Notes on the Woman Who Raised Me


I take my coffee black, no sugar, with a few ice cubes and a squeeze of lemon. That wasn’t always the case. I used to like it how my grandma does—warm with too much sugar and so much milk it drowned out all the other ingredients. Growing up, I knew that it was one of her only calorie-dense indulgences, and she made up for it by watching everything else she ate down to the last spice. We had a sort of daily ritual: we’d have some coffee and cake after school while seated quietly in our living room for about thirty minutes before I did my homework and she did her daily evening Rosary prayers. 

Then I hit puberty at 16, and my body changed shape, expanding and curving in places where only straight lines had existed on my lanky mess of a body—a lanky mess my grandma had spent years praising, a lanky mess I’d spent years hating.

As my body grew larger, so did my personality. I spoke up more often in classrooms, shared my opinions more freely around my peers, and expressed myself more boldly with my clothes. I suddenly took up too much space in rooms where I’d been taught to stand flat against the wall and make myself as small as possible. To be so seen and heard went against everything I’d been taught, so I started trying to shrink myself.

I started exercising and restricting my diet: no junk food, fizzy drinks, dairy, or sugar. Except for special occasions, I would only eat bland healthy food—and only when I had fought off the hunger for as long as I could. My body quickly adjusted, and I grew smaller with every missed or poorly-portioned meal. My personality followed suit as I tried to make myself more docile and accepting again. I retracted to the meek whisper that I had spent years perfecting when around others and went back to floating around rooms silently, as inoffensive as the air around us.

The compliments from my grandma that had started getting fewer and fewer as I’d grown larger and larger came more frequently again. I was finally the version of myself that she had groomed me to be: quiet and invisible. I was miserable.

In my first year of uni, I decided to end this self-torture. As a sort of celebration, I made myself a cup of coffee the way I actually like it. It was the tastiest thing I had ever tried, but after the first few sips, I felt horrible. I was nauseated, bloated, and felt like my intestines were tearing themselves apart. I wanted to purge everything from my body. Later, I realised that I had developed lactose intolerance, which meant that I couldn’t consume any dairy products without putting my body through even more torture. I wonder if my body developed this condition to make it easier for it to accept the viciousness I inflicted on it. Because now, it wasn’t that I wouldn’t consume dairy, it was that I couldn’t.

That same year, after a psychotic episode, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To help manage the symptoms of both these conditions, I was put on a bevy of antipsychotic drugs and stimulants. Some of the many side effects of both these classes of drugs are a loss of appetite and increased metabolism that eventually lead to significant weight loss. While I hate to admit it, I was ecstatic when my psychiatrist mentioned this to me. I was happy that I had accidentally found a way to finally be the physical version of myself my grandma loved the most.

I lived away from home while I attended school, so I would go for months on end without seeing my family. After being away for two months and having lost so much weight I was the smallest I had ever been after months of medication, I made an impromptu visit home, excited to show my grandmother that she could finally, finally love me again instead of only pretending to sometimes.

“What’s wrong? You’ve lost so much weight!” was the first thing she said to me, her face contorting as if made out of plaster.

By then, she had abandoned her strict diet and grown fuller, so the body I had been so proud to show her was now unacceptable.

“You look so boney! Have you not been eating? Are you stressed? Is school stressing you? Why can’t you take care of yourself? You’re an adult now and yet you can’t even feed yourself! Look at you, you’re wasting away!”

I was confused, ashamed at having disappointed her yet again. The excitement I had felt earlier dissipated until there was nothing but emptiness left washing over me. I wondered when the shift had happened, when the rules had been switched up on me. My grandmother’s approval seemed like the only reason I ever did anything. It was the only reason I ever did anything. It was why I had made sure to excel in school, to smile and be gentle when I talked—regardless of whether I wanted to or not, to never be too much—physically or otherwise, and even to foster a relationship with a God and a religion I didn’t care for. Because I loved her, and I desperately wanted to be loved by her.  And after months of self-inflicted misery, I had failed her yet again.

It was the first time I realised that no matter what my body looked like, I couldn’t win against expectations that had been placed on me depending on how my grandmother felt regarding her own body that day. She had spent her life either loving or hating what she saw when she looked in the mirror. I was what she saw when she looked in the mirror. And I couldn’t change what her reflection made her feel, no matter how desperately I wanted to. So I stopped trying.


My grandmother’s name is Mary. She loves her name, and while I’m not entirely sure of all the reasons why, I know that one of the main ones is that she shares it with Mary, the mother of Jesus. She’s been a staunch Catholic for as long as I can remember, and I have spent my life in awe of her devotion to her faith even when I don’t understand it.

