Kenyan refugee Rosemary Kariuki’s life seems to be anything but joyful.
In Kenya, she endured countless horrors and loss and her prospects were bleak.
Her future was stolen before she was born as her family lost their farm and livelihood through British land demarcation in Kenya.
Her father joined the freedom fight and was jailed for seven years, while her mother spent time in a concentration camp.
When they were released, they started rebuilding their lives.
During childhood she bore adult responsibilities for her fifteen siblings and received beatings. Her exacting father ‘was only happy with perfection’. While working hard at school and home to meet her father’s standards, she was taught to ‘respect her elders… even when they’re hurting you.’
Rosemary was told to keep silent at home while struggling with multiple languages spoken around her. School lessons were in English, not her Kikuyu tribal dialect or the national language of Swahili. Classmates spoke languages from 43 local tribes.
She describes herself as not being ‘good in my mother tongue, not good in Swahili and not good in English’.
As a reader I would have liked to see some of Rosemary’s Kikuyu or Swahili words in this memoir to give a sense of her life before Australia, as ‘Kenya still has her heart’.
Reclaiming her power
Rosemary’s youth was a litany of hardship, abuse and loss. At one point, she made the choice to ‘reclaim my power by actively looking for the positive in every situation’.
She practised gratitude, even when there wasn’t a lot to be grateful for. She never lost her sense of joy and shared it with countless others.
She credits her decision to leave Kenya to a recurring voice in her head saying ‘Rosemary, you have to leave this country if you want to be safe.’ She first heard the voice when she was attacked in her mother’s home during tribal wars. As the ‘leave this country’ message kept repeating, she didn’t know if she ‘was dreaming or if God was talking’ to her.
Learning to ask for help
Rosemary says she will never forget the first time someone volunteered information she needed to change her life. From there, she learned to ask for help, including from a young Ethiopian woman at Sydney airport who took Rosemary, arriving alone in Australia, under her wing.
Rosemary says ‘there weren’t many Africans seeking refuge or migrating to Australia’ in the late 1990s and not much information available for migrants. She ‘rushed over to say hello’ to Africans on the street and to ask how to get permission to work and apply for refugee status.
By asking for help (and challenging an unhelpful priest), Rosemary found organisations like St Vincent de Paul and the Asylum Seekers Centre. She built new skills and found accommodation, employment, friends and a community in Australia.
This is a book about finding joy and one way Rosemary found joy was by giving back.
She wanted to contribute to her new community and volunteered at Little Sisters of the Poor and later the Asylum Seekers Centre, where she became a patron.
She was a case manager for the African Communities Council and a liaison officer with New South Wales Police, helping migrant women escape abuse. She started an African Women’s Dinner Dance, a Cultural Exchange Program and an African Village Market.
In 2022, Rosemary received the Order of Australia medal for her work with multicultural communities. She continued giving back in Australia and Kenya, including through the Hannah Community Development Project in her former home city of Eldoret.
Her philosophy is ‘when you rise, make sure you take others with you.’
You wonder how she managed to rise and take others with her after sexual abuse and domestic violence in a war-torn country, to become a powerful life-force in her communities. She credits this to faith: ‘when in doubt – pray, meditate, journal or simply talk to your higher self.’
This memoir shares Rosemary’s life in harrowing detail which at times made me flinch and want to look away. Reading her story deepened my understanding of how different the refugee experience is from most people’s daily life in Australia and that a little help goes a long way.
She says difficult experiences ‘did not break me. If anything, they are what sparked and fuelled the fire inside me. They have allowed me to help others and live a truly joyful life.’
From her tough childhood in Kenya to becoming the 2021 Australian of the Year – Local Hero, Rosemary’s story of bravery and resilience is a memoir to inspire all Australians.
‘A Joyful Life’, by Rosemary Kariuki (with Summer Land), is published by Hardie Grant and retails for $24.95. This reader received a copy from Berkelouw Books in Eumundi.
FEATURED IMAGE of Rosemary Kariuki at top: UNHCR/Brook Mitchell