Falling in love is like giving someone a loaded gun pointed at your heart and trusting them not to pull the trigger.
And for Liz Wanja, the love of her life did not pull the trigger for a few years, until he did, and when he did, he sprayed bullets all over her heart.
The man who once made Wanja’s heart skip a beat became the one who broke her heart.
All of a sudden, Wanja had to face life without the man she had given her heart to and get a divorce. And with that came the tough reality of being a single mother by force.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
To understand Wanja’s story, let’s flash back to 2000, when she got married. The two met while working in Kenya and got married abroad.
However, their relationship encountered problems from the get-go, when both of them told their families they wanted to get married. The politics of tribe played out as Wanja’s family did not understand why she wanted to marry outside her community.
The same story played out with her husband’s family, who wanted him to marry a woman from his tribe.
Ignoring their parents, the two went ahead to solemnise their union, but that was the beginning of the end.
She packed her bags and moved out of her matrimonial home in 2009 to start life afresh, unable to cope with the constant conflict.
By then she had two small children — one boy was six years, the other three.
The change of weather was not good for her three-year-old and he developed respiratory problems.
“It is then that I really started to feel the pain of single motherhood. What it really meant to be a single mother was becoming clearer to me every single day. I had just moved back to Kenya and was trying to find somewhere to live and a new job because it was no longer a dual income household and it was hard.”
Once in Kenya, even finding reliable childcare became a challenge. She found herself stranded. She got a nanny but couldn’t seem to maintain a reliable one.
SIXTH SENSE WARNS WANJA
On one occasion, when Wanja was at work, she got a terrible feeling — call it her sixth sense — that her child back at home was not well. So she excused herself from work and on arriving home, she found her child lying on the floor, having difficulties breathing.
“I found my baby comatose, cold and blue, and I rushed him to the nearest hospital in Karen. He was confirmed to have acute asthma. He was to be admitted and they demanded a hefty deposit. By the time I finished swiping, I had used the entire Sh50,000 in my account and I was still coming up short.”
This made Wanja realise she needed a good job with a good health insurance cover and other benefits, now that she had to raise her children by herself.
“Before, I didn’t have to worry about healthcare, school fees and rent. Now everything was on me.”
With the stress of trying to find a permanent job and take care of her children, Wanja had to move in with her sister for a while.
“I appreciate the support I get from my family, but no one can really understand what you are going through when you have been pushed into a single mother situation, are trying to make ends meet and are heartbroken from a failed marriage, so I felt alone.
“When a marriage breaks, women will always pack up and go back home, expecting unconditional love and support from parents and siblings, forgetting that they too have their own kids and their own problems to worry about.
“When you go to them with your issues, they might not be very helpful. Your children will come a distant third. I had many friends when I was married and doing well, but when I needed them most, they were nowhere to be found. Today I think I can count one or two people who have stood by me through my struggles.”
Wanja continues, “Sometimes all you need is someone to talk to, but some of these friends start to distance themselves from you and talk behind your back, saying: That one probably wants to borrow money again, or she wants to tell us another sob story about how tough her life has become. It’s hurting.”
Wanja says having to move in with her sister took a toll on her self-esteem. “When I was away, I lived in a four-bedroom house, I had two cars, a nanny and all that I needed. Now I had to move in with my sister and her children. It took away my dignity, and that of the children, too. They wondered why we were living with their aunt now and where their father was.”
Wanja had to find a good job fast. “I started the real hustling, Kenyan style.”
From the time she separated from her husband in 2009, it took Wanja seven years to finalise her divorce.
“Because my marriage was solemnised outside the jurisdiction of Kenyan courts, I was told it could only be annulled there as it was not recognised in Kenya. That would involve travelling and many complications. I almost gave up, but I wanted to make sure the divorce was official. I didn’t want it hanging over my head. I was lucky to find a lawyer who was willing to take on my case and commence divorce proceedings. It was finalised in 2015.”
Although Wanja had hoped her ex-husband would pay adequate child support, especially because the court ordered him to do so, that became a pipe dream.
“Since he was still away, it became very hard to follow it through. He would sometimes pay a little, then go silent, then a little again. To his credit he has consistently paid school fees, but children cannot live on school fees alone, so I struggle to feed, clothe, shelter and provide healthcare for the children on my own. That has not been easy.”
BEING BOTH MUM AND DAD
Wanja says it broke her heart whenever her children would ask where their father was and when he was coming back. It has also been difficult, if not impossible, to play both roles of mother and father.
“There are times my sons will go for a football match and they just want their father to take them to such events. I sometimes get their uncles to help them when it comes to boys’ activities, but they cannot always be there. It pains me.”
Wanja continues, “There is also the scenario when parents come for school events and other children ask where their father is. Then they come and ask me where their father is. It affects a child’s self-esteem and sense of identity.
“Lately, sibling rivalry between them has intensified. Sometimes I don’t know what to do about it.”
She says surviving divorce is a tough thing to do for all the parties concerned. When parents separate, children suffer irreparable damage. Her advice to parents: Face your reality head-on.
“I always tell women not to lie to their children that their father died or some other story, because these children will grow up and one day find out their father is out there.