I can count the number of times I’ve heard people call her by her name on one hand.

She’s hardly ever been seen or described as her own person. She’s always been a sister, a wife, a mother, and now a grandmother. I would like to address her as Mary for a while; to look at her as an autonomous person and not just an extension of myself or an accessory in my story. I want to see her. 

I barely know anything about Mary’s history. She hardly ever talks about or addresses herself, always a background character in someone else’s narrative even when she’s the one telling it.

What I know is that she was born in 1949 in Kakamega, the only girl out of her parents’ 11 children, and moved to Nairobi when she was 12 years old to study so she could help her parents financially—having been raised to believe that men grow up to take care of their new families while women grow up to take care of their old ones  She met my grandfather—a Math teacher who was then twice her age—that same year. She was 14 when she gave birth to her first child and became a housewife. She had nine children, loved most of them, and lost one in March 2003.

The same year, a month later, she lost her husband, my grandfather. It’s easy to see that Mary loved, loves, my grandfather. It’s clear that he was her light, and without him, her world seems to dim a little bit more each day. Twenty years later, she still mourns him with the same fervour as someone who just watched the love of their life disintegrate before their very eyes.

I was named after Mary’s mother—my great-grandmother Pauline—or at least a version of her name, Paula. Mary is the only person who calls me Pauline, or Paulina when she’s being affectionate. She’s only mentioned Pauline to me a handful of times, but always with pride. She doesn’t see any gaping holes in the way that she was raised, and although I would disagree, I’m glad she at least has that comfort.

She has always been a modest woman. The way she dresses, the way she expected me to dress for a long time, is strongly rooted in her Christian values. She believes that a good woman is a docile woman, a woman who follows the rules and doesn’t question authority. “It’s important to be a good woman,” she’d say, “so you can find a good husband.” She’s not flashy, but she does love to dress up for special occasions. I think she has great style: the collection of handbags and a few items of clothing I’ve managed to snag from her bear me witness. She’s a hoarder—hanging on to her material possessions for as long as she can, perhaps an indication that she knows she has very little control over anything else.

Mary knows the harsh and choking embrace of pain intimately. I grew up watching her clutch this pain tightly, like a keepsake she didn’t know how to separate her essence from. She carries it into every room she walks into, and it’s almost physical, consuming enough for everyone around her to feel its intensity almost as much as she does.

She lost her elder brother two years ago. He was the only sibling she had kept contact with in the years that I had existed in the same space as her. My oldest uncle broke the news to her, but before he even could, she knew that something was irreversibly wrong.

We were standing in the backyard when he visited. “I need to tell you something, but I think you should be seated first,” he said.

“What’s wrong? What’s going on?” She kept asking even as I tried to lead her to the living room. “Please tell me what happened. Just tell me!”

When my uncle insisted on her being calm before he told her, she flung herself to the ground and started wailing. My uncle and I were paralyzed, unsure of what to do as she convulsed and let out almost inhumane cries that seemed to claw their way through her throat, slicing her open in the process.

She was inconsolable for an hour, sobbing and chanting in Luhya as she mourned for something she wasn’t even sure of yet. But she knew. She knew the sound and smell and feel of loss and death even when we did not. It was familiar to her—this kind of pain that must have seemed as if it was made specifically for her. And when she finally heard my uncle say it, she went completely still and silent on the floor, refusing to be touched or consoled. This kind of pain would not go away no matter how hard we rubbed her back or how many soothing words we whispered. It was solely hers, as it had always been, and so she’d bear it alone, as she had always done.


At my loneliest, I miss the lines on my grandma’s palms the most. They look like scars left over after years of restitching the same cut wounds over and over again: bumpy and so beautifully intricate, like the kind of tattoos people get on top of their scars. Even with all the weight she’s had to carry throughout her life, she still has the softest hands I’ve ever held. Her hands have held nine infants as she led them through a hungry world, wiped her tears when she lost the love of her life and her son, and protected her and everyone she loves from unimaginable violence; and yet they’re softer than even my spoiled palms could ever be.

She’s only ever hit me once, and it seemed to hurt her more than it hurt me. She sobbed through it—each blow seeming to echo in her chest. My offence had been a stupid mistake really, and in hindsight, the lenient punishment didn’t measure up to the crime. She had trusted me enough to give me money to get a cheque for my school fees when I was 16, and I’d used it to buy drugs for myself and my friends. It took two months for her to find out, and I thought I’d gotten away with it until I was sent home. I didn’t immediately confess, instead choosing to say there must’ve been something wrong with the school system. I paid but they didn’t give me a receipt, I just thought they’d do so when we went home for the holidays so I could give it to you.

