Roseoliet Wanjiru Clow would have probably amounted to nothing had she let circumstances in her life take charge. But she decided to take up any decent opportunity that came her way and use it as a stepping-stone to bigger things. In spite of seemingly insurmountable challenges, hers is one long inspiring experience, which she shared with MWAURA MUIGANA.

On the day I went to meet Roseoliet for this interview, she was waiting for me inside her Mitsubishi four-wheel drive reading a motivational book – How to Get Where You Want To Be. Roseoliet, an ardent reader, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker. This immaculately dressed woman resembles the late Wangari Maathai. I complement her and she laughs heartily, exuding great confidence. She goes on to tell me that she has auditioned to act the part of the late icon in a forthcoming movie, which I am not sure if it’s in jest. Her infectious laughter permeated throughout the interview.

Roseoliet fits the bill of a child of two worlds. She has a home in the UK and another one in Kirinyaga in addition to rental apartments along Thika road. When she takes a break from London, she travels to Kenya where she manages a transport business and has a fleet of heavy commercial vehicles. She also does outside catering for weddings and other occasions and runs a canteen in Kasarani.

Roseoliet wasn’t born into fortune but her determination to succeed against all odds has made her successful. As a young girl she would sneak out of home with her siblings to pick coffee and weed her neighbour’s shamba for a paltry pay of Ksh 20 daily. Woe unto her and her mum if their polygamous dad got wind of it. Her dad owned a shop and bar at Gituva shopping centre in Kirinyaga where he lived with his youngest wife. He was the kind of man who wanted to portray the image of a ‘well-to-do family’ and would, therefore, not entertain any member of his family doing casual work in neighbour’s farms.

Roseoliet attended Karoti Girls High School in Kirinyaga and one of the things she dreaded was parents’ visiting day. With dusty feet, her loving mum would trudge into the school compound carrying arrowroots, sweet potatoes and a thermos flask full of tea. She only fell short of carrying a bowl of githeri. On good days she would bring to her a bottle of soda. Roseoliet drooled with envy as some parents drove into school in the state-of-the-art vehicles before proceeding to spread expensive linen on the lawn and display an assortment of delicacies for their children to enjoy.

This huge difference in social classes in her school and general life glared in Roseoliet’s face and she felt miserable. She vowed to drive the kind of posh cars these parents drove and treat her mother to similar delicacies some day. It didn’t matter that they lived in a mud and grass-thatched house and that her dad believed in providing only the basics and didn’t motivate his children to go to school. He didn’t care much whenever Roseoliet and her siblings were sent away from school for lack of fees, as there was always a ready task to be done at home.

Resilient spirit…

On completing her secondary education in 1991, Roseoliet implored her dad to enroll her in college but he refused. She was forced to stay at home and take care of her young stepsiblings without a hope for the future. On the days she was able to escape from home and work as a casual labourer in her neighbour’s farm, she would get very angry at the low wage of Ksh 20, feeling that she was worth more than that. A friend who knew how discontented she was encouraged her to attend prison wardens recruitment interviews that were ongoing at Ruiru Prisons College in Ruiru town near Thika.

Although this was a great opportunity for Roseoliet, she almost missed going to try her luck due to lack of bus fare. It was after she threatened to commit suicide if she wasn’t facilitated to travel to Ruiru that her mum sold some maize and gave her the bus fare. When questioned at the prison’s gate, she confidently lied to the security officer that she was a guest of the prison commandant. Her confidence won the day as she was allowed in. The commandant was surprised at the young girl’s boldness and had no choice than to listen to her. However, he was not in a position to help as there was a government directive suspending recruitment of women wardens in that year. She believed him when he showed her a letter to that effect.

Disappointed that her hopes had been dashed, she quickly thought of a smart idea to make the commandant make an exception or suggest an alternative. She threw a tantrum, threatening to commit suicide if the commandant didn’t help her. She explained to him that she had nowhere to return to as her mother was very poor and she desperately needed a job.

Not knowing how to deal with her, the commandant summoned the prison’s welfare officer, a woman, who came to his office with her three-year-old daughter in tow. She had brought her young child to the office because her house girl had left unexpectedly. When asked if she could work as a house girl, Roseoliet grabbed the opportunity. Anything was better than sitting at home babysitting her stepsiblings. So, in 1992 she started working as a house girl for a salary of Ksh 400 a month. In addition to taking care of this young girl, she also assisted her employer’s older children with homework and this really endeared her to the family.

She cherished her job believing that it was better than idling at home. Slightly over a year into the job, one of her employer’s jobless relatives moved in with them and took over all household chores. With no work left for Roseoliet to do, her employer helped her find a job at the Ruiru based Super Foam Mattress Company. She also allowed her to continue living in her home as she was considered family.

Climbing up the ladder…

Earning Ksh1500 up from her previous salary of Ksh 400 a month as a house girl gave her the conviction that she was destined for greater things. After one and half years on the job, she responded to a newspaper advertisement for a solar panel installation engineer at Kenitosolar Company. Though she had no qualifications, she felt up to the challenge because she was one of the best students in physics in high school and on two occasions represented her school at national level science competitions, winning certificates and trophies for her excellence.

She was invited for an interview at the company’s offices in Hurlingham in Nairobi but didn’t get the job. Determined to work with the company, she requested for any other job and got one as a tea girl cum office messenger. This job came with a better salary than her previous one. She moved out of her previous employer’s house to a single room at Gitambaya Estate in Ruiru, since she could now afford to pay rent.

