Sandra Ruong’o is a woman at peace with herself and the world around her: she laughs easily, an engaging laugh that makes you want to join in.
We find her in an apron at her parent’s restaurant, Summerworld, in Bondo, Kisumu, where she is the only one trusted to prepare a special fish dish for the weekend patrons. As she rubs her hands to get rid of the flour on her hands, a small girl unsteadily bursts out of the kitchen and launches herself into her arms.
Looking at mother and daughter, it is easy to see the loving bond between them. Marianna is one-and-a-half years old, and the driving force behind her mother’s determination to succeed in everything she does.
Sandra wears many hats. In remote Bondo, she is the one everyone calls if they want photos or a video taken.
Her company, SeTv, majors in shooting mini documentaries and taking photographs. When she is not behind a camera or video camera, the 24-year-old, who has an eye for fashion, is selling assorted secondhand clothes which she modifies before selling to appreciative clients.
But this is not all; this hard-working young woman also runs a mentorship program for teenagers in the region. She is especially passionate about this, because she knows from experience the doubt, fear, loneliness, and pain that this group goes through when they take a misstep, as they try to navigate through the many challenges that come with teenage.
In April 2012, just after completing her undergraduate studies at Maseno University, where she studied Communication and Media Technology, Sandra found out that she was pregnant. Then, she was interning at Mombasa’s Kenya Ports Authority, in their public relations department, awaiting her graduation later that year.
Raised by a strict catholic mother and a conservative father with a political history in the region, the news drove a wedge through her heart. Her father, Enos Ruong’o is the former Councillor – a position now referred to as Member of County Assembly- of Wagusu ward in Bondo. People looked up to him, so news of her pregnancy would definitely not sit well with him.
In the midst of the conversation, she is interrupted by a call – it is from Benga artiste, Emma Jalamo asking her if she could shoot a documentary about his band.
“I had always thought that being pregnant was a small hurdle that anyone could overcome – I was wrong,” she continues after concluding the phone call.
“Unless you’re in that position, you wouldn’t know the fear that engulfs young girls who find themselves pregnant. Near-fatal thoughts flood your mind, persuading you to believe that abortion or suicide would be the perfect solution”.
An only child, she has no idea where she got the courage to tell her doting parents that she was pregnant, and when she did; her father, who she was very close to, stopped talking to her.
“Do you know what that means when you are straight from college with no job and in unpaid internship far away from home?”
In her naiveté, she had thought the many friends that she had made over the years would be her saving grace, but they shunned her. What made this betrayal even more painful is that her boyfriend left her when he found out she was pregnant.
Penniless, alone and feeling betrayed, Sandra began to slowly slip into depression.
“I lost weight and became insomniac. I did not have anyone to talk to, save for a few friends who stuck by me.”
It was only when news of a bomb scare in Mombasa circulated; that her father broke his silence and called her to find out whether she was fine. This phone call was the start of father and daughter rebuilding their relationship.
When she returned home to Bondo in late 2012, seven months pregnant the tense environment was unbearable.
“Mum and dad did not say it, but I could see it in their faces that they were disappointed in me – I was their only child, and they had invested all their hope, money and dreams in me, and here I was, pregnant out of wedlock”.
The silence was their way of dealing with the disappointment, she thought, and hoped that with time, they would forgive her.
Her daughter, Marianna, is seating with three children on the floor, each with a piece of bread. The little girl goes into the kitchen and asks her grandmother for a cup of tea for her guests. She makes three other trips until everyone is holding a cup in their hands.
“She has her grandfather’s generosity,” Sandra comments, giving her daughter a fond look.
As the children play peacefully, Sandra tells us how tears became her only consolation. Her parents’ solid reputation as adherent church goers and vocal champions of chastity did not make it easy for her.
“People made hurtful and unkind comments that made me wonder whether I was the first one to get pregnant before marriage.”
She was acutely aware of the disapproving looks cast her way during her graduation in November 2012.
“I should have been proud of myself, but there I was in my maternity dress wearing an expression that apologised to the whole world, a guilty expression seeking understanding and approval. It was terrible.”
Twelfth December 2012, is a significant date for this young woman. As Kenya was celebrating her independence, Sandra gave birth to her daughter, and right there, as she held her baby in her hands, she decided that she would no longer live a life of doubt, fear, and guilt, that she would do everything within her power to protect and provide for her.