There are men and women today who are older than 50 and still looking for their fathers because the need to know where you came from cannot be denied or substituted. Once one knows the truth, then they can make peace with it and move on.”
Wanja encourages women to let go of the past and try to be the best they can be for their children’s sake.
“I know sometimes women might regret having children because they are a constant reminder of the hurt the man who left them brought. They might think: If I didn’t have this child, I wouldn’t have this problem. They may worry the children are turning out to be just like their father and it scares them. But don’t regret it.
Children are a blessing. The greatest gift you can get. If you choose to remarry or are in a serious relationship, don’t hide the fact that you have children from the prospective suitor. If he loves you truly, he will accept you with your children. Think about your children as an asset and not a responsibility. Don’t take the fact that you can bear children for granted.”
SINGLE MUMS' CIRCLE BORN
Wanja started the Circle of Single Mums a few years ago, after realising that many other women were experiencing problems trying to find emotional and psychosocial support.
The group, which began with only five members on Facebook, now has more than 200 single mums from all walks of life, which is indicative of the growing number of vulnerable women and children in need of recognition and support.
“We believe there is strength in numbers, and I know that a problem shared is half solved. When we meet, talk and share, some go away feeling a lot better.”
Circle of Single Moms is opening its head office in Nairobi and branches in the counties in the not-so-distant future, where women can come for support.
The circle welcomes all women, regardless of their station in life, and aims to provide expert legal advice to help single moms know and understand their legal rights and responsibilities.
Critical advice on alimony and child support, succession and inheritance is much needed. Women learn how to approach these issues in a clear and level-headed manner, so the best outcome possible is obtained for all concerned.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a feminist. I am passionate about women and children. I believe in justice and fairness for all and I am convinced that when children and women are treated properly, society thrives.”
“You don’t need to drag a man through the mud to get what you need. When you find pigs rolling in the mud, don’t get in there and behave like the greater pig. Don’t go, ‘muanike’. It is unladylike.
The Circle also offers mental health awareness and support programmes. “A lot of women are walking around this city suffering in silence. They are losing their minds. They need support to deal with the emotional trauma and stress they deal with on a daily basis.”
With the support of partners and well-wishers, we hope to be able to provide alternative shelter and temporary housing for single mothers who need it.
“I have been homeless for a time. The worry of not knowing where your children will live can be unbearable for any parent. We want to provide a safety net for women and their children, when all other options are unavailable.
The Circle of Single Mums is reaching out to single mum-friendly corporates to provide jobs that mothers can do on flexible hours, so they find time to take care of their children.
Wanja says single mothers have been neglected for a long time, when it comes to accessing loans and government funds.
“The government has established funds for people living with disability, the youth, the elderly and women. But the women’s fund does not specifically help single mothers, who have their own set of unique problems, such as their inability to raise collateral and secure guarantors. The state can craft special subsidies for these women and children, similar to the welfare programmes in the west.”
Wanja says another problem single mothers face when trying to access funds is being discriminated against by banks. “When you fill out a loan application, what is among the first things you state? You tick whether you are married, single or divorced.
“This information is not required for the sake of it. Bankers use it to determine your risk potential. Your application could be rejected because single people are considered high-risk. If you are lucky to get the cash, you will find your interest rate is much higher than normal. This is unfair.”
Wanja recognises and does not discriminate against women who are single mothers by choice. However, “it takes two people to get a child. Children need both parents where possible, so they can grow up to be well-adjusted children. The absence of one parent can cause psychological trauma”.
Her advice allows the other partner, if they are willing, to play a role in the life of that child and support them through it, because without them, the children suffer. Children need validation and affection from both parents, without which they will take what they can get, even when it comes in the form of intergenerational relationships with older men, or older women, for that matter.
Wanja encourages women to seek inner peace so they can thrive and be the best parents they can be for their children because one can only give what they have.
“Before I understood this, I went through serious emotional turmoil trying to find a new identify that had nothing to do with my marital status, my profession, children and what I had in terms of material possessions.
“Then I met a great teacher, who taught me how to reconnect with and nurture my inner self. She taught me that if all was well with me inside, nothing can shake my sense of pride and self-worth. I needed to understand who I am sans everything else, to realise how powerful I can be.”
Wanja’s word for churches and schools that discriminate against children from single parent homes: “That is unfair. You should not punish a child for something that was not their mistake or problem. Many single women are dealing with rejection on many levels. One feels rejected by her husband, family, schools and even the church.
The church associates single parenthood with sin. By so doing, they bastardise children born out of wedlock and in some cases, bar them from accessing church blessings in baptism and sacraments. This should never happen, because the children are innocent.
Single mothers and their children also face rejection at home, when the narrative at home is that children born out of wedlock or are the victims of divorce do not belong.
“In my culture, children belong to their father and ideally should stay with their father. As such, my brother’s children are considered to be at home in my parent’s home, but my children are not.” These practices further isolate and undermine single parents and their children.
“I tell women to take pride in the fruit of their womb because there is no greater gift one can hope for. Remember, what looks and feels like a burden right now will be invaluable in the end.
“Raise them with all the love and affection you can master because you have a duty to do so. Society will thank you and God will eternally bless you.”
Wanja is media consultant and entrepreneur
Facebook: Circle of Single Moms Ke