She opted to walk while doing her office deliveries and save the Ksh 30 she got daily from her employer to help her move around and this boosted her cash flow. One of the company’s clients in the insurance industry identified Roseoliet’s potential and encouraged her to sell insurance policies. She joined Occidental Insurance Company in 1994 and was trained and posted to work in Ruiru town.

In her first month at the job, she was declared the best sales person for her company. A friend who worked at a bank in Ruiru introduced her to the staff at the bank and she sold insurance policies to most of them. From these sales, she earned a commission of Ksh 200,000. Roseoliet had never seen so much money in her life. She opened her first bank account and moved from her one-roomed house to a more spacious one. She also opened a shop where she sold general merchandise. Her lifestyle changed remarkably.

Then a setback…

Things were going so well for her and she even got into a serious relationship. After courting for about a year she agreed to marry the guy and they made arrangements for his family to visit her home. Regrettably, he ditched her after he and his parents visited her home, claiming that he could not deal with the level of poverty he saw at her home. Roseoliet was already pregnant and the shock of having to deal with a canceled marriage and a baby on the way disoriented her. She could no longer meet her insurance sales targets nor manage her shop.

Depressed and penniless, she delivered her daughter at home with the help of a neighbour who was a nurse. Her daughter, Christabel Mukami, 19, is a first year student at Pittsburg University in the UK. She tried to pick up the pieces after her daughter was born but it was a bit too late. She was already out of a job and shelves of her shop were empty. Not one to remain down, she dusted herself, took her daughter to her mother in Kirinyaga and started all over again.

This time she did what many people would consider a bit odd – selling underwear to mechanics in Ruiru town. She figured this would be a ready market for the many mechanics in the town who worked long hours and obviously had no time to go shopping for clothes, leave alone underwear which tends to be neglected. Up to this day, when she visits Ruiru town people who knew her then still call her by the nickname she earned herself selling men’s underwear – Wanjiru wa Thuruari (Wanjiru the underwear seller).

Getting back on her feet…

Her frequent visits to garages in Ruiru to sell underwear drew the attention of one garage proprietor. Noticing her innovativeness, he gave her a job as a garage manager. Her work involved coordination of the garage activities, bookkeeping and public relations. She continued hawking her now very popular underwear in the evenings to boost her income.

One of the garage customers, a proprietor of an animal drugs store in Ruiru town, was impressed by her public relations and marketing skills and recruited her to work for him. Her work entailed marketing animal drugs and cattle dips in Thika town. Her first order was worth Ksh 150,000 from which she earned a ten percent commission. Within a short time, she had many clients and was earning a good income.

She moved on to sell Unga Feeds Company products to her many clients in the farming industry. She had earned herself a very good name with farmers in the area. She made a lot of money doing this work and was able to venture into her own business once again, this time ferrying animal feeds from Mombasa and supplying them to her clients. This business grew steadily and she made good profits, which enabled her to accomplish one of her lifelong goals. She built a house for her mother and uplifted her from the poverty that engrossed her all her life.

Misfortune brings opportunity…

Roseoliet rose to become a prominent businesswoman hiring semi-trailers to transport animal feeds from Mombasa and distributing them to Thika and other towns. But in the process she took too many risks and her business empire came tumbling down when she was conned goods worth millions of shillings by a client. She was never able to recover from this loss and her business closed down. Not ready to go hungry she took up a waiter’s job at Roasters Restaurant on Thika road. True to her nature she took up the waiter’s job with gusto and excelled.

It paid off when she served the managing director and staff of Safari Park Hotel at their end year party hosted at Roasters in 1998. Extremely impressed by her service, the managing director whispered in her ear that she needed to be on his payroll. She instantly got a job and worked so hard that she was declared the hotel’s waiter of the year in 1999. Rosemary was one of the staff members selected to travel to London to work at Safari Park Hotel’s stand at the 2000 World Trade Exhibition in London where they exhibited Kenyan dishes.

It was during this exhibition that she met and served a white man, John Clow. The two got talking and after several visits to her food stand, they hit it off. A strong friendship developed leading to a courtship that lasted four years before John traveled to Kenya in 2004 and walked Roseoliet down the aisle.

The couple identified a seven-and-a-half acre piece of land in Kirinyaga with a permanent house and bought it. Roseoliet’s mother now lives in the house and the couple use it when they visit Kenya. It was after Roseoliet and her husband settled in the UK that she set to achieve her next cherished goal – advancing her education. She pursued a diploma in health and social care and psychology at the University of East London. She specialised in working with vulnerable people in the community.

After graduation she started working in London as a social worker rehabilitating ex-offenders back into the community after serving their jail terms. She still does this work. She also works with autistic people and those suffering from all forms of mental health issues. Roseoliet has also trained in sign language and works with Sense for Deafblind People, a UK charitable organisation that supports the deaf and blind. She hopes to extend this training to Kenya someday.

The couple’s business interests in Kenya have expanded necessitating Roseoliet traveling to the country often. Her husband, a retired civil and mechanical engineer, traverses between London and Nairobi and has been very supportive in acquiring their properties both in Kenya and in the UK.

In her spare time, Roseoliet gives motivational talks in schools, colleges, youth groups and churches, using her life experience to encourage the youth. She has also given motivational talks on radio encouraging people that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, which has been her learning experience.

Published on July 2013