My 24 year old landlady, the R&B rapper, Wangechi Waweru Mwende, survived a horrific car accident four years ago.
Today she’s rebuilding her life and career without much fuss or desire to talk about either.
I happen to have chosen the house she lives in with her Mom, Nancy Wangaru Migwi. The two share a modest apartment on the bottom floor of a three story subdivided Nairobi house in Kileleshwa, a neighborhood not far from the foreign hangout known as the YaYa shopping mall.
I live on the top floor of her house. Wangechi’s Mom Nancy, a real estate attorney and graduate of University of Nairobi, has spent most of her adult life as a single Mom nurturing two exceptionally creative children.
She has a son — an IT and banking/finance guy and a famous daughter, Wangechi , the gifted R&B singer/rap artist who, in many respects, is redefining the Youtube genre here.
She’s an artistic chameleon, with faces and styles that celebrate alternately, Kenyan national pride (see ‘Here’s to Us,” a Tusker beer ad), the gaming of Suka Suka thump-sex, even the sadness of abusive romance. Whether she wears a Nefertiti flat-top or a messed-up Afro, she’s regal, gorgeous, and doesn’t give a damn what you think. Her fingers dance, admonish, shoot the gun, phone the nobody, and say no and yes at once to admirers off camera. I haven’t as yet deciphered her Kenyan lyrics except for fragments — she raps in Kenyan-English dialect (“Sheng” which sounds so Chinese). But her videos are mesmerizing to me.
So here’s my question: Is Wangechi a self-made artistic creation, or is she the product of a mother who lets her be? I’m inclined to think both questions are relevant, but neither is exactly correct.
Nancy, the Mom, is as gentle and open with me as Wangechi is professional, courteous, but guarded. Nancy is divorced, like me, and remembers she adored her parents, especially her father, who worked as a government driver. Nancy’s family is Kikuyu, the dominant ethnic tribe in Kenya; her parents raised her right in the Lake Nakuru area of the Great African Rift Valley. This place is known for its white rhinos and millions of pink flamingos, all part of a location identified as one of the cradles of early human kind (it’s here that Australopithicus afarensis fossils circa 3.7 million years old have been found in abundance).
It’s obvious that Nancy has done a remarkable job raising her two children. She and I share similar life profiles, so we’ve become friendly and take girls’ days and nights out together, enjoying discussions about the unknowable aka “our children.” She’s done a lot to lessen my first feelings of homesickness and confusion. (I have to admit Kenya this past month hasn’t been a vacation. Unlike my time here in January, where I was guest teaching at Strathmore University Law School for two weeks, enjoying undivided student attention, a free driver and an elegant catered hotel, this time I’m on own here for a 10 months.)
Nancy has welcomed me warmly; she takes me to churches, families parties, and her farm, and she likes the fact that I’m obsessive about safety, working out, and portable fire escape ladders.
Daughter Wangechi is phenomenon on her own. At this point she’s known nationwide and has cut some of the most exuberant and, I’d venture to say, iconic rap videos I’ve yet to see. At the same time, this girl has already survived a great deal of pain. I discovered from Nancy (and it’s all over the Kenya media), that Wangechi survived a near-fatal car crash in Nairobi after a party in 2014. She was in the back seat. She claims no recollection of any alcohol involvement at all. One of her closest girlfriends died instantly.
“I prayed the Lord,” Nancy told me, recollecting the nights after the accident as she sat in her living room, twisting her hair into braids. “Either take her or heal her.” The next day, the doctors told Nancy that Wangechi required multiple emergency surgeries. Nancy told them to go ahead; her daughter woke up and began a painful recovery.
She was barely 20 years old at the time of her accident. She required months of repeat operations and physiotherapy to help fix internal, neck and facial injuries, broken bones, and left-side paralysis. Today, a casual observer (like me) would never know anything had happened to her, though she’s reported she can no longer perform synchronized dance moves or play the guitar. The only sign I ever noticed about Wangechi’s accident was her reluctance to talk about it. Sometimes she shortens conversations with me to the bare minimum. She’s all business, but frequently thanks me for my compliments about her work. We negotiate almost all living arrangement details with text.
Two weeks ago, almost as soon as I had arrived, Wangechi left Nairobi to climb Mt. Kenya (over 5,199 meters, more than 17,000 feet). Her mother was frantic that the cold would produce excruciating pain because of the metal left in Wangechi’s body. But her bid to climb the mountain seems completely understandable to me.
