OBITUARY

Hellen Cheramboss: Teacher, leader, mother

In Summary

• Girls were taught table manners- through a system that prepared citizens for an international life.

• The table system of service ensured a sisterhood that lived beyond school, but foremost, it entrenched a culture that raised the bar of life for every girl, but foremost, those coming from the village, without dining tables. 

Helen Cheramboss with a former student of the school at a past function.
Helen Cheramboss with a former student of the school at a past function.
Image: FILE

News of the demise of Hellen Cheramboss, aka ‘Chera’, our pet-name for her, on Monday 3/8/2020, through a text from a friend was very devastating.  I still lack the right words to eulogize her. While the loss I felt was overwhelming, floods of warm thoughts about my stay in Moi-G gushed forth like a river that busted its banks- each bringing forth the unforgettable memories of her influence. Memories of an astute, gentle, and motherly leader, who understood her role, and was purposeful about actualising each girl’s potential. Chera knew that all girls needed a chance in life, especially after going through one of the best schools in this country. I was among these girls. So, while we mourn Chera, in equal measure we thank God that her life was not in vain. We are because she made us be.

 The History of School leadership, fidelity to duty, singularity of purpose, and passion with excellence, and of nurturing excellence, especially in the girl-child, will not be written without picking lessons from the astute School leader in Mrs Hellen Cheramboss. She was the first black Headmistress, after Ms. De Vlas, and she mentored for greatness for the next 25 years. I was privileged to qualify into Moi Girls High School for my A-level education in 1986 when Mrs. Cheramboss had just reported from Kapsabet Girls to the School to take of the mantle of the school. I was privileged to be in the Student- Council as House Captain and class prefect, two positions that privileged my interaction and engagement with Mrs. Cheramboss, while still a young girl at school. My close interaction with Cheraa came because we had a noisy class. And she and Mrs Muhoma. Her Deputy then, called me and said, “Rose Ruto- from today, you will double up as a class prefect of 6A1- “ to which I flatly refused, because I was already a House Captain of a Tinderet house. Several years later, I can still see her and hear her response, “you will manage both”, she said, and asked me to review my stand in two or so weeks’ time. From that day on- 5A1 became quiet, and she called me to her office to thank me for ‘silencing’ the class, and I never went back to review my roles again. On many other occasions, Cheraa talked to me on a personal level, encouraging excellence, nothing but the best. Later, I was to meet Mrs. Cheramboss in two Institutional Management Boards, one of which she served as a deputy chair until her demise. Therefore, my perspective is personal, yet corroborated by fellow alumni who shared in the life of Moi -Geans under Chera.

 

 

Service with distinguished humility.

It has been noted elsewhere that Mrs. Cheramboss had unfettered access to the then Head of State, President Moi, being the then Chair of Board of Management of Moi Girls. Yet, Chera did not display the kind of hubris characteristic of anybody close to power. Anybody who experienced the humility of Mrs. Cheramboss- because that was the essence in her leadership-style, knew that she was amiable, accessible, and a great listener. Softness was her second name, and perhaps the reason the girls never nicknamed her, as other students do for other school principals. Many have attested to her soft-spoken nature. Chera was gifted with this very persuasive voice, which gave power to her communication style. She never shouted. If she got upset, that was never visible to us girls. Only memories of her calmly nature and spirit, which brought a sense of serenity and peace to Moi G community remain indelible. In fact, Cheraa was so quiet, yet a very purposive in her approach to issues, that her movement around the school was equally soft.

Clearly, these conscientious leadership skills she demonstrated, while handling such a complex school, or interacting with others at the management table, become lessons in school leadership and management.   She was on a mission- and mission she accomplished until her demise. Later would retire to Educational Institutions Boards of Management, which she served diligently. Our Cheraa knew about her stewardship, both during her school headship days and when she retired, where she never missed the opportunity to serve in leadership.

 Moi Girls, every individual had an identity

Back to our days at Moi-G, I was called Rose Ruto- and everyone else in the School had to be referred to by both names- so this was a norm rather than an exception. Every girl was an individual- and she knew each one of us by both names. Chera understood the psychology of identity. Later in Psychology classes, my full-time professional line, I learnt that calling someone by name was one chance to connect with that person. Our Cheraa knew this- and she never missed to practice it. That was special, at least to each girl. So, when I heard about her demise, one of the memories was that of Cheraa soft voice.  I could hear her calling me softly by my names or of any of my school mates. And soft, Cheraa was! It was her softness and interest in each individual girl that distinguished her interactions and endeared her to the girls.

