I Will Never Say Goodbye – A Tribute To Isabella Kithinji , My Mother , My Teacher

This is for my peoples who just lost somebody……put your hand way up high, we will never say bye… (M. Carey)

Kris Mom 3

Mom and I ,  2005

The morgue attendant said he needed a few relatives to come and identify the body before it was taken to the hearse. Somberly, my siblings, dad and I stepped forward. Once we were at the viewing bay, the overzealous attendant unceremoniously opened the beigish brown casket. For me it was the first time I was viewing the body since 10 days ago when mum had passed on, and it had taken all my courage to do so. But for silent sighs and stifled cries, no words were spoken as we all stood around the casket each coming into terms with the magnitude of the loss before us. There she was, clad in a yellow Kitenge dress with bold flower patterns of different colours. On her feet was her favorite pair of shoes – navy leather loafers I had bought her several months ago – and on her wrist a loosely fitting rubber band. Besides, “WHY DOES SHE HAVE A RUBBER BAND ON HER WRIST??”, all I could think of was…THAT’S NOT MY MOTHER….where is her smile…where is her infectious laugh….where is her liveliness, her LIFE?” There was no life at all in what lay still in the cushioned casket in front of us, something I found deeply disturbing. See, my mother was never one to sit still. Even when her health took a nosedive earlier this year following a renal failure , she was always up to something – a family matter , her projects (including a 12 year old school that she founded) , someone who needed her help… Right there it dawned on me why they call it “the body” at the morgue. They call it the body because it’s just that – a body. No spirit. No soul. No life. In a strange way this realization has given me such peace and comfort the past few weeks. I am comforted in knowing that what was buried in the ground is not my mother’s soul….or spirit…or LIFE. It’s just her body. The sobriety of the moment had been interrupted by the attendant who required a verbal confirmation that this indeed, was Isabella’s body. “Yes it is”, dad had said with finality.

Read : The scent of her lotion

Earlier in the morning dressing up I had looked at myself in the mirror. For mama’s funeral I had chosen a no-frills black dress with white polka dots at the bodice. The length was just right – half an inch below the knee. A simple black cardigan and black heels completed the look. Mum had raised her five children – my siblings and I – to always dress “smartly and decently” and even with us grown , she had never shied away from pointing out clothes which she thought were not meeting that criteria! Mum would approve, I had thought, with a light chuckle , as if consoled that even though gone , she got to influence what I wore. “Mum!”, it was Kajune my younger daughter calling me in her signature manner – as if she has something REALLY important to tell me. I hadn’t noticed her walking into my bedroom. “Yes”, I had replied turning to look at her. She looked adorable in the navy and white polka dot dress I had bought her sister and her, for the ceremony. “Grandma Isabella is now an angel”, she declared. “Yes baby girl, she is”, I said reassuringly bending to give her a hug. “And you look lovely”, I added to which she smiled – a gummy grin that revealed several missing milk teeth, and said thanks. “Get your stuff…tell your sister….we need to get going. It’s already 5:00 O’clock…” 6:00AM would find us at the Kenyatta University Funeral Home , from where we would later proceed to our rural home in Meru County.

Despite it being Friday the 13th, the journey to St. Stephen’s Catholic Church Kionyo , our childhood church and where mum had been a staunch member , was uneventful (stereotypes be damned!). The church compound was a sea of red-ribboned cars that had transported scores of mourners to the requiem mass that was to precede the burial. As speaker after speaker eulogized a great woman, an active Christian, an outstanding teacher, a counsellor, a trusted mentor….my mind wandered to so many years ago when I was a little girl and mama was my class teacher from class 1 to class 3. Being the last born, mum and I were inseparable. Always hand in hand, we would do the 10 minute walk to the local public primary school every morning. I would be asking endless questions as only a 7 year old can, and she would be patiently and graciously answering them. On reaching the school gate however, I became the pupil and she the teacher. She had made it clear that, at school, she was teacher first and mum second and that I was not to expect any kind of preferential treatment. On most days, we’d leave home in time but some days we’d be a little late. On such days I would sprint ahead of her. I had observed that teachers did not suffer the wrath of the teacher on duty, if they were late….and that if I was late for school, I was on my own! There was no being excused because I was a “teacher’s child”.

Read : Lessons From Mama

Now, “teacher’s child” was a coveted title if you lived in my village. What with teachers being the most affluent Iot. If you were a teacher’s child, you wore a clean pair of socks and shiny Bata shoes to school (these items were not a mandatory part of the uniform and many parents could not afford them anyway) and at some point in your school life, your parents whisked you away to a prestigious boarding school (ANY boarding school was considered prestigious) and for the colossal (compared to public schools) amount they would pay for their child’s education in academies, at least they got to have the consolation that they were giving their children the best they could afford. My elder siblings had gone to boarding school ahead of me and in as much as they told me many adventurous stories about their “amazing” life in boarding school; I was NOT looking forward to EVER going to a boarding school. This might have been partly because of what I had read in the Moses book Series. But more importantly, it was because we had such a great friendship with mum. There was no way I was parting with her, and the feeling was mutual.

All was not rosy at school but I was happy so long as I remained a day scholar and got to see mum every day. Mama stopped being my class teacher when I reached class 4. She taught Religion in class 8 though, and I was looking forward to being in her class again, not only because she was my mum but also because she had a way of making lessons interesting. She often taught through stories and had a way of making every pupil believe they were her favourite. She loved what she did and genuinely loved her students. Sometimes if need be, she would remain with the “weak” students to tutor them (free of charge) after others had gone home. Mum was a firm believer in excellence and therefore there were no two ways about it – if you were in mum’s class you HAD to pass.

