enabled me to raise enough money to take care of her and the hospital bills. I’m now my sister’s guardians.
It was after my mother ‘s death that I founded TEMA CREATIONS. I looked back at where we were as a family and how far we have come, I considered myself a lucky person. Even though, I did not have my father’s inheritance, even though I went through a tough time, I had my mother as a voice of reason in my life. She protected me from the world’s harsh environment.
Tema Creations students warming up for a dance session.
Her words of hope and wisdom kept me safe from manipulative people, my mother gave me hope that it shall be well again. She always made me believe that I am a great person no matter how life looked like at that time. This made me optimistic and so I kept going.
With this in mind, I asked myself, “should I sit back and be happy that I had such a wonderful mother who protected me, or should I go out there and be a voice of wisdom to those orphaned children who were not privileged to have mothers by their side to empower them?”
I decided then that I would share this experience to other orphaned and vulnerable children all over Kenya, Africa and the rest of the world. I will do this through art. That marked the beginning of the Art for personal development project that I currently run.
I have been through very tough experiences having to be give up the normal youthful lifestyle so that I could provide for my family, most of the times I wished I could buy myself a fashionable dress but I couldn’t because I had to sacrifice for my family. I look back at my life, where I have come from and where I am now. All I can say is that it does not matter where you are from or what you have been through. If you stay focused, you will overcome all challenges and you will make it decently in life.
My life experience has made me a strong person, hardworking, selfless, patient, humble, disciplined, and accommodative. I have a high fighting spirit. I hardly let go of the things I want to achieve in life, because I believe all things are possible if you believe. Most of all I believe in the power of prayer.
I am now a single mother of a beautiful daughter, Neema Taraji. Motherhood also came packed with new challenges. I have had to make decisions as a young woman that could not have been possible if it was not for the fact that I was doing well as an artiste.
I was confident and bold enough to walk out of a relationship that was not working for me, a step that many young women in Kenya are afraid of for fear that they will not be able to support their children. I had the same fears at some point, my self-esteem went really down for a while, I had to put my dreams on hold for two years so that I could take care of my baby.
Coming back into the art scene was not easy, I did not get support from my partner as I expected, and actually, he did not expect me to go back into the art scene. It took a lot of effort to pick myself up and bounce back into action. Once again, art was my way out of this mess. I hope that in the near future I will be able to share the secrets of staying focused as a young woman so that you do not have to stay in an abusive relationship just because you lost your dreams while in pursuit of love.