Nurturing spirituality and excellence

 

In Moi Girls, there was spiritual nurturance and religious freedom as the centre of life. Memories build around this space are many, but the second thought that rushed to my memory was how we sang at the assembly ground- during the twice per week whole school combined assemblies. Every Monday and Friday, the girls congregated at the school flag post, just outside the towering administration building complex, veranda facing the school gate. One song we all loved as Moi Geans, led by Cheraa was- “To God be the glory, great things he has done...”- that we so eloquently sang, and belted it out the school’s main administration building, produced such a sense of pride, at least for me, as the buildings too echoed back the glory. This is was both a praise and thanksgiving song-and that has become the epitome of the gratitude in my heart, for giving girls from vulnerable backgrounds an opportunity to journey into Moi Girls. It made an imprint in our hearts- or so I think. Without feeling inferior- because the expansiveness and greatness of Moi Girls, including the buildings and the school compound could easily overwhelm.

 Emphasis on Co-curricular activities

She took over the school, with passion, conscious of this background to uphold and improve the academic excellence, but also to dismantle class-system hangovers. I will return to this.  Chera reinforced extracurricular activities, understanding the need for holistic development. As a matter of fact, the predominant games and sports then were, swimming, indoor games, and ball games. Yet, the arrival of Chera in Moi Girls opened a new chapter of athletics for the girls, because Chera not only talked about the value of being an all rounded individual, but of also getting the life skills beyond academics. To date, Moi Girls is both an academic giant in the country and excels in extra-curricular activities. This was the totality of life that produced great Kenyan women leaders.

Cheraa the athlete and mentor felt our victory, sweat and pain.

Moi Girls to this day excels in co-curricular activities. The foundation and diversification enhanced by Cheraa lasted. Previously, Moi-Geans were never athletic-in fact, there were these jokes that ladies never sprinted- and so any girl in Moi G was meant to walk with a gait and style. Why not, after all you were in the top school. So when Cheraa arrived, she encouraged athletics, and in fact, together with her teachers, she used to run with the girls on some occasions. She loved sport- and sporty she was. Sometimes she would quip that she ran in her former school, to which we would burst into girl laughter. Later I witnessed her love for sport, and interest to encourage her girls, when on many occasions did, she witnesses her girls play in both internal and external tournaments. She often accompanied the girls. For me, I can almost see her on the cheering line- shouting and encouraging one a girl towards the finishing line. Her intimate approach and interest in encouraging talent, too brought a flood of memories about my own sportswoman ship. I participated in discus, javelin and short- put to the provincial levels. I have not forgotten about the Provincials held in Kericho in the year 1986- so green and lush were the fields of play, yet external lushness was dimmed by the competitive spirit that reigned in the field. However, the presence of Principal Cheraa- on the sides to cheer me on, added to the sense of comfort and ease. Although I did not win at this level, I came back home head-high, thanks to Cheraa, who did not wait for the report at school. She was with me to feel the sweat, heart beats and disappointment in equal measure. She would be the first to utter the word of encouragement- “never mind next time you will win”. She knew how to build hope. While writing this tribute, Evelyne Milgo, a hockey player at the time, corroborated my memories. That indeed they ate a special diet before any competitions and Mrs Cheramboss celebrated their win at one time by buying them dinner at Tipsy Hotel in Nakuru. This was special. But foremost, everyone was a winner with Cheraa, even if just for the effort.

 The invincible spaces of excellence

Many, including her former students and colleagues, have paid tribute to Mrs. Hellen Cheramboss for the level of humility with which she steered Moi Girls to greatness for 25 years. The girls had to excel. I will not dwell on academic excellence because this was her core mandate.  Instead, I will focus on the invincible spaces, rarely seen in a school’s excellent performance, but which contribute immensely to shaping the future of learners. In Moi-G, these invincible spaces were many, and often, if unchecked, would have threatened the excellence and demoralised girls from vulnerable homes. These girls were increasingly joining Moi Girls because the school was then more accessible to all girls who qualified.

