Home » Resilience: My mother’s life and its impact on mine

Resilience: My mother’s life and its impact on mine

by Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen

The first test of my mother’s resilience came when she had to drop out of school, at the age of 12. This twist of fate was the beginning of many adversities that would challenge my mum’s passion and perseverance.

When my mother was ten years old, the cruel hand of death came for my grandmother, who succumbed to breast cancer.

My grandfather had earlier remarried a woman, who came with four children of her own. The woman, according to my mother, was the very archetype of the ‘evil stepmother.’ She had no love for my mother and her three elder sisters. The stepmother drove a wedge between my grandfather and his four daughters. My grandfather neglected and refused to educate my mum and her sisters. Girls, according to him, were a financial liability and burden.

As a result, at the age of 15, my mother found herself on her own, separated from her siblings and working to survive. She was deprived of an education and forced to work for various families as a domestic servant. 


Fast forward the years. Mum met my dad when she was around 20. He was older by about 15 years. What started as a civil union between the two turned into a vicious cycle of domestic violence.

My earliest memories of dad were of him being a violent alcoholic who beat mum more than he loved her. Although he never laid a finger on my two brothers and me, he was emotionally absent.

Before my parents split, we lived in a state of toxic stress.  Dad, who had a stable job, left us with nothing, remarried, and neglected us. Mum, was a housewife, who faced with both eviction and starvation, set out to look for odd jobs. We continued to live from hand to mouth, but we had peace.

By this time, I was of primary-school age, and my mother decided she was going to send me to Nyeri primary school. A former all-white school, built in 1949, during the heyday of the British Empire. The school, then, was solely meant to cater to the educational needs of white European settler families.

Positive visualisation

To educate girls is to reduce poverty. – Kofi Annan

My mother chose to send me to Nyeri primary school for three reasons.

To begin with, while she was attending a primary mission school, on the underprivileged side of the town.  My mother had visualised that one day her child would attend Nyeri primary school. In her young mind, the white kids in their pristine uniforms were the epitome of an idyllic life. 

Most mission schools in Kenya had a vernacular curriculum, unqualified teachers and poor standards of education. These institutions served to strengthen the power of  British colonial rulers and keep natives in a subversive position. Furthermore, the inability to teach or communicate in English maintained a status quo role in placing Kenyans as second-class citizens in their own country.

I joined Nyeri primary school 26 years after Kenya gained independence, in 1963. Like many post-colonial institutions in Africa, the school became accessible Kenyans.

It fast became a favourite for many postcolonial elites and middle-class Kenyans. Fast idealised for its excellent sports facilities, boarding school unit, preceding reputation, and not in the least the quality of education.

My mother knew that she needed to break the generational cycle of illiteracy and poverty. She made sure that as a girl, I got into the school and by any means possible. Nevermind that she could not afford the school fees, yet she this did not deter her from her goal.

Admission into the school came with a notable bias to the well-off and well connected. Despite the odds glaring at me, I secured a spot and thus commenced an eight-year academic journey.

Imposter syndrome

School life was not without its fair share of problems. The economic stress in my family was always gnawing at me, whispering in my ear that I was an imposter. Some schoolmates and teachers made sure that I felt that way too. I became a constant target for taunting and bullying.

Consequently, at 13, due to the stress from the constant bullying and life’s uncertainty, I ended up running away from school. I wanted to join my two brothers in a rural school. My only desire was to return to a comfort zone, to run away from feeling like I didn’t fit at the school. I had trouble identifying with my wealthier peers.

My mother was hurt by my display of thanklessness. She refused to hear anything of me wanting to change schools, more so to move to the school in my grandparent’s remote village. Furthermore, she was not going to let me humiliate her and prove the naysayers right. She ‘dragged’ me back to school and dumped me in the Principal’s office.

Mum declared that I was his problem and he was responsible for making sure the bullying stopped. And sure enough, the harassment ceased. However, my future was imbued with uncertainty. There was no guarantee that I would go to secondary school.

In some parts of the world, students are going to school every day. It’s their normal life. But in other parts of the world, we are starving for education… it’s like a precious gift. It’s like a diamond. – Malala Yousafzai


The winds of change

Life began to change for the better when my paternal uncle and auntie intervened. They saw how determined mum was to make sure I got a decent education. They took on the role of easing my school fees burden, including years of arrears.

Even though poverty had been a constant theme in my life, I was lucky not to be kicked out of school for non-payment of fees. The headmaster, thanks, to my mother’s stubbornness, was empathetic and put up with me being in school because mum somehow would always scrape together some money for the fees.

In retrospect, the eight years that I spent in Nyeri Primary school determined my eventual destiny. My mother’s resilience played a significant role in shaping me to be the woman I am today.

Her ability to set such daunting goals for herself lighted a fire in my belly. She motivated me not to let the circumstances of my upbringing hinder me from setting higher goals. My mother showed me what was possible and taught me how to navigate the impossible.

She faced more adversities in her life than I can fathom, but she overcame it all through resilience, a sheer force of will. My mother taught herself to read and write. She did not let the circumstances of her upbringing or a failed marriage limit her from inspiring me to be better. 

My mum chose not to be a victim of circumstances. She was preparing me to go further than the limitations of our hard life. Relatives and neighbours thought that her ambitions were crazy.