She came to school with me, and after a thirty-minute meeting with the staff, I finally told her the truth. She was calm, requesting to go home with me and then bring me back the next day. She spent that night delivering the worst physical violence I have ever experienced in my life, and I spent it not asking her to stop, but begging her to do everything she felt like she needed to until she was ready to forgive me. 


I can’t remember the first time I found pieces of my grandmother in myself, but there are traces of her in the way I speak, the way I move, the way I handle conflict, the way I eat, and even the way I hoard and cling tightly to my material possessions, even after they’ve lost all functional value or sentimental meaning. Even the parts of myself that are not a copy of her are a reaction to her. She has never had trouble ensuring everyone around her feels her pain just as viscerally as she does, never shied away from big shows of emotion, and in response, I am reserved emotionally after years of shoving my feelings aside to make room for hers. She hardly ever has a bad word for anyone, even those who’ve wronged her, so I am extremely critical of everything around me. I wonder what she would say if I told her that I only hate certain parts of myself because I watched her hate those parts on herself first. This is not to say that she did not teach me how to love myself, because she did.

I must have been eight years old when I slipped and sliced the skin on my left eyebrow open on the edge of my bed’s headboard. I don’t remember the pain, but I remember so much blood running down my face that I passed out because of how squeamish I’ve always been. The wound later developed into a scar that I am now ambivalent about but hated in those first days.

Tracing the ugly bumpy mass of it while staring in the mirror became a frequent pastime of mine. I’d watch it closely, silently begging it to disappear or at least become less noticeable. I was still so young, but already so deathly afraid of being ugly. My grandmother put a quick end to that. 

“I will break every mirror in this house if you insist on looking at that thing the entire day,” she threatened on the second week as she folded my laundry.

“I’m ugly now,” I confessed, wondering why she wasn’t as unsettled by my transformation as I was.

This seemed to startle her. She turned to look at me, her eyes roaming over my face, “You have your mother’s face. You will never be ugly.”


When I was 12 years old, I was expelled from prep school. I had a friend a grade below me who was getting bullied by her classmate, and when she mentioned it to me, I took her sadness and transformed it into an anger that I fostered on her behalf. Her bully was a boy whose name and features I don’t remember. I hardly remember anything about my friend either, just that she was someone I cared for, and someone had hurt someone I cared for. I asked her to get a clean sanitary towel, something that most prep-school girls carried around in clenched fists with bellies full of shame from their girlhood bodies transitioning into womanhood in such an invasive manner. She brought it to me and watched in horror as I tore it open and smeared some ketchup on it.

“Put it inside his locker. Make sure no one sees you,” I instructed her.

“Are you sure?” 

I was annoyed that she was second-guessing me, annoyed that she wasn’t as angry for herself as I was, annoyed that she didn’t trust my methods of dealing with this thing that she had now made me a part of, but I understood her concerns. Periods were a shameful subject in the polished halls of our school, an unclean secret everyone who’d started menstruating clutched tightly to their chests. As harmless as this little payback prop was, it would still be traumatising to let anyone witness what they would initially think was a bloodied pad, especially if the person was an 11-year-old boy. Which is why I insisted she do it.

“Just trust me.”

So she did. He found it during night prep, and everything broke into chaos.

Naturally, I was the first suspect. I did not consider myself a bully then—even though I do now, in retrospect—but everyone else did. I was an angry child. I harboured rage so deeply in my bones it felt like the very matter I was made up of. My grandmother had taught me to be quiet about my pain, she just hadn’t taught me to be passive about it.

The expulsion came after multiple warnings because of other terrible things I had done to other students and the staff: a lie that had almost cost a matron her job here, a shove that had led to a classmate’s injured arm there, and so many little selfish things that seemed inconsequential to me but led to material harm everywhere. 

At the time, my grandmother’s health had begun to deteriorate. She had just undergone knee surgery three weeks prior, but as my primary caretaker, she had to come get me. I remember being in the boardroom with the school’s director, the principal, the victim and his parents, and my grandmother. I looked at her the entire time. She was in so much physical pain, yet she sat in that room for two hours while they discussed my disciplinary issues.

She fought for me, sobbing through half of it, “Please, she’s just a child! She needs some help, but she can be fixed!”

Seeing her in that state, realising just how much she had done for me up until that point, my heart kept breaking. The gravity of what I had done finally set in, triggered by the emotional anguish I witnessed her wallow in. And even through all that, with how much she had spent to secure me a spot there and how heinous my crimes were, she never once scolded me or yelled at me while in the company of others. She still listened to my excuses and defended me. She still tried to find a way to fix my mess. She still tried to protect me.