 Exclusiveness and vulnerability

The history of Moi-G as a former White Settler School puts Chera’s reign in context. Chera’s reign started at a unique time, coming in just when the School had been predominantly exclusive, and with a nuanced high-class culture, which was reinforced by the circumstances prevailing at the time. This was also one of the expensive schools, being both a national school, with remnants of white-settler culture. While writing this tribute, Mary Lelei, alumnus and former MoiGean and former teacher in Moi G, narrated to me how Chera summoned her to her office, and sent her to go search from a certain village, two girls who had dropped off from school due to lack of school fees.  Chera spend her own money for her fuel. Mary connected this story with Chera’s fear of God and her sense of purpose, because she tells me that when they arrived in the home after their ‘search’ through impassable roads, they found the family in deep prayer for a miracle to get the girl to school. Chera had become their angel. They left the home when all were in tears.  This was the eve of KSCE examinations!  In this reflection, you feel the deeply humane Chera who understood poverty and gave girls a chance. This illustrates how she negotiated exclusiveness through the ‘class’ systems, conscientiously aware of what such vulnerability can do.  Although she touched the high and mighty, she never lost sight of the pain of the vulnerable. 

 Abolishing psychologically harmful school culture

One of the harmful cultures which had just been abolished when we arrived in Moi Girls was the wearing of home clothes during weekends. This was a surprise revelation to some of us, who had come from Mission Girls School. But reflecting on the psychology of the school environment, Chera understood the deleterious effects of a mixed class school, and the danger which lack of equally good clothes could have on girls from vulnerable backgrounds. Can you possibly imagine a girl from need background dressed up for the weekend with her basic dressing, at school sitting in the same space with a girl from a middle or high class dressed with her Sunday best? You are right. We heard that during weekends before our arrival, the girls competed to outshine each other, dressing up to beat during the weekends. The schisms came out during such invincible, and psychologically injurious spaces.  Cheraa had just abolished this school culture that entrenched social class. Instead, each girl equalised through a plain white T-shirt, or the school T-shirt and the grey skirt in place of home gear. Later, Cheraa was to abolish a school culture that entrenched social class.

 Cleanliness, class, and elegance- values through community life

Cheraa was a clean Principal- she bequeathed some of her impeccable cleanliness and cleaning skills that girls live with up to today. We learnt that wooden floors are not flooded with water. The school had a system where matrons provided wax for girls to polish their cubicle floors- producing floors whose impeccable shine imprinted cleanliness, grandeur, class, and grace. I remember I first used wooden floor polish and sanding at Moi Girls. During the community cleaning by the girls, we would be oriented by the house matrons- and given floor polish on demand. This was our way of life, complete with a rota when every girl, whether low or mighty was subjected. Some girls never liked it though, especially if from affluent homes. I knew this as the house captain then, where after the rota was produced, I literally would receive requests for lighter duties like cobweb-removal. But that was the equity rule, to work on a rotational rota for every space for every girl, including toilets and birth rooms.  In Cheraa’s school, all girls needed life-skills.

Table manners- the Moi G way.

Girls were taught table manners- through a system that prepared citizens for an international life- the table system of service ensured a sisterhood that lived beyond school, but foremost, it entrenched a culture that raised the bar of life for every girl, but foremost, those coming from the village, without dining tables.  Mary Lelei made shared some laughter about how one had to learn to cut food, gently, while also learning some more table manners of when to eat cake and custard. While such a school system is great, it can equally be overwhelming. In Moi G, the table system was introduced gently in groups of 10-15 girls, making it less intimidating. These are some of the qualities that distinguish any ex-Moi-Gian from any crowd- and which the girls- the Moi-Gians- that unique identity, display without apology because their mother- Cheraa and others before and after, taught them to be! Confidence building systems were sustained.

 

A soulful prayer

Cheraa has taken her last bow, but what she did, the influence she had in the Country goes beyond her call to duty. She illustrates how a school’s leadership is a conscious space to mould those who go through it, to develop an all-round person beyond the academic sphere. Cheraa lives in our hearts, homes, and families. Her influence is eternal. The Girls are mourning your demise- Mama, but for the many, they are also celebrating your life, which was never in vain. Through your paths as a school leader, we found own, to explore our greatness as women, and leaders in this country. You nurtured us to raise our heads high up as Moi-Gians. Which God would not welcome such a steward! May this great mentor and teacher sleep easy. May she find peace for the role she played in this life.

Go easy Mama Hellen, our Cheraa. Rest in Peace, and dance with the angels and be in the arms of our God, for indeed you were the steward in that vineyard I came to know you personally.

 

Prof. Rose Ruto-Korir

Moi University

Class of ‘87