Leah Ngugi spent her formative years in rural Kenya on a large coffee plantation owned by her grandmother.
It was here that she learnt the value of ingenuity and to stand up for what is right.
“My grandmother was a very strong woman,’’ says Leah of her namesake, a widower and mother of 10.
“She brought up her children alone and educated all of them, and she was categorical in challenging the system.’’
This included bravely defying entrenched gender roles that manifest violence against women.
“My mother and her sisters were the first females in their family not to go through genital mutilation because my grandmother was adamant they would not experience that,’’ says Leah, a Family Preservation Worker at Centacare.
“She always believed in a way out – that you could find another solution – so she kept challenging us to take risks.’’
When Leah moved to Nairobi aged seven, her grandmother’s influence stuck as her sense of social responsibility grew.
Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, adjoined her neighbourhood and brought class difference into glaring focus.
Each day Leah would watch children walk through squalor to school, frustrated that she could not help. Her chance came years later while working in sales and marketing.
As part of the company’s corporate social responsibility, Leah visited an orphanage where she met a brother and sister.
“The children were singing for us and the lady who managed the orphanage asked if anyone had space in their house to take them home for Christmas. The little girl stayed with us for a few days but then she had to go back.’’
Leah kept in touch with the siblings and sent them money for food and school.
“Then one day I got a call from the girl’s brother telling me she had committed suicide. I’ve never made peace with that because I feel like the system let her down. There was no advocacy to connect her to services.
“I have kept contact with the younger brother who is now running a taxi business in Nairobi and helps to take care of his ailing mum. He was able to complete his studies because of the connections that we made for him.’’
The girl’s death proved a catalyst for Leah. Stifled by domestic challenges and determined to change direction for the sake of her own children, Leah migrated to South Australia in 2017 to study a Masters of Social Work.
“I know of many women who would want to break free from terrible domestic experiences and restart their lives with their children but are too scared to deal with the associated traditional and cultural stigmas,’’ she says.
“If you do not have space to grow where you are, uproot yourself and find some other space. It will take time but if you have it in you, you will grow.’’
Leah, which means nurture in Swahili, says she has learned much from the families she supports through the Family Preservation program.
The service works to address safety concerns and other lifestyle factors affecting ability to parent in families with children from birth to 18 years who are experiencing abuse or neglect.
“I am more appreciative of every family’s complexities now,’’ she says. “There is much more to their stories than meets the eye.’’
*Harmony Week celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It’s about inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone.