Published by Imbada in 2008, Stanley Gazemba’s Grandmother’s Winning Smile is a gripping tale about the challenges many children in today’s Kenya are facing to access education and improve their lot. The future looks particularly sombre for Gazemba’s main character Kinuthia, when his father leaves the household and gets lost in the anonymity of Nairobi, the faraway capital city. The man sold their cow before escaping, the milk of which was their only reliable source of income. The boy is left alone with his grandmother.
In spite of her candid and high-spirited character, Kinuthia believes the illiterate old woman will be of little help in the daily chores of their countryside existence. His only option, or so it seems, is to stop attending school – where would he find the money for the tuition fees anyway? – and to enroll in a low-skilled, low-paid job at the nearby flower-farm where the drop-outs he despises seek refuge. But Kinuthia’s grandmother will soon break the boy’s hopeless prospects with remarkable resourcefulness and willpower; teaching him a lesson about life he will never forget.
No written fate
In spite of writing children’s literature, Gazemba never tries to embellish or romanticize Kinuthia’s harsh condition. The boy is poor, his father left him out of cowardice and he soon learns that his mother’s death was AIDS related – a disease that is still a social taboo where he comes from. A bright student, he is nevertheless sent away from school after failing to pay tuition, a far too common situation in Kenya. Kinuthia’s exclusion from school has dire consequences: he will not be allowed to take the crucial exam he needs to pass if he wants to enter high-school.
Facing formidable adversity, the boy is ready to bow in when his seemingly innocuous little “cûcû” – or “grandmother” in several Kenyan tribal languages – literally shakes him with her determination. Opposing defeatism, the old woman starts building schemes to raise money – little, simple things like renovating then renting the cabin left by Kinuthia’s father or opening a small tea stand where the flower-farm laborers find some rest on their way from work. Skeptical at first, the boy is totally won over by his grandmother’s conquering spirit when she succeeds in persuading the imposing head-master to readmit her grandson at school in exchange of a scheduled payment of the fees. Fascinated by her unbowed personality, Kinuthia better grasps the old woman’s message that one’s fate is never written in advance and starts working double at school.
In a sense, the illiterate little Cûcû impersonates the traditional Kenyan values. She knows the herbs and we learn that her knowledge comes from experience rather than study. “From the way she talked one would assume she had once sat in a Home Science class learning about vitamin and food nutrition. And yet the truth was that all her worldly knowledge had largely come from observation and hearsay, for grandmother had never attended any school!” She often distances herself from the “book people”, educated, rational minds to which she is always keen to teach a lesson; and shows more trust in one’s character than in certificates or diplomas.
In spite of her success as a newly found businesswoman, the outspoken old woman still needs Kinuthia to count her money at the end of the day. And the sacrifices she accepts to endure for him to carry on with school show that she knows all too well the importance of education. Her grandson appears to be a far more sophisticated mind in comparison. A calm, almost contemplative child, he likes to read and already has, in spite of his young age, a clear understanding of what he wants in life – mainly: to pursue his study as far as possible. Kinuthia’s only problem is perhaps his frail resolve, which sometimes makes him step back in front of obstacles would not it be for his galvanizing ancestor.
The power of Grandmother’s Winning Smile lies in this unlikely association of the placid and the vocal, the brave and the bright. Together, grandmother and grandson will achieve far more than what they would have done alone. In doing so, they will surprise even themselves. Ending with the joint triumph of his main characters, this beautiful story of human possibility against all odds should strengthen the resolve of the many young Kenyans facing similar odds to Kinutia’s.