A Sister's Sacrifice

Times Staff Writer

She might have spent her life peddling secondhand clothes on muddy streets along the hyacinth-choked shores of Lake Victoria. She might have been given away in an arranged marriage. Or she might have died already, like one of her sisters.

Instead, she earned a college degree and a management job at a large hotel in the capital city, a rarity for a woman in her mid-20s. Determined to improve her life, she put off marriage and children.

Unlike many Kenyan women, Susan Wauna has had choices. For that, she has her older sister Benta to thank.

Benta found her own way out of the poverty of rural Africa years ago. She studied to become a teacher and married a man with a bright future. When her husband won a prestigious scholarship, they left for Rome with their young daughter.

But when it was time to return to Kenya, Benta felt the pull of broader family obligations. She opted to stay in Europe and work as a nanny. The money she sent back helped educate Susan, transforming her into an ambitious, independent woman.

Worldwide, governments and development experts are seeking ways to invest the earnings of workers such as Benta to build up the economies of the poorest countries. But for the most part, the helping hand still is extended from one family member to the next. Along with money, overseas workers often transfer values.

Benta, 34, a tall woman with high cheekbones and a radiant smile, wanted to lift her sister out of a tradition that places little value on women. She taught Susan that women who marry too young become dependent on their husbands.

"That's the problem with most of our young girls. They think that if they have a man they will be able to eat," Benta said. "The attitude in Kenya is that boys are more superior. They will invest in boys and always see them through. My sister could have been cast aside."

The Wauna sisters have traveled far from their remote ancestral village, Gotogwang, in a roadless patch north of Lake Victoria.

Their 67-year-old father, Martin, is a retired civil servant. Hens, eight cows and six goats mill about his 12-acre spread amid crops of corn, sorghum and millet.

It is a place of raw beauty and entrenched poverty. Trees and bushes the color of emeralds fill the horizon. Yellow and royal-blue birds dive from the wide sky into the fields.

Martin complains that monkeys steal his corn.

"When there is no rain, you can't even feed yourself," said Martin, the cuffs of his khaki pants rolled up against the mud and a canvas hat perched on his head.

He lives in a mud hut with his first wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had five children. In keeping with the traditions of his Luo tribe, Martin also took a second wife, Agnes, who bore him nine more children, of whom Benta was the oldest girl.

Throughout her childhood, Benta recalled, her mother was at her side instilling a love of education and of God, support that gave her courage to leave home, pursue her studies and take up a career. Benta taught high school economics, geography and Kiswahili language classes, as well as elementary school. One of her first positions was near the home of Collins Mito, a young man with a science degree, whom she met and soon married.

But Benta still had obligations to her parents and siblings. When Agnes died at age 46, Benta became a surrogate mother to her eight siblings. Susan and brothers Lucas and Kenneth were not yet in their teens.

Susan, the family's youngest daughter, was particularly bright and eager to learn. In a society where women frequently face abuse and twice the risk of AIDS as men, she embraced Benta's message of diligence and personal responsibility. Susan left home and headed to Nairobi, the capital, growing into a tall woman with a quiet, confident bearing.

"She's been a role model for the whole family," Susan said of Benta. "She's always telling us about the West. She says everyone wakes up and goes to work, women and men, not like in Africa.

"If it weren't for Benta, I would be back in Kisumu by now," she said.

Four years after they moved to Rome, Benta and her family made the wrenching decision to separate. Her husband was finishing his studies in aeronautic engineering and would be returning to a teaching position at the University of Nairobi. But Benta's job at home was long gone.

In the meantime, family demands had multiplied. Three of Collins' brothers had died, leaving a slew of fatherless nephews and nieces. Benta's siblings also were struggling. One sister had died, and another was a single mother. Susan was studying computers and hotel management at a university near Nairobi but was having financial troubles.

Benta figured that even with a Western European cost of living, she could save more money as a nanny in Rome than as a teacher in Kenya. With it, she could pay Susan's university fees and provide a little help to her father and other siblings.

She found work caring for the four children of a diplomat from Mozambique, traveling two hours each morning on a pair of buses, a tram and a subway. Later, she changed jobs and began caring for the child of a European couple, which enabled her to cut her commute in half.

She encouraged another sister, Christine, to join her in Rome. Christine, 27, had given birth out of wedlock back home. Unable to finish school, she worked a few menial jobs in Kisumu, little more than a village where gangs of urchins stalk the parks and lakeshore, sniffing glue and begging for handouts. Working as a nanny in Rome would give her a second chance.

The sisters moved into a bustling, working-class neighborhood, where they live in an immaculate one-room apartment on the first floor of a building with a crumbling facade.

They often meet a stone's throw from the Colosseum, their young charges in tow. They push the strollers over cobbled streets and mingle with other nannies in a park where Nero's Golden Palace once stood.

Occasionally, they send e-mails and make phone calls to their family back home. Benta also makes regular stops in a Western Union office to wire money to Africa, sending about $400 a month, a little more than a third of her earnings. Christine sends money to support her 7-year-old son, Edwin, whom she left with Lucas and Kenneth, now living in Kisumu.

While Christine cares for a European child, family members in Kenya make sure Edwin catches the minibus to Pinocchio Primary School, and they meet it again in the afternoon. When it rains, they lovingly carry the boy back over streets awash in mud to their two-room cinder-block house.

There is no electricity, no running water. So Lucas bathes his nephew from a plastic bowl and, on a charcoal burner, cooks his dinner, usually tilapia fish from Lake Victoria and ugali, a cornmeal mixture hardened like grits. Lucas has done it so often he can carry out the motions in the dark.

