Thousands of Kenyans excitedly anticipated the August 2004 return – after a 22-year exile – of world-renowned novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o with his wife, Njeeri wa Ngugi. Their summer itinerary focused on the launch of Ngugi’s latest novel written in Gikuyu, Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow).
But on Aug. 11, near the beginning of the trip, armed men viciously attacked and robbed the couple. During the assault, Ngugi was tortured and burned with cigarettes while Njeeri was stabbed and raped.
The attack, despite the shock and brutality, did not defeat the couple. Shortly after their ordeal, news reports quoted Ngugi, “The voice is still weak. But the spirit is strong.”
As Njeeri recovered in a Nairobi hospital, she watched nonstop coverage of the assault on television. She repeatedly heard her experience characterized as “attempted rape.” She said to Ngugi “No. That’s rape.” And she understood then that silence was “a second rape.”
Remarkably, only days after their release from the hospital, the couple resumed the tour. Their spirits continued to shine through to thousands of Kenyans at every location as Njeeri spoke out about the rape.
Her suffering brought home the full value of her professional experience – 18 years with the New Jersey State Division of Youth and Family Services, and, since 2002, director of the UCI Faculty and Staff Counseling Center, which offers individual counseling sessions and workshops to help members of the campus community cope with life transitions, personal challenges and work-related issues.
Njeeri continued to speak. “The most important thing I knew from my background is that speaking about it is the only chance I have to heal.”
And from the moment she first spoke out, she was embraced by Kenyans and individuals around the world.
She notes that while in Kenya, “I wanted to do some shopping, get the collard greens I like, haggle with the merchants in this Limuru market.” But, with security guards following her everywhere, shopping had ceased to become a daily, easy ritual. Instead, Njeeri was widely recognized. Women immediately acknowledged the hero among them. Encircling her, they told security guards, “Don’t worry. She’s ours. We shall protect her.”
In Nairobi, as cars dashed by her, voices called through rolled-down windows. People waved, cheered and cried. Men apologized, yelling “I’m sorry” from their passing vehicles. They called out “Njeeri!” And she heard, too, from amid the traffic, a Kiswahili phrase that means “We uplift you.”
Scenes like these demonstrated the Kenyans’ embrace, prompting Njeeri to say, proudly, “The country responded. It is our country.”
Throughout the ordeal, Njeeri received support from many fronts. The Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya, a nonprofit group committed to supporting women through legal aid, women’s rights monitoring and advocacy, offered assistance.
FIGHTING BACK TOGETHER
Her family also provided an immense support system during her return to Kenya to testify against the attackers. She worried about her stepchildren when they revealed they wanted to attend the trial with her. “I worried about the disruption in their lives, missing school and such.” But Njeeri was overpowered by their love and concern, “They told me, ‘No, we are going.’ And they all came. They showed what a family is supposed to be.”
The overwhelming support reversed a lifelong role for Njeeri. “I am the type that helps,” she says, “but now I needed the help.”
In March, colleagues at UCI held a conference to celebrate Ngugi, director of UCI’s International Center for Writing and Translation, as a writer and scholar. But Njeeri was equally celebrated – with applause and tears – as she spoke before a crowded campus audience.
Njeeri found the conference a healing event. And she says that speaking out makes her appreciate the UCI community more than ever. “Before, they were good neighbors,” she explains of the people she knows; but now, it’s clear that the support has woven around her a tighter net of people.
She continues to hear from women worldwide. Every day she receives e-mails or letters. Someone writes, calls, crosses the street to greet her or walks up to her to say “this happened to me, too.”
Njeeri understands that she connects with people for whom the speaking out, “the naming,” is needed and empowering, and for whom silence is no option. Their shared message is “I know the terror,” she says. Though individuals’ stories may differ, the common factors are horror and the desire to heal.
“Room by room,” Njeeri says, she would like to effect change. But she tempers her enthusiasm, too. She quietly claims “I’m still healing.” Nevertheless, it’s clear already that in this room and many others, change has begun.