When Lilian Njeri’s sister was diagnosed with a chronic heart problem, it was a blow to Lilian and her family. The doctors just put it to them bluntly that her sister would never get well. Her condition was only manageable, not curable. To add insult to injury, the doctor informed them people with her sister’s condition never lived to see their seventeenth birthday.
“So I knew that much as we were spending all these millions in her treatment, it was all in vain because she would die eventually,” she recalls.
But love does not give up, even when things are looking down, you always hope for a miracle. There was no miracle in her sister’s case, she passed on when she was just 16. Her passing, much as they had seen it coming, still left a gaping hole both in the hearts and lives of her family that loved her to bits. She was particularly close with Lilian, with whom she shared a love for community outreaches.
“I felt like I had lost everything, nothing made sense anymore. I was stuck in this dark, negative space. I did not even realise it when I sunk into depression. I stopped looking after myself. My hair and room were untidy. I went about in baggy clothes and sandals,” says Lilian.
Onset of depression…
The smallest tasks became hard to undertake. In this state, she even dropped out of university. What she became was a far cry from what she used to be and she did not want to make the slightest effort to change it. She simply had no strength left to face life.
She had to hunt for jobs because her parents had lost theirs while her sister was ailing. The process of looking for work further frustrated her. Even when she eventually got one, she suffered burnout and fatigue. Burnout and the onset of depression make for a toxic combination.
When she woke up from this reverie, she knew she had to work on herself in order to make something out of her life. The first thing she needed to do was to go back to school in order to complete her studies. She also needed to find closure over her sister’s death. Since her sister loved community outreaches, Lilian opined that this would be the best way to keep her sister’s memories alive. And so she is very intentional about reaching out to the less fortunate in the society, something that gives her immense pleasure.
“One day, I just woke up and decided to make my hair after a long time. Another day I decided to clean my room. It took a whole process that is still going on to this date. I also took up martial arts, which has helped me a lot,” she says.
Lilian reveals that she contemplated suicide twice when nothing seemed to work in her favour.
“It is not that people who take their lives do not love themselves. But it gets to a point when all looks hopeless, the pain is unbearable and you just want to make it stop,” she explains.
So how did she stop dead (no pun intended) in her tracks? “First, my late sister always looked up to me. I asked myself how she would feel, wherever she was, if I took my own life. That sobered me up. Another thing is, I was supporting my family financially at the time. I thought of how they would feel if they no longer had that support and how much pain it would cause them; given they had just lost another child. The third is, from a young age, I had always believed there is this star in me and I have been put in this world for a grand purpose. I asked myself, if I take my life, what happens to that big purpose that I am yet to fulfil?”
Having suffered a depressive episode, Lilian feels people should refrain from telling people with depression what to do, but instead open them up to the possibilities of finding healing instead of dictating what they should do.
“Psychiatrists won’t work for everyone, but will work for some. My approach to countering depression is getting involved in physically and mentally engaging activities,” she notes.
Lilian is now a project manager at Kuruka International Limited, a mental, physical and financial wellness company owned by renowned fitness enthusiast Chiki Onwukwe, popularly known as Chiki Kuruka.
Finding solace in community work…
She started a wellness campaign dabbed #365DaysOfGettingUp which she uses her platform to speak about mental health, share her journey to healing and be there for people who wish for guidance in matters mental health.
Every month, through an initiative she has dubbed Drop-a-Pad, Lilian collects sanitary towels from well-wishers and gives them to women who live on the streets.
“I saw what musician King Kaka was doing in schools and felt the need to do something too. I researched on what other organisations were doing on the same and I found a gap in street families. I then wondered how women and girls catered for their menses. So I set out to the streets and asked what they use during that time of the month. I was moved when they told me they use papers such as books and newspapers or rags,” she states.
The gratitude that these women express when they receive their monthly ratio of pads fills Lilian with so much warmth.
Soon enough, she became connected with the street families and so every Friday, Lilian and a few of her friends hang out with street children in Nairobi wherever she finds them.
“It could be Moi Avenue, Biashara Street or Tom Mboya Street… we just meet up and talk. If we have some money, we buy them milk and bread or just a little something to eat. We stay with them from 9pm to 11pm. Never once have I felt insecure in the presence of these children. Before my friends joined me, I used to go alone. I have built a little community in the streets. Sometimes when I pass by, they shout my name and say hi,” she proudly remarks.
She also attributes the ease with which she works with the street children to her strictness.
“I am very strict, so they know I am their friend, but I also have a very low nonsense threshold. I believe when you are genuine it shows. They know that I am very genuine and I come from a good place.”
On top of all the things that she is doing, she has now joined hands with some of her artist friends to encourage children in homes and orphanages to take part in arts. She also treaches them Karate from 3pm to 5pm every Sunday.
She is in talks with Mathari Hospital and Lang’ata Women’s Prison to allow her to conduct her wellness and martial arts activities in the premises so as to help women suffering from mental illnesses find their happy places, too.