Lucas, 21, studied computers at the local polytechnic institute. Kenneth, 19, lacked the money to go beyond high school. Yet neither expressed any resentment toward Christine.

"I saw her situation when she was here. It was not a good situation, and so I understand," Lucas said. "By her being there [in Rome], she is taking good care of Eddie."

Far from home, the sisters also try to keep some of their Kenyan traditions. Benta cooks ugali in her Rome apartment and keeps her hair meticulously braided, Kenyan style. She and her sister said their dark skin had brought them grief in Italy. Christine shops at the local grocery with a calculator in hand, convinced merchants will try to cheat her.

Benta said she was turned away more often than not when looking for an apartment. She wasn't considered for one job because the Italian mother thought her children would be frightened by an African nanny.

The sisters find solace in religion.

Each Sunday, they worship in a church noted for its Pre-Raphaelite mosaics and Gothic Revival vaulted ceilings. An Anglican church in a sea of Roman Catholicism, St. Paul's Within the Walls makes room on Sunday afternoons for a group of Pentecostalists, most of them immigrants.

Two pastors, one from Florida and the other from Nigeria, lead the service. On one Sunday afternoon, a young Ethiopian woman translated it into Italian. A choir with members from four countries sang hymns, led by an Albanian with a guitar.

"We may not look alike in the flesh," preached the Rev. Michael Hopkins. "But we do look alike in the spirit. Hallelujah."

Religion also served as a bedrock for Susan as she settled into her working life in Nairobi.

The one-room apartment she shared with two cousins had a single bed, four chairs and a full-length mirror. A radio blared gospel music or BBC Africa news. Their clothes hung on pegs behind the door, and a small table held their collection of nail polish, combs and samples of Dark and Lovely conditioning shampoo.

While working at the hotel, Susan found time to attend church three days a week and volunteer at an orphanage. "You feel great," she said. "You feel close to God."

The two-mile walk to the All Nations Gospel Church took her past tin-roofed shacks selling chicken pieces and penny-a-minute phone calls.

Clutching her Bible and a black velvet handbag, she passed piles of rotting cabbage as well as women seated at the roadside, staring vacantly as ragged children tugged at them. She passed bony dogs and bugencrusted puddles and gracefully dodged a minibus. Somehow, when she arrived, her black strappy sandals weren't even dirty.

Shouts of praise and songs of visceral joy rose in the humid air: "Jesus is God! Jesus exists!"

Susan, in the front row of blue metal chairs, joined in song and raised her hands in prayer.

"The power of God will set you free!" cried Pastor Samuel Munai. "The power of God will cleanse you. The power of God.... "

During the week, Susan worked hard to apply the lessons she had learned from her religion, and from Benta.

She showered love and attention on Benta's daughter, Faith, a quiet 6-year-old with eyes like silver dollars. Susan helped her learn to read and would talk to her about Benta as Faith clutched old photographs of her mother.

At the 153-room Panafric Hotel, sitting on a hilltop amid cascades of hibiscus, jacaranda and bougainvillea, Susan moved up from a six-month internship to a full-time management job receiving supplies and doing inventory.

Dressed in an Italian pinstriped suit that Benta gave her, Susan accounted for everything from beans and bread to bottles of shampoo. Clipboard and cellphone in hand, she was a picture of efficiency.

Her attitudes toward her personal life were equally modern.

Susan said that although she respected tradition, no husband of hers would have other wives, as her father did.

"The more women you have, the more of a conqueror you are, and the more wealthy you are," she said. "Girls grow up, get married and their families are paid dowries of money and cattle.... You reach a certain age and the father looks at you as an investment."

She said she knew her father would like to see her marry. He could use the cows. But he is glad to see her enjoy the fruits of education and a better place in life. She credited Benta with setting an example for the entire family.

"If you do good, you do good for yourself," she said. "If you do bad, you do bad for yourself. So you must always do good."

Six months after that conversation, Susan made another life-defining decision.

She left Nairobi to visit her sisters in Rome. But once she tasted the excitement of a Western city, she ignored Benta's advice to return home.

Susan made the same choice that so many immigrants, including her sisters, had made before her. She took a job as a nanny, choosing a life of service in Rome over a management job in Nairobi.

Though she had won promotions at her hotel job, she had never gotten a raise. She calculated that she could make substantially more money if she stayed in Rome. She moved in with Benta and Christine.

At first Susan was terribly homesick. She worked long hours with an infant, typically with no one to talk to and no time to study. Her hard-won self-confidence began to sour into self-doubt. She cried at night.

Benta, too, was distraught. A stoic woman who usually proffers a polite smile or gentle laugh, she had tears in her eyes when speaking about Susan. Benta worried that Susan had squandered her opportunities.

"I was trying as much as I could to sacrifice so she could have a better life than I had, and she was achieving that," Benta said, shaking her head.

Susan gradually made peace with her decision. She said it was part of a greater plan. It was her turn to extend a helping hand.

Kenneth, whose education had been stalled, wanted to start college in Nairobi. Benta agreed to pay his tuition, Susan his living expenses.

While she helps Kenneth, Susan is thinking ahead. She figures she can save roughly $500 a month, about half her salary, and in a year or two she will have enough to go back to school for an advanced degree.

She will improve her resume, she says, and find a better position than the one she left.

"To be happy in life," she said, "you must always look for more."

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