They thought that she was setting herself, and me, up for failure and ridicule. In reality, her resilience and ambition didn’t escape the criticism of those who should have been more supportive. “Why is she taking Judy to a school that is beyond her meagre pay? “Judy will not go beyond primary school!” “How can Judy be in a school that costs more than your rent?” “Why can’t you take her to the village school?”

Breaking the cycle

“Education equals better lives. Access to decent work.  Improved health and life outcomes, and the dignity that comes from the ability to know and stand up for your human rights.”

Back when I was a child, my mother kept telling me, much to my irritation, that education was my one-way ticket out of poverty. I know now what she meant. Education empowers children from poor backgrounds. It has the potential to break down inherited poverty and bring down barriers of opportunity. Education opened up my eyes to new possibilities, new worlds and new ideas. 

My mother’s resilience and selfless love helped me navigate through insurmountable obstacles. She took risks and encouraged me to do the same. Her greatest fear was that I would end up getting trapped in the hamster wheel of poverty and a mediocre life in the ghetto. Equally important was that she wanted me to break the cycle.

Today, I respect and admire my mum because she dared to defy conformity. She put fear and doubt aside, and made it possible for me to access quality education. Her stoicism and resilience in the face of adversity taught me not to let the socio-economic circumstances of my childhood deter me from my dreams. Instead, I could use these challenges as a springboard for success.

Finally, it is through sheer hard work and the support of my mum and my two brothers, that I became the first person in my family to go to university. I went from the poor girl with worn shoes and torn uniform, and an uncertain future to a woman who reached graduate school with a full scholarship for a Master’s in journalism, at Aarhus University. And for that, I am grateful.


Educated girls grow into women who are empowered to care for themselves, their families, and their communities. When you invest in a girl, the dividends are immeasurable. – World Vision

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Nancy Mwai January 24, 2019 - 6:19 pm

Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. I wish every child had the opportunity for a good education. Who knows where we would be, if quality education was available to all.

Karola January 25, 2019 - 3:39 pm

A beautiful article .
Simple determination, faith in God’s ability, taking a day at a time – all is possible.
It has inspired me. Truly

Faye Monique January 25, 2019 - 5:18 pm

I relate to this story . Because it reminds me of why my mom came from . It’s like you are giving the story of my mom young life . We thank God for our mothers

Juliet January 25, 2019 - 6:17 pm

Very good and inspiring read. Can I share it?

Mary Joseph January 25, 2019 - 6:18 pm

Wow! Powerful words. You have a great story and it’s amazing to see how your mom envisioned your future way before it become a reality. My dad too was unable to complete school and it was his wish that his kids could peruse higher learning!

Manga Berenju January 25, 2019 - 6:45 pm

Beautiful beautiful! I could not help shed a tear.. this is very encouraging and thanks for sharing with us wanjiku.

Waithîra Wa Maruru January 25, 2019 - 6:45 pm

I always suspected you are from Nyeri and brought up by a Nyeri woman! Love and light to your mother

Bancy Wangui January 25, 2019 - 10:41 pm

For me this ain’t a story…. It’s an experience. God bless Irene Njeri Kirugumi, she is made of iron.

Wangari Chege January 25, 2019 - 10:41 pm

Beautiful beautiful story & kudos to your mom. I attended Nyeri Primary as well, with my parents being prison officers at the nearby King’ong’o prison, it wasn’t a walk in the park raising fees for such a prestigious school then. I’m now a medical doctor & just about to do my Master’s degree. Looking back, I’m so grateful for my parents despite our humble background for giving me the best education! Oh, my mom is called Irene too ! ☺☺

Beth January 27, 2019 - 5:21 pm

To GOD be the glory! Your story was very inspiring. I am a teacher in the US and would have loved to have had the privilege to be one of your instructors. Your Mum is beyond AWESOME and her resilience is off the charts! I teach teenage kids who have no comprehension nor appreciation for the hell that people in other countries go through to improve the quality of their children’s lives, and have no respect for teachers or the freeing power of education.

Ruth Wairimu January 31, 2019 - 1:55 pm

Your mum is the epitome of resilience. Her determination exemplifies that ones future can change regardless of painful circumstances.

Stella May 16, 2019 - 2:25 pm

I applaud you and your mum for both your hard work. It is funny how adversity can push you and build resilience of character. All the amazing stories of triumphs are based on meager beginnings, and that is why plentiful does not have the same effect. I am saddened by the stepmothers who treat the children badly, not knowing they will grow up and God does not forget the orphans or the downtrodden. My grandfathers had multiple wives and the first wife ruled one family while the last wife ruled the other. It made or broke the children …

Catherine Molin January 11, 2020 - 10:16 am

Thank you for so generously sharing your family’s story. What incredible women you have.
I find it horrifying that we are still living in an age where girls and women’s education is seen as wasted and either reduced or removed entirely. Imagine the world we could have if ALL women with the support and acknowledgement of men such as your brother’s we’re to receive a decent education.

We need all humans to pull together.

Thank you for pulling through all the hardship that you endured. You and your mother should never have had to suffer so.
Much love.

Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen February 25, 2020 - 6:16 pm

Thank you for your kind comment.

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