“I told myself that I would no longer be dependent, or go about my life as if I had done something unforgivable.”
When Marianna was four months old, Sandra, who had majored in electronic media in university, volunteered at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University for Science and Technology (JOOUST) located about a kilometre from her home.
It was here that she met Prof Charles Oduke, the head of humanities department.
Having lived much of his life in the United States, Prof Oduke had established a partnership between JOOUST and Boston University in the US, which had donated video shooting and editing equipment. The aim of the donation was to enable the university to tell stories about aid and its impact in the continent.
Sandra saw Prof Oduke struggle to make his program, Pamoja Together, take off and decided to help out by shooting videos about how local people had benefited from local or international aid.
She would then upload the videos on the program’s social media sites, and would also write features talking about how the beneficiaries’ lives had changed.
It is while doing these documentaries that she came across inspiring stories of people who had achieved a lot with little. However, there were also others who live in wretched poverty yet were surrounded by lots of opportunity, opportunity they could take advantage of to lift themselves out of that poverty.
“I also saw girls like me, pregnant, naïve and left to lie on the rough beds that they had made. That is when I decided to start motivating these young people, to tell them that there was life beyond that pregnancy, that they could not mourn forever, that they had so much unexploited potential within them.”
This realisation is also what inspired her to form her company, SeTv which tells such stories through photography and videos and through social media.
Sandra says that for more than a year, passion is what kept her going against the discouragement of an empty pocket, in spite of the demanding costs for raising a baby. Money was so scarce; she decided to shave her hair to cut on her spending, so yes, there is a story behind her short hair.
“I used the Sh1,500 I would have used every month to braid my hair, to buy second hand clothes at Kibuye Market in Kisumu, which I would then sell at a profit,” she says.
She would, for instance, buy 10 dresses at Sh100 each, modify them to make them stylish, wash and iron them, and sell at Sh500 a piece.
Her first ‘big’ cheque came early this year when she heard about a celebration planned of Dr Oburu Odinga, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s brother.
She recalls the encounter, which took place early this year:
“I approached him and asked him whether I could shoot a video profiling his achievements, and to my surprise, he agreed.”
Sandra made Sh30,000 from this project, and though it was not much, it encouraged her to go out of her way to sell her skills, instead of waiting for calls or references from former clients. It is a strategy that is working.
“I study a prospective client, identify a need they are overlooking; I approach them and show them how they will benefit from my services. It is a strategy that rarely fails me,” she says.
Being self-employed means that she does not have a consistent income – to insulate herself against the dry days, she saves religiously each week, depending on how much she makes.
Considering what she has gone through, she says, she feels that she has valuable lessons she can impart to young people where she comes from, especially girls.
“I hear people say the girl child is receiving too much attention, true, but believe me, in areas such as Bondo, the worrying illiteracy and retrogressive traditions we hold onto means that girls are still lagging behind.”
PRIDE AND JOY
Parents, teachers and religious leaders often approach her to talk to the girls under their care, a request she never declines.
“The fact is that we need to talk about sex and its consequences, to let them know that marriage or prostitution are not solutions to their problems, to tell them that there is joy and satisfaction in taking responsibility for your life.”
Naysayers have told her she is all over the place, spreading herself thin, that she should just focus on one venture, or even look for a job, after all, she has a degree.
She laughs them off, “Human beings have limitless potential, God has given us immense talent – why make use of just a fraction of this ability when you can do so much more for yourself and others around you?”
For those who think that she would be better off looking for a job, she says that many young people today are doing much better in self-employment than they are working for other people – “there is also the fact that we cannot all be employed, can we?”
This confident woman is a far cry from the lost, unhappy girl she was a few years ago – and she has many reasons to feel confident and at peace. One of these reasons is finally making peace with her parents.
Today, her father takes pride in Marianna, his granddaughter an entry point in most conversations.
“Oh, he likes to brag about her, he and mum are also supportive of me and cheer me on,” Sandra says.
Her mother, for instance, gladly babysits when she is out working.
“Marianna calls my mother ‘mama’, and I by my name,” she informs us, which points at the strong bond between the two.
As we conclude the interview, we are certain that Sandra is headed for greater things.