Once, in June 2004 I took a trip with son Emmett, then 15, to the Inca Trail and the Vilcabamba mountains of Peru. Emmett was entering teen years with lots of academic challenges, distractions, and fights. I figured it was our last chance make a real trip together, a challenge, something he’d remember about Mom and son. It turned out the boy fairly levitated up the mountain to Dead Woman’s pass at 14,000 feet. The weather was rough, snowing and sleeting. I remember arriving at the top soaking wet a least an hour later, seeing him cradle himself as he sat on the frozen ground in a skimpy parka and an Inca-style wool hat. (He never said, “Why, Mom did it take you so long?” though I’m sure this entered his mind. ).
Emmett’s friend Kevin was with me throughout the the hardest climb to the top; he was suffering asthma spasms, but we made it. I remember watching both boys leap through a stone gate and rappel down the other side of the mountain. That right of passage was my turning point, at very least: I realized that my boy knew how to climb any mountain and would eventually succeed in whatever he tried to do. (Now, 13 years later, my instincts have proven correct, but Emmett would probably not want me to say more).
So Wangechi Waweru Mwende (the latter name means “beloved”) arranged this trip two weeks ago and climbed Mt. Kenya without a hitch, without friends, only porters to guide her. The fact that she’s wanted to prove herself climbing alone, I believe, has sometime to do with breaking barriers, living every risk. (“I’m a strong woman,” Wangechi told me, turning on her heels after we haggled about the rent.)
Her Mom Nancy and I both recognize that those who come back from
encounters with death are often fearless, or nearly so. (At age 7, I had open heart surgery; my heart was stopped for five hours while I survived on a heart-lung machine. Fifty-eight years later, I’m still here. I know these feelings of wanting to conquer any fearful thing — if not death, than anything worth doing in life.)
My attorney- student friend, Grace Diida, who is remarkably fearless herself, calls this absolute risk taking and fearlessness “being fierce.” Wangechi is a fierce one. I feel privileged to have so serendipitously run into someone with the artistic chops to express herself in such a public way.
Nancy, her Mom, admits to me that her standout kid is still a mystery. The secret, Nancy says , is learning to nurture by leaving a unique soul to find its own way . Her daughter today is a mountain climber, a poet, a musician, and potentially, the builder of a great Kenyan music studio. To tamper is to rob the world of an authentic gift.
After spending a month here in this house I realize Nancy has her own style of risk taking. As a single mother, she’s forged a life for herself — one filled with gardens and farms, big picture windows, unpaved roads, and an unwavering faith in God and the powers of healing.
Nancy is building a magnificent farm home (which is says is “too big” for her, but not her family and guests) made of Kenyan yellow stone in Thika, about an hour northeast of Nairobi. She also owns small farming acreage in Tigoni Limuru and Malewa Gilgil, the latter a spread between Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha. All the farms are within a few hour’s drive, but Thika, the closest, was where we went last Sunday. I can still feel the red clay soil under my feet, the view of the vicar and eucalyptus trees that tower over the place, and all the little vegetable patches where she grows aloe, ginger, tree tomatoes, garlic and bananas (the monkeys love them). When we walked to her river, I encountered a few safari ants that bit through my pants as we tried to bring down high growing avocados sitting atop riverside trees (ants love their avocados). On the other side of the river, I could see coffee plantations from a state-owned farm and more giant eucalyptus trees thrust up against the milky cumulus sky.
So why aren’t there more good coffee pots in Kenya? I ask Nancy. I’m guessing the shortage exists because the country exports its best coffee. Nancy laughs at me.
In Kenya, life isn’t as full of consumer conveniences. You dry your laundry on the line. You forgo a lot of lights. Plastic bags, with rare exceptions, are banned, and even vegetables are picked in low-cost cloth bags. If you forget your shopping bags, you pay for recyclable ones. The roads are dusty, pot-holed, and sometimes very dangerous. But there are reasons to love the quiet of the farms, the cocks crowing next door, and the house that Nancy says will never be finished.
Wangechi owes her life and recovery to her Mom. As she stated in an interview, her Mom is her pillar, her light. After the accident, “I had to repeat a semester in school and every time I came home depressed, she would look at me say, ‘You have survived an accident and lost a friend. You are back on your feet. There is no way you can give up now.’ I love her for that. She really helped me through the whole process.”