Having read female autobiographies such as Unbound by Wangari Maathai I was eager to find out what was fresh in G. Wakuraya Wanjohi’s Daughter of Three Worlds: An Education in Values. The title was indeed intriguing and I wondered what these three worlds were. Then I found out that the author was born in the Netherlands, was educated in Canada and the United States (US) and eventually married and settled in Kenya.
The story of Wakuraya is a journey through her three worlds: it is a journey of discovering the world as well as a journey of self-discovery. Above all, it is a daunting journey and what gives her the courage and determination to soldier on is her strong belief in values; hence the subtitle, “An Education in Values.” These values include: Christian values, family values, value of friendship, work ethics and so on. No doubt it is her sense of responsibility and commitment to work that enabled her to survive in Canada. Quite early in the autobiography she states:
Our immigration to Canada put an end to my stint of work with Philips. I was given a letter of recommendation indicating that I had always performed my duties with zeal and my behavior had been correct. (p 46)
Indeed her attitude to work proves valuable for her economic survival while pursuing further education in Canada and the U.S. She is not choosy about what kind of part-time jobs she handles and she performs them with utmost and unequalled dedication. Her warm and loving personality as she works for one professor leads the latter into an attempt at match-making between her and his unmarried colleague.
Wakuraya’s family values coupled with her strong belief in God help her surmount one of the worst tragedies a woman can experience: the unexpected death of her fiancé, Gert, who drowns three months before their planned wedding. Perhaps it is to prepare the reader for the daunting nature of her journey that she decides to start the autobiography with the narration of this tragedy. It is narrated as the prologue entitled, ‘Man Proposes but God Disposes.’ Hence she believes that only God can heal her wounded spirit. Her visit to Gert’s family in Holland, “the old country,” is a giant step towards her letting go of her late fiancé. This is eventually sealed by her releasing the engagement ring Gert had given her to the latter’s niece who is named after her.
There is no speck of doubt that Daughter of Three Worlds is a female autobiography whose major beneficiaries are women. It is a self-narrated story of a woman who was born during a period when women were underprivileged and discriminated against; yet she spared no effort to overcome her disadvantages and follow her dream to attain success. Wakuraya was born, not only female, but a first daughter in a family of nine children. She narrates that being a first daughter in such a family meant that she at times had to act as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings.
In the Holland, girls were born and bred to be wives and mothers. The writer tells us that, in spite of the fact that she passed at the top of her class in primary school, she was not expected to attend secondary school but go to a ‘domestic science’ institution where she could learn skills to be a good home maker. It was only through the persistence of her aunts, who perceived how talented she was, that her parents agreed to send her to secondary school.
Some years after the death of her fiancé, Wakuraya decided to further her education in the United States. For this venture, she joined Calvin College which had a Reformed Church foundation. While pursuing her B.A. degree in English here, the writer noted the great commitment of Calvin College professors, not only to their work but also to their students. Perhaps it is the Christian values again which account for this dedication. Reading about this commitment, a Kenyan reader cannot afford not to feel challenged about the situation in our universities and wish we could inject what it takes to transform our institutions into environments that are more conducive to learning and where our students can feel more at home.
Her great determination to excel leads Wakuraya into joining McGill University in Canada for a professional degree in librarianship. It must be noted that the autobiography puts a case for education as a liberating tool for women. It was the aspirations for emancipation from stereotyped roles for women that spurred Wakuraya on the path she followed. These aspirations paid off when she moved to Kenya with her husband Gerald Wanjohi. Her qualifications earned her librarianship jobs at the University of Nairobi and the United Nations at Gigiri. Thus Wakuraya’s journey arrived at another milestone that is important in women’s autobiographies: the milestone of identity, carved along the woman’s own aspired destiny.
This review would not be complete without comments on two features that make Wakuraya’s work an authentically female autobiography. The first feature is the tendency for the author to lay bare personal experiences that one would otherwise be tempted to be silent about. Wakuraya openly talks about having had to deal with a genetic condition of tremors that often interfered with her ability to make presentations in public. She also narrates that she and her husband Gerald became parents through adopting two children, as a result of a condition that led her into agreeing to have a hysterectomy.
The second feature that makes the work authentically female is the extensive use of detail to amplify issues of great social significance. She narrates her observation about how in Kenya, while women had to hurry back home after work to attend to household chores, their male counterparts stopped at “watering holes” for a beer before heading home. A very important detail in the autobiography is the narration about the care given to Wakuraya’s aging mother-in-law by female members in one of her sons’ households. When we read about the love, tenderness and respect the old lady is accorded, we cannot help lamenting the loss of African traditional cultural values which ascertained that our parents were not at the mercy of old people’s homes like in the West.
So how do we classify this autobiography in terms of its social and academic significance? This is female autobiography that raises various important social issues, including issues that affect women. The autobiography speaks to both male and female readers as an inspiration. In Daughter of Three Worlds: An Education in Values, G. Wakuraya Wanjohi shares her story, not only to challenge, but also to encourage us to persevere and confront any obstacles on the road of life in order to realize our full potential.