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Miriam – the little lady with a lesson for us all

Have you heard of Miriam Wanjiru? If you watch Nation TV or tune in to Nation Radio, you certainly will have.

Miriam is not your normal celebrity. She is not a film star. She is not a pop singer. She is not a beauty queen. She is not a hip and go-getting yuppie. She is not the wife of a rich man. No, Miriam is becoming famous in Kenya for a rather different reason. Miriam, you see, is a dwarf. She is afflicted with the condition that makes some people have abnormally small stature – with a normal-sized head and torso but unnaturally short limbs. Despite being a fully-grown adult, Miriam is only three feet tall.

But don’t for a moment imagine that Miriam is famous for this reason alone, for being a freak of nature that we all have some perverse interest in. Not a bit of it. Miriam, you see, has made a life for herself. She has refused to lie down and die. She has refused to let her disability define her. She is a fully functioning, productive human being.

As you can imagine, Miriam had a tough start to life. Born to a single mother with no income, she had to rely on her grandmother to look after her. The grandmother could only do this for so long, and was supported by the local church. At a tender age, Miriam had to make her own way in life. For her relatives, it might have been better if Miriam had just ceased to exist. But Miriam didn’t think like that. The church supported her education and taught her a vocation. Soon, she put some money together to buy a knitting machine, and put up a shop on a dusty street in Kinangop. She now makes and sells woollen sweaters and cardigans.

Miriam has a son. Though only two years old, he is as tall as Miriam herself. Yet she is a complete mother to him. She feeds and clothes him, and gives him all the love that she herself was denied. The bond between them is a lovely thing to see. When the boy is tired, Miriam hauls him up into her lap and rocks him to sleep. When customers are scarce at the shop, Miriam pulls down the shutters and walks through Kinangop looking for buyers, a bag of sweaters in one hand, and the boy’s hand in the other. When you see them walking together like this, two humans of the same size, striving to eke out a living, it is difficult to keep your composure. It is equally difficult to not be awed by what is the sheer wonder of this life – that all things are possible in all circumstances.

Miriam’s attitude towards her life is a wonder in itself. She seems to hold no bitterness about the hand of cards that life dealt her. You will hear no recriminations about the world coming from her mouth. She is ever smiling, ever positive. And she urges all Kenyans with disabilities to look beyond their afflictions and think about what is possible in their lives.

Well, I for one can only stand up and applaud. What an outstanding person this little lady is! You and I, dear reader, are as nothing in comparison. I have felt utterly humbled ever since I set eyes on her. And I can freely admit one thing: that nothing I have achieved in my life stands comparison to the accomplishments of Miriam. Born as I was with no disability, plenty of love and care, and the opportunity to acquire the best education, my achievements, such as they are, just pale in comparison. Had I been born an unloved and unwanted dwarf, I really wonder if I would have had the strength of character to make anything of my life.

After she was featured by Nation TV and Radio, Miriam has become a minor celebrity. There is something about her that has resonated with Kenyans of all colours and social standing. Many have phoned in to place orders for her sweaters – over 300 new orders have been received to date. The Nation Media Group has opened a bank account for her in Nairobi. This is, of course, the best way to help her – by supporting her initiative, not by giving her handouts.

Miriam holds many lessons for us in her hands. Paramount is the lesson of acceptance. Miriam’s dwarfism was not in her control. She was just born that way, and found herself different from other people. She had two choices: she could either moan and whine and complain about the unfairness of it all (which is what most of us would have done); or she could accept the condition as it was and move on. Happily, Miriam chose the latter. She accepted that she had the condition for a reason that she could not discern; and she accepted that all possible lives still lay ahead of her. This simple acceptance, coupled with an unusual determination, has allowed her to enjoy success and achievement, no matter how modest. It has also given her the joy of unconditionally looking after another.

She makes all our preoccupations with our perceived limitations seem utterly absurd. Most of us waste a large part of our lives worrying about whether our noses are too big or too small, or why we suffer from minor ailments when everyone else seems perfectly healthy, or why we don’t have the financial advantages our peers seem to enjoy. By doing this, we are constantly limiting the richness of our existence. We seem so ready to wallow in the negative, and ignore the daily joys that life sends us. The truth of the matter is that all things are possible; all possible futures lie ahead of us. It is only the mind that is closed.

Miriam also made me think of us as a country. Despite all the disadvantage life has given her, she refused to be a beggar. She showed determination and persistence. She refused to feel sorry for herself. She realised that learning skills is the way ahead. She did not wish to engage in recriminations and ill-feeling. She has made her own way, as modest as it is, and is enjoying the fullness of a life well lived.

Kenya, an ‘able-bodied’ and fully functional country at birth, is still a beggar at forty years old. It is still feeling sorry for itself; it is still referring to past crimes against it. It still believes that its future is limited to living on handouts and whining about all its disadvantages. Until it becomes a Miriam by nature, it will continue to lose out on all the rich possibilities in its future.

Kenya consists of all of us. Our attitudes are the attitude of our nation. Miriam has crossed all our lives for a reason. This Sunday, spend some time thinking about her and what she means. It will be time well spent.

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