On the way home, after she managed to stop crying for long enough to address me, she asked, “Is it me? Am I the reason why you keep doing things like this?”

I didn’t say anything then, but if I could turn back the time, I’d assure her that it was not her fault. I’d tell her about the emptiness inside me that seemed to grow more daunting and consuming with each passing second. I’d tell her about the anger, about the never-ending loneliness. I’d say, “I’m sorry, but I feel like a tree floating in space, rootless, watching joy rush past me and I can never seem to hold it in my hands. I don’t know the taste of anything but numbness, and sometimes this is the only way I can feel something, anything, else.” 


I got my first tattoo when I was 20.

I had just taken a gap year from uni without telling anyone, and on my way home, I impulsively decided to get the words ‘fear is not an option’ tattooed on my arm. I knew that my grandmother would be angry when I told her and beg me to not take the break. She’d try to trigger my great fear of failure, and I’d convince myself to just go back. But I also understood that I needed the break more than anything else at that point, that if I stayed in that environment for even a little bit longer, I would lose myself completely. So I got a physical reminder that I couldn’t allow myself to be afraid of anything or anyone. 

Up until that point, I’d never thought that I would ever get any tattoos. My grandmother hated them, and as much as I’d tried to separate her voice from mine in my head, I could still hear it rattling inside my skull whenever I did something I knew she would disapprove of. 

She reacted the way I had expected her to when she saw it, “You keep doing things that I don’t understand. How does this serve you?”

She was right. She wouldn’t understand, so I didn’t explain. 

For a long time, I thought that that first tattoo would be my only one, but it wasn’t. I got seven more in a week during a mental breakdown while my grandmother was away in our rural home, grieving her lost brother. When she got back, she stared at the new markings on my skin for a few minutes but said nothing.

It was a better reaction than I’d expected, and as time went by it got even better. I would often catch her staring at my body art not in disdain, but with curiosity. Sometimes, she would trace one with her finger while we sat together: her in silent prayer or deep thought and me burrowed inside a book or my phone. Once, she even surprised me by telling me that the cherub on my shoulder looked lovely.

That was her trying, her allowing herself to look past the things she hadn’t ever been comfortable with just so she could see me. That’s all I had ever needed from her.


I think my grandmother’s greatest fear is abandonment and being alone, even physically. It was mostly just the two of us in her house growing up, and she would always find ways for us to be in the same room even if we weren’t talking or doing the same thing. My grandfather died long ago and all her children are old enough to have their own homes and lives away from her; most of them doing so abroad. She loves to host and spends a lot of her time communing with others: at church, children’s orphanages, chamas, or in anything that aligns with who she is and involves community.

I moved out of her house to go live on my own a year ago, and it was a messy affair. She begged me not to go, “Why are you leaving me alone? If I die here, who will find my body?”

She asked my uncles to convince me to move back, and when that didn’t work, she didn’t talk to me for the first two months that I was away. She’s gotten a bit more used to seeing me only a few times a month now, but I know that she still struggles with the change.

Two weeks ago, I hit the peak of my mental and physical exhaustion. I couldn’t find joy in anything or anyone, not even within myself. I tried re-watching my favourite shows, tried talking to my friends about how I was feeling, and attempted jogging to clear my mind. Nothing worked. I kept wondering if I needed to be committed to the psych ward again, so soon after my last stint in May.

After a long, exhausting weekend of working without pause and heavy drinking to drown out my misery, I decided to go see my grandma and tell her how I was feeling. That night, she held me in her bed while I sobbed and struggled to find ways to express how my gut felt weighed down by an enormous anchor and how it seemed like I was constantly drowning. I fell asleep and woke up in her arms, and suddenly the world didn’t seem as muddy anymore.


My grandmother is fading.

Each time I see her, there seems to be even less and less of her left. She’s only 74 years old now, but her life has been marked by perpetual pain and loneliness, and the universe seems to keep failing her.

Last week, after a two-hour check-up phone call I made to her at 11 p.m., I told her, for the first time ever, that I loved her. She giggled—a light delighted sound I’d never heard her make before. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.


*Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

Franscine Machinda
Franscine Machinda is a writer, editor, and painter from Nairobi, Kenya whose literary work includes personal and cultural criticism essays, short stories, and journalistic work focusing on the arts. They are also the founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhere KE, an independent publication and artist collective focused on illuminating and celebrating local artistry. They currently edit for Qwani and their work has been published in Qwani 02.