Epitome of a resilient spirit
Growing up, Penina Wanjiku experienced childhood trauma given the incessant fights between her parents. This affected virtually all aspects of her life, education included.
“I was a D student with zero aspirations to continue with my education. So, after form four, I would engage in any job that would bring in an income,” she begins adding she had moments where she felt she needed to repeat class in order to improve her grades but her siblings were hot on her heels and the problems at home, financial and otherwise, offered her no such luxury.
While she had pushed the thoughts of ever going back to school to the backburner, fate was lining up different cards for her. As it happened, Kathy and the Moja Team from the US paid a visit to Kenya in April 2016 and guess who would wait on them at the hotel where they were staying? Penina’s dad who did not waste the opportunity to tell Kathy about his daughter who was wasting away at home.
“First off, my dad had faith in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Kathy was kind enough to agree to meet me and when she asked what I wanted, my first thought was to ask for food,” she says amidst a chuckle and adds the she had to stop that train of thought and focus.
“I blurted out that I wanted to go back to school and when she enquired about the course I wanted to pursue, I mentioned catering after a brief pause. See, I met Kathy at a mall – it was my first time to visit a mall – and we were surrounded by restaurants. Perhaps this is why I eventually told Kathy I wanted to pursue catering,” she recollects.
Besides the restaurants, something else, more potent, caught her eyes. “In my worn-out shoes and torn clothes, I stood out amid the flashy cars and well-dressed people. At that moment, I realized that there was more to life and I knew that that is the kind of life I wanted. I was done playing small and in Kathy, I saw my knight in shining armor,” she says wistfully adding that Kathy did buy her lunch. A small gesture to many people but for Penina, it marked the beginning of something new.
Here’s to new beginnings
Kathy linked Penina with Margie, Moja Tu’s program manager and they both set the ball rolling. And so it was that Penina became a part of the Moja Tu family. Once in college, Penina did not want to gamble with her education and so for her it was school work, school work and more school work. Nothing more, nothing less.
“For the 18 months I was in college, I gave my heart and soul to it. My grades were always at credit/distinction. A good score for someone who used to get D’s,” she says.
When she was done with coursework, she proceeded for her attachment at Hemingways Hotel in Nairobi. She says the attachment was a learning curve of sorts.
“Being the youngest and literally the smallest was a disadvantage as most of the time I was considered the weakest. I had to work twice as hard as my peers to prove my worth. Good thing is, when it comes to working hard, I am no stranger,” she says with a tinge of pride and rightly so.
Thrust into the job hunting
She cleared college and started job hunting in earnest. A job was long in coming and so when she landed a modest job earning $5 a day, she took up the opportunity with gusto never mind the long working hours (from 7am to 11pm).
She couldn’t quit as she had nowhere to go, so she persevered and decided to focus on the silver lining – the experience she was amassing.
It was whilst working here that she got a one-week opportunity to work for her then boss’ son as a secretary. “I had no idea how to be or act like a secretary but one thing my father always taught me is; ‘when an opportunity presents itself, never say you don’t know. Seize it then figure out the how in the process’ and that’s exactly what I did,” she says emphatically.
When the one week elapsed, she asked one small favor from her employer; would he be kind enough to allow her to continue to work albeit without a salary? All she asked in lieu of a salary was bus fare. He agreed.
“Besides gathering experience as a secretary, I got to learn graphic design from the designers in the office. I also tagged along in meetings and before long, I was hired fulltime with a salary to boot,” she says.
Having proved her worth and as a testament to her employer’s belief in her capabilities, Penina was tasked to manage a smaller shop where she did everything from designing to printing to brand management to social media marketing. This she did diligently until COVID-19 struck. Her boss closed shop and Penina found herself jobless once more.
The sudden turn of events caught her off guard. “Life has totally changed. I came from being busy and unavailable to jobless and idle. I was always in control but now I don’t even know what to do in the next five minutes. It took time to adapt. I live with my mom and siblings and I’m the family’s bread winner and here I am jobless and clueless. I had 2020 goals and targets to meet but now all is gone,” she explains.
Like many people, Penina has come to the realization that the novel coronavirus and its ramifications are not going anywhere soon. She is thus in the process of picking herself up and since there’s no job in sight, she is looking at going into self-employment with the skills she has amassed.
For Penina, she feels pressured to provide for her family. “My siblings are still in school. My younger brother had just joined form 1 before COVID-19 struck, and my sister completed her KCSE last year. She got a good grade and will be joining university soon,” she says concluding that her biggest lesson yet for 2020 is that nothing is permanent and that this situation, too, will come to pass.