The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Betty Gikonyo - the Girl Who Dared to Dream

As far as autobiographies go, this is one is certainly not boring. It starts of typically enough with the author stating her place and year of her birth but then right off the bat there are several hilarious childhood anecdotes that so endear the reader to Betty Gikonyo's story.

The co-founder of the Karen Hospital and leading paediatric cardiologist came from humble beginnings but through her passion for learning overcame some of life's inevitable obstacles to become the respected surgeon she is today.

In the preface she writes, "I believe that some internal drum that beats differently for each one of us guides the rhythm of our lives". Such are the truisms prevalent in this autobiography as Betty further reveals herself as a believer in the law of attraction when she quotes renowned author Paolo Coelho, author of 'The Alchemist', and Rhonda Byrne in her famed book 'The Secret'. These authors believe that if we, as human beings, want something with all our heart the universe will conspire to give it to us.

As medical students, life was not at all easy for Betty and her now husband Dr Dan Gikonyo as they juggled their studies, parenthood and the occasional temporary job to make ends meet. "What was in store for Dr and Dr (Mrs) Dan Gikonyo?", she muses at one point in the book. The way she refers to herself as 'Dr Mrs Dan Gikonyo' is charming because she owns her achievements like a boss without taking the shine away from her husband by isolating herself from her marital status.

Among the anecdotes that made me laugh out loud was when as a young girl in primary school, her family came into ownership of a cast-iron chapati pan and this possession instantly cemented the family's high social standing in the village as other families would take turns borrowing the pan especially during Christmas when chapatis were in high demand.

One would think, at the start of the book, that the author would for the remainder of the book totally ignore her father whom compared to the mother is not depicted in such rosy terms. It therefore came as a surprise reading a whole chapter dedicated to DiFather Mwangi, the author's father and in the chapter he is referred to in glowing terms in spite of certain shortcoming revealed in the previous chapter.

Apparently, the author's mother suffered physical and mental anguish at the hands of her father, first for failing to give birth to daughters and later for various undisclosed issues. I was therefore taken by surprise when the chapter on her father starts off with a compliment. "To his credit, he opposed all cultural practices that denied girls the right to education and subjected them to painful and barbaric practices like circumcision.... he encouraged his brothers to send their daughters to school and, when necessary, even paid the school fees for them, since he was financially better of than they.... He preached to all an sundry that female circumcision was barbaric, to the chagrin of my grandfather and the entire Mugwe Clan", so writes the author about her father.

Still in her childhood years, the author was at one point in her life covered entirely from head to foot with a paste made of ash and water to treat a measles affliction. She quite humorously writes that the paste turned her into a "white statue" as the ash paste was to stay on the skin until the measles rash peeled and the new blemish-free skin was exposed. In primary school, the author and her fellow school mates were often expected to carry to school a tin of water and ashes both of which would be sprinkled on the earthen classroom floor to keep dust and fleas at bay.

At Alliance Girls' High School, there was some teenage romance between the girls in the school and members of their neighbouring school, Alliance Boys. "The girls and boys who attended the Alliance Girls' and Alliance Boys' High Schools called each other "Accrossians" because our two schools were strategically positioned across two hills facing each other. The valley separating the two schools is called the Valley of Love", so writes the author.

It is in high school that the author learns more on proper etiquette where the girls were required to eat with forks and knives at all meal times and how to make steam pudding and decorative cakes, all of which were not done as hobbies but rather as examinable subjects. Her track record as an obedient, all round good girl is only shattered when after hight school she is kicked out of her brother's house for partying late into the night with friends.

As the reader, I certainly did not see this one coming as the author until this point lived a by-the-book existence. From this point on we see a different side of the author as she even dares to hitch-hike to Mombasa from Nairobi and back again in a monster truck, the back of a pick up and even in smaller personal vehicles.

Certainly this book has its share of interesting revelations about the life of the good doctor and one would not be lacking in interesting anecdotes among them those touching on parenthood and even the handling 'with dignity' of a smelly stool sample during medical training. Expect quite a bit of rosy language but this does not deter from the real, raw and lived experiences in the life of Dr Betty Gikonyo.

'The Girl Who Dared to Dream' is available in leading bookshops at Sh1,200 paperback and Sh2,500 for the cased edition.

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