ESSAY |  Millicent of Kibera

Same letter named children are a popular trend in my hometown. As a result, I was the youngest child of four M's: Mitchel, Michelle, Michael, and then Millicent. Leave it to my mom to take it to the next level and match five letters--careful observers notice all the names include M's, I's, L's, C's and E's.

Millicent isn't the most common name in the rural South, so I've always been fascinated by my mom's moment of inspiration with the proper English name. As the story goes, my mom was tapped out creatively and determined to find a name that included the aforementioned letter series. She woke in the middle of the night, set up in bed and prophetically announced: "Her name will be Millicent". Maybe it was because he was sleeping, or maybe it was because it sounds loosely like the villain queen in Snow White, Maleficent, my dad wasn't a fan of the name. As a compromise, he was allowed to pick my first name, the much more common, Rachel.

With a name like Millicent, there were times I was teased and, of course, there were times I wanted to be named anything more mundane, and there was the unfortunate phase around seventh grade when I asked to be called the French version of Millie. My friends laughed and continued calling me Millie with a southern twang. Eventually, I accepted the name, rarely meeting another Millicent, especially of my own generation. The occasional blue haired, tea drinking Millicent would come across my path, but certainly none my age or younger.

None, that is, until, I visited Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in Nairobi. Walking the slums of Kibera and traveling through Kenya, I met countless lovely young girls, and for the first time in my life, I met several itty bitty Millicents. At St. Lazarus School in Kibera, Kenya, I met one of my favorites.

Ten –year old Millicent was vivacious with a smile that lit up her dimly lit and stiflingly hot hut of classroom. The huts of iron give the stretch of Kibera the look of a rusty patchwork quilt when viewed from nearby hilltops, under the dense rusty rooftop quilt Kiberan children walk through narrow sewage filled alleys to make it to a corrugated crowded schoolhouse. During recess, ten-year-old Millicent would lead the children in dancing and singing games; her smile would part and belt out a voice that soared above the rooftops.

I wanted to know more about the name and, more importantly, why Kenya had become the land of Millicents.

Thus enters the western domination plot that seems to be a consistent theme of African troubles. Colonized by the British in the 19th century, colonial rule left its mark on Kenya in many ways – an example of which is over one hundred years later the schools of Kibera are filled with Millicents, Beatrices and Margarets. A more lasting and more devastating legacy, the slum of Kibera itself is a testament to British colonization.

Sudanese soldiers of Nubian descent were brought by the British to Kenya in the early 1900s; eventually these Sudanese men found themselves fighting against the German offensive. This use or abuse of Nubian soldiers lasted through WWII and Nubians became a constant presence in East African Kenya. The British ruling power of Kenya considered them a "denaturalized" tribe, the label conveniently preventing their claim on any land.The soldiers, a continent away from home, were given the forest around Nairobi to occupy and settle, though they were never legally recognized as landowners or citizens of Kenya.

The Nubians called the land Kibra, Nubian for forest. As the century progressed, the forest of Kibra or Kibera grew from the original Nubian population of 3000 or so to a present day estimation of over 1 million people. Native Nairobi citizens realized the unclaimed land was cheaper than most of their rightfully owned land, and began to flood the settlement for the cheaper rent. The result is a Central Park sized plot of land that is now home to countless displaced people who receive few government resources since most slum dwellers are not recognized as landowners.

Lasting legacies of western colonization explain so many of the seemingly inexplicable African conundrums. Though it’s easy to visit Africa and never understand the cause and effect - you have to dig to find the link to Western domination - unfortunately, usually, the link is always there.  The concentrated impoverished population of Kibera is a study in public health crises. Since an estimated 25% of the population is HIV positive, orphans abound. Abuse and prostitution are common means of young girls' HIV infection. There is little hope of education, gainful employment and medical services, and little hope of a life outside a rusted sea of huts and sewers.
The presence and spirit of the Millicents in Kibera prompted me to research the name a bit, and, after a few googles I found that Millicent means of brave strength, of strong heart. In this land far removed from colonial names and ways, here in the heart of the forest were the girls with the hearts of steel, the Millicents of brave strength. Colonial legacy is rarely something for these children to be proud of, but with their bravery and spirit, they are the proud and rightful owners of this powerful name.


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Written by: Millicent Smith