There are some people you meet and they leave a taste in your mouth. It is not the taste of cherries or strawberries or anything defined really. It’s that nostalgic feel. They leave your presence but leave traces of theirs behind; pieces of a puzzle, dots to join, some effect that jogs your mind for two seconds or so….”Who is this girl? Where have I seen her before? Do I know her from somewhere? Is she one of those people I am supposed to know?”
This is the precise feeling I had when I first saw Elsie Muhonja. Back then I was completely at loss of any titles to her name or anything essential about her apart from the fact that we lived in the same hostel. Yet from that afternoon when I saw her walking across the stretch of grass outside my hostel to the few other times I bumped into her in the bathroom or the laundry area downstairs I knew there was more to this girl than met my eye. Well, I pride myself to be a shrink of sorts, psychologist mwitu if you may, which is how I gathered from my close-to-zero years of experience that there was definitely an extra to the ordinary in this one. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it but there was fierceness to her calm, an edge to her softness, firm resolve in her stride and a refined simplicity that whispered loudly “DON’T TOUCH.DELICATE GOODS.” It came to my realization much much later that indeed my instincts were not playing fool’s errand when somebody hinted that she was the then vice-chairperson of the Moi University Students’ Organization(MUSO).I was right after all. There was an extra to the ordinary.
The day I stepped foot in Elsie’s room to request for an interview is the day I knew sijafika. On the floor was this maroon carpet/rug that I am convinced came straight from the inner chambers of Aladdin Aladdin’s mansion(yes, from the dictator), passed through the Dubai Expo just for show with a stop-over at Cairo for a kiss from the Egyptian gods. I am going to be petty and deliberately ignore the nice seat and the nice bed cover and the nice pillows and the nice assortment of spices that lined the kitchen cabinet in that room. I shall instead dwell upon the maroon rug that caressed my rough Nyakemincha feet to the verge of ‘feetgasm’ the day I finally sat in that room for the big interview. Hear mortal humans! of the rug that reminded me of all the good times of my fleeting life-of that time I chased a squirrel in Ukambani and nailed it on the first stone throw. The rug that made me forget my debts and my debtors. I was ready to start a life with that rug. I wanted it to take me to its parents, dead or alive-tell them that I am the one it has been looking for and the one it wants to spend the rest of its rug life with. That I made it happy and that’s all it ever wanted in a woman-big boobs are overrated….If I continue like this I might be tempted to change the title of this article from Elsie to “The rug that taught me love”. Let’s just say if that thing was not made from a Chihuahua’s underbelly or the wool of a thousand merino sheep then everything I have ever believed in is a lie, including Eurobond.
Meet Elsie ‘Malaika’ Muhonja.
She was born the last of three girls over twenty years ago. Between Nairobi which is her birthplace and Vihiga which is her original home Elsie went through the steps of early childhood in the arms of her mother and grandmother. She then moved to Busia where she sat her national examinations in 2007.While in school Elsie stood out as a people’s person and even though her childhood had been tough being brought up by a single parent she managed to wade above the waters and earn the favor of her peers. She served as a prefect from class six to eight unknowingly honing her leadership skills for the future. She tells me that even at her young age she knew very well that life is tough and so she put in effort in her schoolwork which paid off every time she emerged among the top performers in class. The journey was only beginning.
Elsie was called to join Loreto Limuru National School having scored a clean 419 marks which in this era of Matiang’i could have earned her a place on the national dailies. At first the culture shock in high school was tumultuous to a girl who had grown up in Busia what with the cool Nairobi kids among other factors. Being the tenacious tough-skinned girl that she is however, Elsie blended in and learned to get along. She joined the choir in Form One through to second form where she tells me the balancing became an uphill task. There was choir practice and then there was stubborn indignant mathematics which simply refused to behave . She tells me that at some point she even broke down into tears during a C.A.T. There was also the issue of fees which could sometimes weigh down on her business-woman mum who worked at Chavakali. She was lucky though to remain in school for the entire period.
In Form Three she was fortunate enough to travel to Ireland for two weeks on account of a nun she speaks highly of by the name Sister Lenah. This was after she wrote the winning essay for a competition that had been declared in school. It was her first time on a plane and clearly many things were about to take off for this young lady. She even toyed with the idea of being a nun thereafter but now when I ask her whether the dream is still viable she jokingly replies with a “What kind of nun would I make?”
Form Four was all about the grind and boy did the girl hustle? If she was not reading to understand she was cramming to pass and when the results came out in 2012 she had herself a good 74 points to take to the ban…err, university. She wanted to study law but was called to pursue Human Resource Management in Moi Main campus. By the time she learned that she could switch to law school time was far much spent and the deadline for doing so had passed. Girl had no option but to calm her tits and stay in Main Campus. She however informs me that being a lawyer is still in the bucket list and this being a generation of endless possibilities where anyone can be anything(not just in Zootopia), I can only urge her on.
