Nine years ago, at 33 years of age, Nuru Mugambi was told that she would be very lucky if she lived to see 40. Now at 42, she is more than grateful to be alive because she had been handed a death sentence when her life was supposed to be about making the best out of motherhood and her career. If she had not reined in thoughts of despair, it would have been a different story altogether.

While her thirties started out just fine with the birth of her daughter, Makena, things took a turn when her body started acting up out of nowhere. After countless tests which took place every other week for about three months, she almost sunk into despair as the tests had become too much yet there were no conclusive results.

In fact, at one point she recalls breaking down at the sight of a syringe during one of these tests. She had had enough. Her arm bore marks where the needles had gone through and served as reminders that weeks on, she still had no idea what plagued her.

After several of these tests, her doctors concluded that she had arthritis. It was a bittersweet moment because it gave her some sort of closure but the thought of having arthritis in her early thirties was a hard reality to accept.

“When I went to fill in my prescription, the pharmacist asked why I looked so sad. I told him I had just been diagnosed with arthritis and he flat out told me that I seemed too young to have the condition. When I told him about my symptoms – joint problems and my hands turning blue to the point I couldn’t hold anything – he asked me whether I had heard of lupus and suggested I go for a lupus test,” explains Nuru.

She could not fathom the thought of another test but the pharmacist was adamant and after about half an hour, he managed to convince her.

“He was so convinced that I did not have arthritis that he actually refused to fill the prescription!” says Nuru shaking her head incredulously.

Her doctors wondered at the change of heart but obliged and conducted full blood works and discovered that she indeed had lupus, an autoimmune disease that manifests with different symptoms in different people making it hard to diagnose. Consequently, she was referred to a specialist.

“Immediately after he read through my chart, he told me that I would be lucky if I saw 40. There was no tact in how he handled the situation because he was rude and actually told me that my hair would fall off and when he saw my shoes, told me I would not be able to wear heels anymore,” she recalls.

Utterly horrified, she went to her car to try and take in the news.

“I was too shocked to cry but I gathered my thoughts and rejected everything that had happened in that room. I rejected both his predictions and the feeling of despair. Lupus can be depressing but I did not want to get caught up in other people’s experiences. I am lucky they caught it before it had affected my organs but I had to build my mental resilience to be able to deal with it,” shares the 42-year-old.
Luckily, she got another internal medicine specialist whom she has been with since the diagnosis. Despite having to adjust her lifestyle and avoid flare triggers such as stress and extreme weather, she is more than grateful that she crossed over to the fourth floor.

The American dream

Her resilience, she says, draws back from her upbringing and the fact that at 19, she went abroad for her studies and had to fully depend on herself to survive. Nuru knew that come what may, she would go study abroad and specifically in the USA where her elder sister was studying as well. However, her family had hit hard financial times and despite having been raised in an upper middle-class family, her parents could only afford a one-way plane ticket and school fees for one semester.

“It’s interesting that they had confidence in us and believed we had the resilience to survive there. I think they brought us up in a way that we had no option but to think of ways to survive and truly, I was on survival mode for the longest time,” she says.

For the first few months of her business strategy course at Kensington State University, she worked on campus catering as casual jobs were readily available and having money for upkeep and the next semester’s fees were paramount. She had learnt the value of work the previous year when back home her father had helped her secure an internship, which at the time she did not fully appreciate.

“I got an internship at Africa Online where they gave me bus fare only. I felt I should be getting more. However, my dad reminded me that bus fare was more than enough since I wasn’t paying rent or for my upkeep,” she says laughing.

“I came to appreciate the opportunity later on because I learnt so many amazing things like coding and working in a professional environment,” adds Nuru.

Despite the fact that being a waitress helped offset bills, Nuru slowly came to the realisation that she could be doing more to build her career and this renewed drive landed her an internship at the world’s largest public relations firm, Edelman PR.

“I almost quit three times because my friends who worked in gas stations and other casual jobs made more money than me but my bosses reiterated that I was gaining invaluable experience. I was 19 and I desperately needed money so I scoffed at ‘experience’ but it paid off,” she says.

While her friends spent their free time having fun, Nuru was working during the day and attending classes at night. It did pay off as she eventually got a job with Edelman PR that also paid for her work permit, which was a saving grace as work permits are rare.

“My parents instilled in us the idea of striving for excellence and being the best in the room which helped me keep my compass because my friends could have easily influenced me. I’m glad I stuck to my guns and built up my experience, whether it was taking extra work or working extra hours,” she expounds.

She would go on to work for Edelman for several years alongside studying for her Master’s degree. She had several other fortunate positions in leading companies which caught Barclays Bank’s attention when they were recruiting for their Kenya offices. She was thus headhunted from the Barclays London headquaters.

