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A Chance Meeting, An Extraordinary Woman

I met Betty* on Lamu Island off the coast of Kenya. She introduced herself at the house we wereBetty renting and offered her services as a masseuse and manicurist.  “The lady knows how to hustle business,” I thought but it wasn’t until I requested a pedicure and spent an hour with her one on one, that I realized that she’s one of the world’s extraordinary women and further renewed my faith in the power of women to make a difference.


“What tribe are you from?” she asked me as she perched on the wall surrounding a planter and I settled back into a comfy chair. “I’m Irish”, I told her. Good enough tribe to be from, I thought. “And you?” I asked.


Betty is of the Giriami People from the Kalolenia “village” on Kenya’s coast very close to the border with Somalia. Some quick research told me that her tribe is one of the marginalized tribes of Africa, small, no great notes in Kenya’s history like the Kikuyu and Mau Mau and yet they have a remarkable legacy. As recently as 1913 two “old” people within the tribe, a man and a woman, were leaders in the fight to free the Giriami people from the brutality of British Colonial rule and ongoing slavery by Arabs. Arabs were constantly raiding the tribe for slaves, the British, in search of cheap labor on the farms they were carving out of Kenya, imposed impossible taxes on the native Giriami and essentially forced them in indentured servitude. The tribe, animistic in beliefs, sought advise from their spirits in sacred forest areas called Kayas**. The British burned down the Kayas in retribution; the Giriami fought back and won some measure of independence. This woman comes from tough stock.


 Without drama, Betty told me her story.  Her father died when she was very young and Betty, her sister, brother and mother were taken in by her father’s brother. Uncle-father, she called him; her cousins she referred to as sister-cousins. It seems that uncle-father’s wife resented this family obligation and treated Betty’s family as slaves. Her mother offered quiet advice. “Do as you are asked, we have nothing, you will get an education and then you can be responsible for yourself. Feeling angry and sorry for yourself now is useless. ”  The sister-cousins were raised as “princesses” Betty told me and “now they cannot cook, clean or take care of a man so they have no husband”.


“And you?” I probed.  She continued her story. Betty has four children. Lana is 14 and in boarding school in Malindi along with her 11 year old brother Franklin. Apparently teenagers in east Africa are the same as those in the US. “She knows everything, can you imagine – she is 14 and she knows everything already!”  She laughs. “I am very strict with her. She must get her education but she also must learn those things a woman needs to know. I teach her to do her brother’s laundry and to cook for the family.”  It appears that Ms. Lana is resentful of this training and in her opinion her brother is spoiled, lazy and joins the ranks of “no-good men”.  Lana’s complaint that she is treated like a slave when home on school vacation doesn’t sit well with her mother, “she doesn’t yet understand that she will be a slave unless she learns these skills”.


Betty left school at 14 and went to work carving flowers and other traditional designs on wooden furniture. A chance meeting got her the lowest position in the household of a resident European family that she saw as an opportunity to learn proper housekeeping skills.  Again, by chance, when the head housekeeper took maternity leave, Betty was offered the woman’s position.  Her boss wanted to keep Betty on and not rehire the original housekeeper when her leave was over. Betty’s Mom had advice for her once again. “Why would you take this poor woman’s job? You mush be honest and kind and say no”.  The high road paid off, impressed with both her skills and integrity, her employer referred her to an Italian family.


The “mrs” in this family was a massage therapist and according to Betty determined that she, Betty, had “good hands” and so trained her in massage techniques and then sent her to school to learn manicure and pedicure skills. Not all this kindness was altruistic, Betty had to “work off” the fees. Apparently there was an ulterior motive!  The “mrs” planned on moving back to Italy and taking with her the cook and Betty. She was going to open a massage salon with Betty as her star employee. There was just one little catch to this whole scenario. Betty could not get papers but the cook had papers. Betty’s voice rose as she relates this part of her story. “The mrs tells me I must say I am the wife of the cook and she will get me to Italy without papers. I tell her I must first ask uncle-father for his advice. No, you don’t need advice, she says to me but I know I need advice. My people always ask their elders for advice.”  Uncle-father points out to Betty that without papers she will be a slave and was this fate one she had worked towards? Of course not so Betty turns down the offer and is turned out of the house as well. 


As Betty talked about what she saw as a routine encounter, I couldn’t help but think of all the young girls who lacked her instinct and had been taken advantage of this way. Failing to be lured by the bright lights of promises she returned to her village to think of a plan. Armed with a certificate of training given to her by the Italian woman, she returned to Malindi and began to offer her services though the tourist hotels but she was thwarted by the cut rate (“and not trained rough girls”) who sold massage “and bad services” on the beach.  By this time, (although dates appeared to be hazy and sequences a little difficult to follow) Betty had her first two children and her husband was lazy and only wanted her to cook and clean. I get the feeling she ditched him, although this part of the story was not clear nor did she spend much time on it. With the assistance of Uncle-father she was able to get the two children into boarding school - government schools that are heavily supplemented. Betty herself attended missionary school.


With a new husband (I think), although she confided that they are only married “legally” not in the Baptist church to which she belongs because that ceremony was too expensive. Uncle-father, her new husband and brother sprang for a full tribal celebration. “I would like a Christian marriage”, she tells me but legal apparently gives her all the rights she needs. She has two more children. A boy four and a half named Handsome Boy and a three-month-old girl, Madeleine. Her husband is a cook working for a group of vacation homes on the island. Currently he’s in Nairobi for “more training …he is very smart and ambitious”. Recognizing the futility of going up against the cut price teams on the mainland, Betty moved her family to the island and by sheer hard work (that original hustle I detected) has marketed her services to the vacation home community here and has a thriving business with a home here and another “family house” run by her mother in Malindi. Her children are looked after by a “house-girl – she is not a slave- I encourage her to learn skills”.


What makes Betty so extraordinary is that within one generation she has gone from mud floor thatched roof no running water no education subsistence living to entrepreneur. And not just one with small dreams. She dreams of training other girls, of opening a small studio “very pretty, close to the beach with many flowers, I have seen photos of what I want”. She has ambition for her children, they  “will be educated, they will choose their way of life”. I tease her about wanting to restrain her daughter and teach her to make life easier for men. She fails to see my humor. “Mrs. mama” she said sternly, “the boys (referring to the cook and house boy at the house) tell me that you chose a very good wife for your son. I wish my daughters to be such good wives.”


Put in my place, over dinner that night on the top patio, gentle ocean breeze to move the flies, scent of cooking from the village, I look at my daughter-in-law and take full credit for my son finding for himself a ‘good wife’!


* Betty pronounces her name as I spelled it, Betty. The slip of paper she uses as a business card reads “Beaty” and she wrote her name as “Batty”.

** 2008, the remaining Kayas of the Giriami People were named by UNESCO as world Heritage Sites.

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