The first night I meet Judy Wanderi, we end up waiting together at 2am for a night bus that never comes. Judy goes to ask a man filling his van at a nearby petrol pump for a local taxi number, and comes back with both this and a proffered lift home. Is she sure she wants to take up the offer from a stranger? Apparently so. We’re heading in different directions, and as I watch her disappear into the night, I think the woman must be very brave or very reckless, possibly both. And I hope she’ll be alright.
Luckily, she is and two weeks later, in her sun-bathed kitchen, I ask her about the incident over milky tea and Digestives (“we were colonised by the British, you know…”). Would she have done the same in her native Kenya? “No way!” She exclaims. “Never. It’s the number one rule”. And why did she feel that it was possible in Denmark? “Sometimes I do these things which are…impulsive. And afterwards I think of the consequences. But also I trust my instincts. I know it is possible that this can be like one of those psycho movies, which this man can take you to the forest and rip out your eyes. But somehow I think it will be ok.” It’s serious, but she’s laughing. Another reason it would never happen in Kenya is that most people would think twice before offering a lift to a stranger: “people are more afraid of women than of men because women are more easily trusted; thus they would make better criminals.” She tells me of stories of women concealing guns inside thermos flasks and using them to hijack buses at remote locations.
Recalling some difficult experiences of her own, she tells me of her dislike for passivity in situations where someone needs help; the “it doesn’t concern me attitude” which produces in her “feelings of anger towards apathy in people.” Perhaps it is partly this need to fire people up or call them to action that has led her so consistently towards journalism.
With a mother determined to make sure her third child had the education she did not, Judy began her schooling at a prominent ex-colonial primary. Without money for the bus, they walked to her interview, and only discovered she had been accepted because a well-to-do neighbor saw Judy’s name next to her own child’s on the list. From here, Judy was able to attend high school, then Journalism College and finally the American University in Nairobi. Despite it never being possible to fund her own studies, she has always trusted that the means would come and – through luck and generosity – they always have. Judy tells me about the huge support she has had from her family; the uncle who funded her through high school; a cousin her own age, working in America, who paid for her university; her brothers. Suddenly, she is covering tears with the royal blue scarf that has been framing her face. “I just wish we all had the same opportunities” she says, deeply conscious of the luck, chance and circumstance which has attended her life so far. But while these have played their part, true grit has also been a factor. When she arrived at the airport to find her plane already departed for Denmark (she misread the timetable: “I have a tendency to miss flights”), Judy refused to leave the Turkish Airlines office until they found her another seat. They said it would take fifteen days. After nine hours of insistence, they put her on a flight the next day.
Our conversation ranges over Kenyan politics, climate change, tribal segregation, Judy’s passion for documentary films, for “telling stories with visuals”, her attempts to “run away from journalism”(it always pulled her back), her mother (“whenever I go to visit her, the second day I tell her ‘I’m leaving!’”). We talk about the need for silence and the fear of failure. Thinking back to the first night we met, I ask Judy if she thinks of herself as a calm person. “I sometimes present the image of being calm, but could be in turmoil. I hate being needy, making someone feel l need something from them; now I’m in a place where I don’t have to ask anything of anyone.” With the exception of the occasional lift home? “On hindsight, I should never have done it; anything could have happened, even in Europe!
(This article was written by Cassie Werber as part of the ‘Erasmus Mundus MA in Journalism and Media within Globalisation’ class of 2009-2011 profiles)