American Dream: ‘Way of life’ in US jolts Kenyan girl’s dream
Suicide note: Two years ago, a young Kenyan woman, a private investigator, left a cushy job and went to the US, the land of opportunities, to build a better life. But her two years there have been wrought with depression, racism and a spell on suicide watch.
“If I die, just call my cousins and tell them I want my body cremated. I don’t want to live to see people laughing at my mum because I never graduated like the others…this is the end of the road for me. I am mentally, emotionally and physically drained.”
Her suicide note/email was short and simple. And it was addressed to the school faculty. She was a week away from clocking 30, and Janet Njeri was feeling a desolation that seemed inescapable.
Barely two years prior to this moment, Janet had a thriving career. She had worked as a private investigator for a local NGO and had been part of the team that worked on the Akasha brothers’ case and extradition to the US for trial.
She had felt accomplished then, but on this particular day, she felt like a complete failure. And nothing short of death would offer reprieve.
And so she sat in the little bathroom. A small space in her dorm room that she shared with another student in the vast Lower Columbia College in Washington State. She was hundreds of thousands of miles away from home. And as she popped one pain pill after the other, she felt at peace.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just so tired,” she says.
The events leading up to this moment had been gradual, and though we are doing this interview over the phone, I can hear the sharp intake of breath before the story begins pouring out in quick bursts.
One fine Sunday in 2014, Janet and her mother were getting ready to go to church. They lived in Nairobi’s Umoja estate.
“Mum mentioned that she had felt a swelling under her armpit, and it wasn’t a lymph node. So we decided that we would go to the hospital after church.”
Four days later, the worst was confirmed. Her mother had breast cancer.
“It was a horrible time for us. The first two weeks of her recovery were so hard as she was in so much pain.”
Watching her mother struggle was an ‘aha’ moment for Janet.
“My mum’s health condition made me start thinking about changing my career completely. I wanted to be the one buying medicines for her. During her medical checks and follow ups, I wanted to understand what doctors were saying because I felt Kenyan hospitals didn’t offer good patient education.”
Janet Njeri with her daughter and mother.[Courtesy]
Threats on her life
This revelation prompted some life changes. But a separate incident cemented it.
“Working on the Akasha case involved flying every morning to Mombasa to testify in court. On some occasions, I had to spend nights there when the court was adjourned.”
During the course of the proceedings, a friend of the Akashas traced the hotel she was staying in and decided to visit her.
“I recognised him, but he didn’t know it was me because I was wearing a bui bui. By fate, I happened to be at the front desk when he walked in. He asked for the room next to mine. He was brazenly carrying a gun in the back pocket of his trousers. I quickly informed the office of the Director of Public Prosecution and was transferred immediately to another hotel. I had security around me from the the DPP’s office.”
Several threats on her life were made, and this incident scared her to the core.
“I figured out that it was time to make my move. And so I applied for a nursing degree at Lower Columbia College in Washington State. ”
She soon received an acceptance letter to the university and this, she felt was a sign that the fates were in her corner.
“I was so excited. I thanked God repeatedly as I started making arrangements. My visa interview happened on August 2, 2016, and I left Kenya full of dreams less than two weeks later.”
Expectations versus reality
Her first shock came in the form of weather. “The characteristic fall long nights and short days confused me so much. I expected a warm enthusiastic welcome but even as the only black student in my class, I was completely ignored.” What followed next was the blatant racism. One instructor casually told her that she was not going to pass her class because she was using British English.
“This was my first semester and true to her words, I failed the class. I also didn’t know that assignments were posted online and even though I passed the class tests, I lost 30 per cent of my grades. And so I have had to redistribute and retake those 15 credits as I carried on with the course in the two years,” she says.
The blatant racism was becoming more real.
“They don’t even hide it. They always made fun of my accent; saying they couldn’t hear what I was saying. They made crude jokes about Kenyans keeping lions as pets.”
In spite of this, she consistently appeared on the Dean’s list.
“I have slept hungry many times because this isn’t like Kenya – you can’t talk nicely to the Mama Mboga when things are tough. Sometimes when I calculate the money I have and the bills that must be sorted out like fees, I end up with nothing for food. You could be locked out of a class over an unpaid Sh5,000 and I couldn’t afford to take such a chance. I would rather drink water.”
Janet had also been struggling with homesickness, “but you know I can’t call my mum crying when she is dealing with her condition and she is taking care of my baby too.”
The breaking point…
And so we are back to the grey day not so long. The day she thought that the world of the dead was better than another day in the world of the living.
Shortly before the finish line, her commencement date, what we call graduation date in Kenya; Janet was informed that she wouldn’t graduate.
“I was told that because I hadn’t taken vaccination shots for Hepatitis B, I would not proceed with my classmates. Before this, I had paid for other vaccinations that had cost me about Sh60,000 in March. I couldn’t pay more. I could not understand what this had to do with my graduation and all my questions were met with a flat response –you won’t graduate. Everything I had been through washed over me. I couldn’t imagine having to extend even for one more month.”
That was when she decided to end her life. She felt like she was failing her mother. Graduating was what she had worked for the entire period. It was what had driven her through the struggle to raise her tuition fee and bear other struggles of being away from home.
And so she lay on the bathroom floor. The pain pills were kicking in. She was weak, dizzy and vomiting. And that is how her roommate found her.
She had also clicked send on her suicidal email. And luckily for her, the faculty was swift in response to her email. In less than 20 minutes, the campus security team was in her room. She was stabilised and rushed to the emergency room.
“I woke up after some time thirsty and with a splitting headache. I stayed on suicide watch for around four hours before they transferred me to psychiatric section.”
Jane is still in America, finishing up on her degree. She has since been attending therapy sessions to sort through her depression. She also found a Kenyan women support group online who enveloped her in support.
“Every time I feel like I want to go back to that dark place, I call them and they do everything to help me through. It feels like an uphill climb and sometimes you lose your footing. If I hadn’t reached out to this community I don’t think I would be sharing this story with you.”
And does her family back home know of her struggles? I prod. She pauses before responding.
“I haven’t told my mum yet… I thought I was coming to a country of honey and milk but honestly it is hard. So many times, I’ve wished I never came over. I have packed my bags with the intention of going to the airport and demanding that they deport me. But what am I coming home to? My daughter needs me to finish school. I am doing this for them.”
Janet will complete school on June 22, 2018 and will begin her internship in September.
“I wanted other people to know the reality of being here. In my recovery, I am trying to avoid negativity and focusing on my journey with the end in sight.”
“Hang in there,” I say as I wish her the best of luck. She chuckles and clicks off. Just another log on my call list, but still a brave voice that lingers on, another one in a sea of many, in pursuit of a better life.
By Christine Odeph