Campus life and politricks…
First year was crazy. There was madness, there was fun and there was the wave of freedom that campus brings to freshers who previously knew books and books only. In the whole of high school, Elsie had not dated or did whatever teens do at that age in the name of love so when cupid finally drew his tiny arrow and fired, it hit right and penetrated. That was in second year when she got a real boyfriend for the first time. This man whose two names start with letter O (deep Luo detected) swept the young missus off her feet and was very instrumental in shaping her into the student leader that she later became. It was around the same time that Pacifica Mariita (a friend from old times as she had also studied in Loreto ahead of her) came out strongly in her life .Elsie describes her as her inspiration as she also held a position in MUSO at the time. She sparked something in her and in second year Elsie vied for secretary general just to test the waters. She failed of course seeing as the norm in Moi is that only the third years get the leading slots in the elections .Nevertheless the pace had been set and her name was out there in the public domain.
It was in third year that Elsie got into campus politics full-fledged. It was not an easy quest to take since in Moi-just like most public institutions in Kenya-politics is highly tribal. It is always a matter of “tumepeleka mtu wetu” and if wewe haujapelekwa you might as well stay in your room, tuck your leadership ambitions under your bed-bugged mattress and deep-fry your omena while (pretentiously) listening and relating to Vicmass Luodollar’s ‘Bank Otuch’ on your Ampex woofer.But against all odds Elsie was ready to delve into these murky waters which she did after her best-friend studying at Strathmore at that time took to Facebook and officially declared that Elsie Muhonja was going for the position of vice-chairperson of MUSO. Word spread around and soon the tight race began.
Campaigning in campus is pretty much a matter of image as it is in the political scene out here. You must show the comrades that they are not electing a poor person to office. It’s a very shrewd way to look at things but it is what it is. Money was poured for posters, for grooming and other expenses like liquor and breakfast for comrades in the name of ngumus. Kamukunjis were organized and competition stiffened as the reckoning day came close. Elsie’s competitors were also creating shockwaves and this scared her a bit. They included Charity Matheka, Sharon Muhonja, Halima Shariff, Tracy Wanjau and Hellen Kandiez. One of Elsie’s biggest challenges among these was the competitor with whom she shared a last name as this could cause confusion sometimes aside from tearing the ‘Western’ votes in two. That is how the name “Malaika” was coined and popularized to put up a contrast. Things were so hot for her during these times and she recalls with painful ease how one day she could not take the heat any longer so she dropped out of the race between 6-7pm where she spent all this time crying in her room. She came back on and thanks to having the right people around her for support-people who had done this kind of thing before and knew the ropes of the game-Elsie was declared the new MUSO vice-chair on the Friday of 22nd July,2015. It was the greatest blessing.
Serving as a student leader…
There are mornings when comrades knocked on Elsie’s door asking for food or money to print an assignment. You don’t just send this person away even if you’re also living on bread alone, literally. Elsie tells me that there’s a misconception among most of the students that it rains money on student leaders. This applied to her specifically because her docket was sensitive as it dealt with the welfare of the students-bursaries and such like.She recounts a tale of when comrades were to travel to a funeral in Nyanza and when university transport provided by the administration could not accommodate all of them she became the bad one, the punching bag. She tells me that leadership in campus is admirable but thankless. Sometimes people expect you to work miracles when you’re also in need of one. It is,to put in politically correct terms, a matter of tenda wema nenda zako. You learn to be patient with people with their different characteristics and to take criticism positively- insults and all.
When she first got into office some of her friends deserted her. The tally of suitors went down a good notch because maybe men felt intimidated by her newfound power. Other challenges included laxity in the administration which was too slow in handling student affairs and inconsistent co-ordination within the elected students’ leaders body of that year.But along with the bad came the good. Elsie got a chance to serve her university in the best way she could aside from travelling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she represented Moi and later to Uganda with other student leaders to mark the end of their term.
I ask her what she feels about finishing school and she tells me it scares the hell out of her. There might be no clear road map but Elsie is positive she won’t have to tarmack. When I ask whether there’s a special someone, what her ideal man is and whether she believes in love at first sight she laughs lightly and hesitates for a while. She says she is not sure of the existence of ideal men but goes on to explain that her ideal man would be one who knows what he wants-someone with a sense of direction-is respectful and can be her best friend. She tells me there’s no such thing as love at first sight.
Her last words? Be onto it .Put God first. Take one step at a time.
By the time I finish drilling Elsie with questions my head is so full of information I might as well be a walking server. She has been warmly receptive and candidly open for someone who describes herself as too cautious. It must be my voice. My voice can lull a tiger to sleep. Haha. Haters will say unless the tiger is already dead. All this time her friend that I found in the room has been cooking something while giggling at various points of our conversation. I suspect she knows more than I do but that’s fine with me. Elsie discloses that she is the serving health director of MUSO-one Hellen Chimoli-and I “oooh!” with embarrassment .After profuse ‘thank you’s I leave with my notebook in hand and yet another story to tell. As my feet depart from the maroon rug(is this correct English?) I can almost hear it crying out to me,begging me to stay.