On many occasions, I have witnessed disconcerting behaviour either aimed at myself, or other individuals, and I have come to question our society’s complacent moral standards. I have taken up kindness as my second nature, and I have let it become a vital part in my moral practices and beliefs. I was faced with many challenges in my childhood. My empathetic* disposition was not only enhanced but, undoubtedly, became the strongest building block in my ethical foundation.
Naturally, my mother was a pivotal person in shaping my moral standards, but my peers were also equally important. My parents divorced when I was ten years old, and shortly after my two elder brothers transferred to a school in the village. At this point in her life, my mother had never worked, and suddenly she found herself financially vulnerable as she had to pay the rent, buy the food as well as pay for my school fees. It was just my mother and me, and as she liked to say, “It’s you and me against the world, my child”. I wore second-hand clothes and shoes and often did not have the money to participate in extra-curricular activities with my friends. Do not get me wrong ― I was a happy child. My mother and I were extremely close, and even though I did not have the best clothes or live in the best neighbourhood, she gave me so much love and generosity, that it surpassed any material desire that I had and left me feeling that I was the luckiest kid in the world.
Yes, I was lucky in unconditional love, but I needed more than just my mother’s acceptance in this world. Financially less-privileged than my peers, short and very chubby and with a thick Kikuyu accent in my English, I became the victim of much taunting. A particular group of classmates were especially cruel to me; along with the ringleaders, Fatuma and Kerubo, those kids were so cruel to me that I swore to myself never in my life would I intentionally inflict such pain on another soul. Peer-pressure, unfortunately, is an obstacle that children must contend with. Humiliating as the experience was, it taught me firsthand the profound effect our words and actions can have on others.
At the age of twelve, my life began to change dramatically for the better, but there were still some difficult circumstances beyond my control. My paternal Uncle offered to pay my school fees through primary school to college or university. Not only was I blessed with a terrific uncle but my wardrobe began to change from hand-me-down clothes to a few white cotton dresses from Deacons departmental stores. Indeed life held a new promise for me, and of course, my mother was beside herself with joy. I was nervous about going to school in new shoes from Bata Shoe Store but excited about the new turn of events in my life as I had been a constant victim of being sent home for unpaid school fees, a torn shoe or a missing book.
Sporting my new outfit and my head held high, I proudly walked towards the classroom. When I walked in, all the kids just stared at me, and you could have heard a pin drop. The silence was eerie. I thought to myself, “Judy, this is normal just take a deep breath and relax. I look good, but these kids are probably envious of my outfit”. Immediately, I noticed Fatuma rise from her seat and walked towards me with a mean look in her eyes and a snarl on her lips. She whispered something to her bullying gang members, and soon everyone was laughing and pointing at me. “Msichana wa ghetto! Msichana wa ghetto!” ( the Ghetto girl! Ghetto girl!) They began to chant in unison. At that very moment, I silently prayed for the ground to open up and swallow me, I thought that I could die! I asked myself, “How could they do this to me?” Suddenly my confidence disappeared, tears welled up in my eyes, I was in a daze, and all I wanted to do was run as far away as possible from this damned classroom. But I could not move. They seemed to chant for an eternity until the class teacher, Miss Wanjohi, an old and kind lady who spoke in a gentle voice never angry, but very strict ordered all the pupils to stop the bullying or face severe disciplinary action.
Remembering the painful experience of that day in class six, never again did I look at someone who was less fortunate or different physical and forms an opinion based on his or her outward appearance. Although I feel that I have always been empathetic, that classroom incidence strengthened my ability to identify and relate to others. I became constantly aware of the impact my behaviour could have on others. I learnt that it was neither the tall, good-looking Brian, nor the popular Awiti or the beautiful Wanjeri that always scooped the best academic and sports awards, but also the diminutive, shy, bespectacled, and inconspicuous Kimani that anybody could have easily overlooked. This kind of bullying taught me never to look down on anyone or underrate them just by their physical appearance or background. People often do not give others a chance to be heard because of their physical differences, and I cannot express how disappointing this is.
Immediately after this incidence, I created a friendship with a girl who was treated like an outcast by the rest of the pupils. My new friend, Mary-Alice, had a problem with her womanhood as she had matured earlier than most of us at our age, she released pungent smells. Her mother had sought the best possible medication and treatment for her, but nothing seemed to eradicate the smelly discharge from her body. It, therefore, became difficult for her to mingle freely with the other pupils for fear of ridicule. She was intelligent, witty, warm-hearted and more importantly a genuine friend. Mary-Alice has been my closest and dearest friend for over ten years now, and I feel extremely fortunate to have her in my life. Had those other children been less judgmental, perhaps they too could have been blessed with such a great friend.
Certainly, in a perfect world people would be caring and considerate of other’s feelings. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. The best we can aspire for is that somewhere along life’s journey we will endure experiences, of both negative and positive influences, that will enhance our empathy standards and shape our moral beliefs into something we are proud of. When I look back at my childhood days, I feel very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to do what was right without ever looking down on anyone.
Of course, after the incident in the classroom, I thought my life would never be the same again, but I survived. Ironically, their negative influence enhanced the most endearing quality of my ethical and moral foundation – empathy. I have often wondered about those children in that classroom. “What lesson had life taught them?” “Would they remember the short and very chubby girl who had a thick Kikuyu accent in her English, whom they had called msichana wa ghetto?” “Would they regret the pain and humiliation they caused to her?”
Sadly enough, maybe they never would.
*Names and Identities have been changed.
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