Now , the ugly part of being “teacher’s child” was that you were the butt of many jealousy – inspired schemes , sometimes imagined , mostly real. When I was 10 years old and in class 6, it had emerged that I was having a health concern that made the doctor ask my mom “are you her real mother?” “WHAT… are you freaking kidding me??” The doctor said that she should check if I was having any problems at home (or maybe at school?) because I seemed to be developing stomach ulcers. It was a fellow teacher and friend who confided in mum that there were some particular teachers who were overly mean to me and could be heard picking on me and constantly putting me down with snide remarks during their lessons. I would be beaten for slight mistakes others would get away with. Not that I was blind to all this. The reason I had not talked to mum about it was because I did not want to look like cry baby – she had warned me against that.

It was this unfortunate twist that made me leave the school the very next term. I had to go to a boarding school after all. And she had somewhere in mind – Fred’s Academy, the best performing school in the District and one of the best in the country. With sausages and Chapati on the menu , Freds’s Academy was not your average boarding school. Pupils took hot showers and had laundry done for them. Even my siblings had not known such luxuries in the boarding schools they had gone to. When she had sold the idea to dad, he had wondered if she had lost her mind. How would they afford such a school and two of my other siblings were still in school? But he knew better than to try and stop her. If mum was determined to do something, she was going to find a way. So it was that I went to Fred’s. It was all that and a bag of chips. I, a village girl, got to interact with children of Ministers and Ambassadors. While their parents came for visiting day in convertibles (true story), mama came by public means. But I didn’t care about her dusty shoes when she showed up at the school gate. Mum loved me and that’s all that mattered.


Mom and I in Fred’s Academy , 1995

“I am telling you , a great teacher…….a champion of education has fallen…..” the man at the mic was saying. I drifted off again…

After mom had retired from 30 years of teaching at the end of 2000, people came forward asking her what she would do with her retirement. Would she perhaps organize holiday tuitions? They were willing to bring their kids if she would do it from her living room! It was then that the idea starting “an Academy” that mum had been toying around with for some time, came to life. Even though no structures had been built, some parents in anticipation registered their kids because of the confidence they had in “Mwalimu Isabella” as one and all called her. Kithangari Upper aka KU Academy was founded in January 2001. By opening day, there was one classroom and a staff room. In the classroom was a bench where the first students – Index 1 , 2 and 3 sat. I have never been prouder of mum. She dreamt of building “a Fred’s Academy” – where excellence was the norm and not the exception – and boy did she give it her best shot! Even with minimal facilities, KU Academy quickly rose to be one of the best performing schools in the area for several years. Its alumni ended up in good high schools and eventually in public Universities. Building structures were upgraded and even to accommodate children from far and wide, the school went ahead to became a boarding school…

Her absence from the active management of the school the past few years due to health reasons has caused mum’s School to decline though. Sadly no one in the family has been able to match her Midas Touch. But the plan is not to give up on KU Academy. The plan is to bring it to its former glory. That school carries the spirit of Isabella , she who was born to teach.

Am I Dead?

I’ve got many wonderful memories of mom , including my first visit to Nairobi. I was seven. As usual it was just the two of us. We were on a mission to buy a gas cooker. Perhaps there were none sold in Meru or mom just wanted to “show me Nairobi”. I suspect it was the latter. We had travelled by night bus and other than shopping for the gas cooker , mom took the opportunity to show me the famous KICC. I got into an elevator for the first time and held onto her until we reached the 26th floor. This was the highest point of Nairobi at that time. I still remember how the wind blew on her curly-kitted hair. I , on the other hand was overwhelmed by it all. I would have LOTS of stories to tell my friends at school.

The gas cooker still stands in mom’s kitchen to this day and it still works! To cut on cost , mum made sure we used it for ‘light meals’ like stews….or frying an egg. Owe unto you if you were caught breaking this rule. ^_^

Another quite interesting memory is of ….when I was 18 or 19 , I was one day very upset. I don’t remember what it was but had something to do with “love” and feelings and relationships. “Why are you crying? Am I dead?” She had asked me. That statement had taken me aback. Whatever or whoever I may have been crying about suddenly paled in comparison. I got to use that line a couple of months ago though a bit rephrased. On our way to drop our elder daughter for her catechism class we realized that we were going to be late. AGAIN. This realization made her burst into tears. Not that she would be punished or anything. She just felt embarrassed of being late. Again. “Why are you crying? Is someone dead?” ,  I had admonished…. “Then stop crying”. I said firmly. “So long as we are alive, we can correct our mistakes”.

I have cried buckets the last few weeks. You died ma. That’s why I cry.


Dec 13. 2013 : The rains came down

The rains came down hard as soon as the burial rites were completed. I wept bitterly at life – the unfairness of it all. I wept for a life ended at 68. I wept because mum had still too much to do. I wept for her husband , my father , who had lost a life companion of 35 years. Growing up we always had people over. We always had a relative or someone or the other living with us. I wept for the 2 children who currently live in our house , who had called my mum , “ma”….

I could write all day but it is not possible to pay tribute so someone’s parent by doing so. The only befitting tribute perhaps, is to keep the good lessons they taught you, to tell your children about the loving , courageous , daring things they did…to retell the stories and jokes they told , to keep their memories , their spirit alive…because you never really say goodbye to those you love. And especially those who loved you unconditionally , like mama loved.

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