People Daily

Freedom hero who beat all odds to excel

Amid difficulties, Mwalimu Esther Gachambi managed to attend school, emerge as one of the pioneer teachers of newly independent nation

Part of this interview, with a woman achiever from the pre-independence era, was done from her hospital bed. She passed away last August 7, missing her desire to vote in the August 8 General Election by one day.

But her story, on how she beat many great odds, including the State of Emergency in 1952 and the Mau Mau armed struggle for freedom and managed to attend school to emerge as one of pioneer teachers of the newly independent nation, is gem to narrate for today’s Jamhuri Day celebrations.

Mwalimu Esther Gachambi Mwangi, who died aged 80, had given a series of interviews, aimed at highlighting the other side of the struggle, by those who defied the ban on colonial education imposed by the freedom fighters and managed to excel amid harsh difficulties.

Both the Mau Mau and the colonial home guards harassed and beat up such people, over suspicions that she was a spy for the other. Gachambi was born in 1937 at Gathara-ini village in the then Kiru Location, in the then Murang’a District, the second born in a family of eight. Her parents, Joram Mugo wa Ngabu and Julia Wanjiku lived in Ngong where her father worked for a European settler named Paterson and converted to Christianity early.

Mwalimu Esther Gachambi with her husband James Kinyua during their wedding in 1961.

As a daughter of a Muthomi (Christian), it was obvious that she would attend school. In 1950, she joined Kahuhia Girls’ School for Class Five and Six where she would sit the Form One Entrance examination.

One of her classmates, Dainah Gitu, recalls their days at Kahuhia School that was cut short when the Mau Mau launched their violent attacks by killing Wahundura location Chief, Kairu wa Henri, causing colonial governor Evelyn Baring to announce a State of Emergency in 1952.

The pupils dropped out of school in 1953 because the Mau Mau crisis threatened to behead the parents of all those learning in missionary schools.

To stem any information leakage, the Mau Mau forced all villagers, including Christians, to take the oath and those who refused were killed. “The Mau Mau came for my family brandishing machetes and took us to Wahundura forest.

We took the first oath under great duress,” she said from her hospital bed. At the same time, older teenage girls were forced to deliver food from the villages to a place on the foothills of the Aberdare Ranges called Karima ga Gatati, a distance of over 10 kilometres, and Gachambi was among them.

But Gachambi’s quest for education was unquenchable despite the challenges; after the hard night’s walk, she would use morning dew at the break of dawn to wipe her feet and face and go to school at Kiru Primary School where she was the only girl out of 36 pupils. But their lives were never free from the threat of death.

Gachambi teaches fellow villagers life skills from her vast Domestic Science knowledge.

After the State of Emergency was lifted and Gachambi and her colleagues picked up their education where they had left off at Kahuhia; she later volunteered to study Domestic Science at Tumu Tumu Teachers Training College and later taught the subject at Mananga Primary School in Murang’a then at Pumwani, Muslim and St Brigid’s schools in Nairobi.

Like everything about Gachambi, her marriage was straight from a romantic novel. By mere coincidence, Gachambi was assigned as desk mate to James Mwangi Kinyua from the opposite ridge, Kagumo-ini.

Days went by, their love blossomed and they tied the knot at Kiru Parish in 1961. They were blessed with six children.

At the time, Mwangi, now deceased was working at the East African Community offices in Arusha, Tanzania and later moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the EAC broke up where he worked until his retirement.

“I used to take the children to Arusha to see their father,” said Gachambi. Gachambi’s pupils include the who-is-who in government and the private sector; former Education Permanent Secretary Prof Karega Mutahi, former Finance Secretary Njeru Kirira, Public Procurement Oversight Authority (PPOA) first director Robert Hunja, former Transition Authority Commissioner Kamotho Waiganjo and former Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) managing director David Waweru. She retired in 1989. – KNA

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