I was born in Nairobi but was raised in a little-known rural village of Kiptangwanyi in Nakuru County, Kenya. Though relatively poor, the environment shaped the person I am today. Several people have influenced my life in significant ways, including my family, teachers and peers, but I especially cherish the impact my parents had on me.
My father was a man of relatively few words – his presence alone was enough to have an impact. The wisdom, intelligence, persistence and high ideals of my mother, meanwhile, are a source of inspiration to this day. She wanted and required all of her children to acquire the education that she herself lacked; my mother, who was orphaned at age four, knew that education would help her children to break barriers – but not without hard work.
Until recently, tuition was required to attend all K-12 schools in Kenya, so affording the education of five boys and seven girls, in addition to other basic necessities, was not an easy task; sometimes there were huge obstacles and misgivings. In hindsight, every experience is meaningful.
Also, you never know where the circumstances of life will lead you. My day, and usually that of our family, routinely started at 4:30 a.m., when my mother knocked at the door, telling us to get up, read and do our assignments. Occasionally dozing off due to fatigue, she would sit with us in those wee hours of the morning to be sure we did our school work.
An hour later, we three elder daughters would head to the milking shed to milk the cows while our mother headed off to the kitchen to prepare a simple breakfast; after breakfast, we would head off to school. I learned at an early age to rise early, to work hard, and that nothing good comes easily (so rising at 5:30 a.m. for prayers when I entered convent was for me mundane!).
Our day ended at 10:30 p.m. with family prayer. The faith instilled by our family continues to be a unifying factor; although most of my siblings have relocated, they continue to meet every three months for prayer and reflection, individual updates, and to exchange stories. I continue to participate via electronic means (from Scranton, Penn).
I learned early on to give back to the community through service. In my high school years in the late 1980s, I served as a youth leader in our local church and was responsible for organizing youth meetings, inviting facilitators and organizing compassionate activities that included service to the elderly, the homebound and people with disabilities.
Engaging in these activities allowed me to interact with people who had all sorts of challenges; this brought me face to face with human suffering in rural Kenya. These events were significant in my spiritual journey, resulting in moments of reflection and thoughts of how I would contribute to the alleviation of human suffering.
Additionally, I had moments where I felt a deep desire to serve God, but I did not know how. Because our church community was located about 60 miles from the parish, Mass and the sacraments were only administered once a month and interaction with clergy or religious was rare. Nevertheless, by the end of 1990 I had made the decision to enter religious life.
Despite being from a very religious family, however, I struggled with telling my parents of my decision. I had fears about how they would react. I first spoke of my intention to my mother, who referred me to my father; this indicated a serious issue that needed my father’s consultation and approval. My father advised me to first go to college, saying that religious life could wait. It took a few months of intense discussions with my father before he ultimately consented.
I am glad that both of my parents were there as I made my first step in religious life as a Little Sister of St. Francis in December 1994, and again when I took my perpetual vows in 2000. I have since had opportunities to study at various universities in Kenya and the United States, most recently at Marywood University where I graduated with a doctoral degree in human development. The knowledge and skills I have acquired have enabled me to teach, conduct research and continue to implement educational programs to benefit sisters in Africa and their ministries.
You never know where that “yes” will lead you, and who you will meet along the way. I have served in various capacities and countries, and have encountered the numerous cultural, social and economic challenges that women have to endure in Africa.
In the face of the desperate needs of Africa, Catholic sisters have emerged as a strong source of hope for the future. During a recent tour of ministries run by alumnae of the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative, I was fascinated by the impacts education can have on an individual. Their projects included environmental conservation the use of biogas instead of wood for fuel, organic farming in Nigeria and Kenya, the acquisition of grant-funded medical equipment for improved healthcare, and the sinking of boreholes for clean, defluoridated water.
Catholic sisters continue to be a shining light in Africa, and I am glad to be a miniature of that greater vision. I still hold on to that faith given by my parents and trust in God’s promises, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . . for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gn 28:15).
[Sr. Jane Wakahiu, LSOSF, Ph.D., is executive director of the African Sisters Education Collaborative, which operates the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative.]