“I had just given birth to my daughter and I needed a support system so it was the perfect time to come back having been away for about 12 years. Caregiving is also very expensive in the States, which is something we take for granted here,” says the mother of one.

Raising Makena

While she was driven by the pursuit of excellence before, she now states that her 12-year-old daughter Makena is her motivation. Although motherhood has its fair share of challenges, she opines that she has formed the basis of a good mother-daughter relationship with her daughter.

“Motherhood is a learning process but I’m willing to learn and be vulnerable because sometimes as parents we try to shield our children from our struggles instead of allowing them to learn from our experiences. That said, I enjoy our relationship because we built it on trust and now that she is a pre-teen, our relationship is benefitting from that trust as she is more open about what she is going through,” she states.

According to Makena, their friendship is what makes them such a great duo. Nonetheless, Nuru emphasises that one has to balance between being a friend and a parent and as such each of them has a clear understanding of what they are supposed to do.

“I can be those parents who really rally the child but I pay attention to certain nuances that tell me when to be either a friend or a parent,” she shares.

Nonetheless, there are times when this becomes a delicate balance, for instance, when Nuru had to explain to her daughter about her lupus diagnosis as she had vowed not to tell her until she turned 18 but that moment came sooner than she had anticipated.

“She came home one day with a t-shirt and told me they had a lupus walk coming up so I prodded to find out what she knew then I told her about it based on what she knew. As time goes, I explain to her more especially when I have a flare because I don’t want her to worry. Nowadays we joke about it as a way of dealing with it,” explains Nuru.

Being a single mother also bears its own set of intricacies, which Nuru says have given her a different outlook on single parenthood. While she admits that it is not easy being the primary parent, she has a greater appreciation for single women who raise their families with dignity despite cultural and social ideals as well as those in low-income areas whose odds are even greater yet manage to provide for their families.

Thankfully for her, she has a great support system including a mentorship programme dubbed New Dawn which her daughter is part of. As she appreciates that it takes a village to raise a child, she urges single mothers to ask for help when they feel overwhelmed.

Even then, Nuru is keen to raise her daughter with the same principles she grew up with, especially self-worth as she grows into a young woman and the pursuit of excellence be it in school or in extra-curricular activities such as playing guitar and drums or chess and swimming, which Makena does competitively.

“Fostering a reading culture is also important. I’ve read to my daughter since she was a baby and now she is an avid reader. She reads more than I do and this helps develop critical thinking and creativity. We also need more girls in Kenya playing chess; it’s an excellent way to teach strategic thinking,” she adds.

As she urges her daughter towards excellence, she is keen to ensure that she is supportive all through as her father was one of her key supporters from early on urging her and her three sisters on despite coming from the Meru cultural environment that places a higher value on men.

As she instills these principles in her daughter, she is also learning a few things about herself and motherhood.

“My daughter actually pointed out to me that I take things too seriously. She’s amazing because she can balance pressure and fun, which I wish I knew in my twenties and thirties. Thankfully, I’m learning now. She’s taught me that you can have a little bit of both,” she says smiling.

With regards to motherhood, it has been a daily challenge of finding work-life balance. “It is not an end goal since life is dynamic but you have to be conscious about giving your family enough time, especially for mothers, and meeting your contractual agreements,” she says.

Naturally, like all parents, Nuru would like for her daughter to excel and be able to compete effectively in the global economy, especially in the wake of the technology-driven fourth industrial revolution.

“At this point, the focus cannot be on books alone. As parents we need to identify and nurture talents early on,” she opines.

Nuru on career

Career-wise, despite having started out in public relations, for the past eight years, Nuru has transitioned towards public policy and public affairs as relates to the banking sector which, by her admission, she totally enjoys.

“My focus has shifted from product development to influencing systemic change so that the banking sector creates value. Personally, I am aiming to be impactful. Some of my initiatives have taken off well like the Inuka SME programme, but I think there’s still a lot more to be done. I believe we were made to create value for others,” she remarks as a matter of fact adding that success is closely tied to impact.

Having been in the professional work environment for about two decades, she urges people trying to grow their careers to invest in themselves by being open to experience as opposed to focusing on the money, adding that she has taken pay cuts in favour of the bigger picture. She also advocates for living within one’s means, which comes in handy when it comes to economic pressure.

“It’s important to live within your means and not get caught up in other people’s lifestyles; too many people are struggling to live up to others expectations on where they should live, what car they should drive and where their children should go to school,” she offers.

Passionate about gender issues and women empowerment, Nuru shares that she is lucky to have reached her forties as according to her, women settle into who they are in their forties.

“I feel great because I’m alive and being in your forties also gives you some confidence about your path. I am grateful for what I have and I have an appreciation for the things I don’t have. It’s a good space,” intimates Nuru as she concludes.