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The Woman in the Arena: Olive Muteti’s Story of Resilience and Triumph as a Young Single Mum

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If three years ago you’d told her that one day the dark moment she was experiencing would be the light of young mothers in Kenya, she would have written you off. It’s amazing how what seems impossible today, morphs up into possible, tomorrow.

In a conversation with Lesalon Kasaine, Olive Muteti recalled her lowest moment in 2017 when a pregnancy test she took came back positive. She was only in her first year of study at the University of Nairobi (UoN).

Your parents have given you a good upbringing and sent you to University. What then do you tell them, when barely a year later, you go back home and walk through their door, expectant with a baby?

Olive, founder of Be Her Foundation, and reigning Miss UoN, talks us through her inspirational journey.

Without mentioning your title as Miss UoN or your recently-founded Be Her Foundation, how would you describe Olive Muteti?

Olive is an adventurous lover of life. She enjoys every waking moment and loves to see the good in people. Hosting people gives her tremendous joy. Above all else, she seizes moments. She is also a creative who is pursuing design at the University of Nairobi. Last but arguably the biggest blessing, she loves being a mum to her daughter. 

What’s the mandate of Be Her Foundation?

Be Her is an outreach to young mothers on campus. A reminder to young mums to recall the ladies they always wanted to be, and still go after their dreams, despite the tough bend in their lives. It’s a call to young women to BE HER. Our mandate is to offer psychosocial support and mentorship. We also invite society to walk a mile in the shoes of a young mum and ‘Be Her’. The goal is to expand and reach young mums all over Kenya.

From experience, the journey of being a young mum is lonely. You may have a support system, but none better than that from someone who has been there, and is there. I would, however, want to say that I was lucky to have supportive parents and friends. Unfortunately, there are young mothers who do not have this kind of luck. Mine is to extend grace and support to them.

What was it like, becoming a young mum while only in your first year of University?

It was crazy. A hilly path shrouded in fear, momentary despair, and uncertainty. I fell out with friends. As one would sit close to a fire burning on a cold night, I hurdled close to loneliness. Pushed from all sides. Fighting to come up for air and get my life together.

The unplanned pregnancy shook me to the core. I thought that would be the end of me. If it wasn’t for a few close friends and my family, I would be walking this tough journey alone, something that is near impossible for me to imagine.

No regrets now though, I love my daughter. Motherhood is fulfilling. With time, you drive out of the fog and realize that it is a blessing. 

I would advise any girl in University to take care of their reproductive health. They don’t have to experience the repercussions for themselves as pregnancy is just but the surface; it takes from your mental and emotional wellness too. Learn from the experience of those of us that have already been there. However, should you find yourself there, I hope that you find the courage to pull through.

Your parents; talk to me about their initial reaction to your pregnancy.

Like any other parent whose firstborn gets pregnant in the first year of university, they were angry and disappointed. Their love for me never wavered though. Throughout my ordeal, they were very present and supportive.

Were there moments of despair while you stayed at home, knowing your friends were in school?

Yes! I’m an energetic one, always on the move. It was tough being at home, not progressing career-wise, and financially. My friends were making moves. What bent my will, even more, was the reality that my career (modelling) has a short shelf life. I was wasting time.

You’re a fighter, with an attractive tenacity, given that after getting pregnant you still picked yourself up, went back to campus, claimed the Miss UoN crown, and started Be Her to empower young mothers. How did you even pull that off?

My resilience came from a place of wanting to prove to myself that I still had it in me. You see, society attaches disgrace to young mothers. It makes you feel that you have messed up completely and there is no coming back from it. But this is hardly ever the case.

I wanted to rise up, go against the grain. Be the fallen star that on its way down changed trajectory and shot for the skies. I wanted to be the model woman my daughter would be proud of and want to emulate. No child deserves the heavy burden of growing up knowing his/her birth was the reason mum led a miserable life. Let’s just say I realized the need to get my power back, and I pulled it off because I had to pull it off.  

What was it like to contest for, and get crowned Miss UoN?

It was exciting and deeply fulfilling. A great milestone, as it marked my first win in the modelling space after being a mum. To me, getting the crown last year was a confirmation that I still had it in me; that nothing in terms of my dreams had been dented by my past mistakes.

You recently held the first Be Her Foundation session at Diamond Plaza, Parklands. Tell us about it. 

Oh, that was a success. It surpassed my expectations. Initially, I’d envisioned just sessions with guest speakers. It however turned to be a very interactive and memorable day. Young mums interacted and had a lot of fun together. Zaron Makeup, Softcare, Anga IMAX, Redbull, and Makeup by Rose all came through for me as partners, bolstering the support from UNSA (University of Nairobi Student’s Association).

What’s the future of your platform foundation?

It goes beyond UoN. I won’t hold the title Miss UoN forever, as I’m leaving campus later this year. Be Her’s future diversifies into other campuses, and beyond- to all young mothers. More than psychosocial support and mentorship, I want to help young mothers who are dropouts get back to school. I want to reconcile girls with their parents in cases where early pregnancies created a rift. I want to foster a system that facilitates scholarships for such girls.

How do you strike a balance between your studies in design, your passion for modelling, running your foundation, and the demands that come with being the reigning Miss UoN as well as single motherhood?

I’d be lying if I said that I have it all figured out. Taking a day at a time, I have managed thus far. The most helpful thing here has been learning to prioritize. As an African parent would say –and lol, I am one – do what took you to school. I am such a stickler for schedules and through planning, I have managed. Somehow. 

Olive at HCG Cancer Center in Nairobi, where she was a guest during the International Women's Day
Olive at HCG Cancer Center in Nairobi, where she was a guest during the International Women's Day
What would you love to say to your baby girl, and to your parents?

To my parents: I am so grateful! Goodness, your question got me emotional (She takes a breather, an open palm on her chest) 

I thank God for you mum, and dad. You’ve loved and supported me. The only constant human support at my lowest. You did not give up on my goals and aspirations. You were my biggest security; my last line of defense shielding me from all who mocked me and threw hurtful words. My esteem is heavily rooted because you showed up. I am eternally grateful and I pray that you live long to see me grow into the woman you’re raising me to be. I owe it to you to succeed and let you enjoy the fruits of my success. I love you. 

And to my daughter: I have never loved anyone as I do you. I can’t quantify just how much you mean to me. You are my inspiration and reason in every sense. I owe the person I have become and continue to become, to you. Thanks for colouring my life with happiness. I really hope that I make you proud; be the mother you deserve. You’ll always have a friend in me, never to go through anything alone…always count on me. Goodness, aren’t you such a vibe! At a young age, you already have a beautiful personality!

There are many young mums in campuses all over Kenya (and the world) who have not yet interacted with Be Her Foundation. What would you love to say to them?

I am happy that you put that YET in your question (laughs). 

I want to tell them that they are capable of being the woman they always wanted to be. Their dreams weren’t extinguished when they became mothers. With every rising sun, may my journey be a reminder to them to look within and find the little girl who once dreamed. I really hope each one will rise and BE HER!

What next after being Miss UoN? Should we get ready to see your tenacity out for a Miss Africa or something?

You’ll definitely be seeing more of me on other platforms and runways. I’m just getting started. 

What’s your greatest fear?

Living below my own expectations. When I shed my mortal being – which we all will at some point – I fear going out knowing I was too comfortable and lived below my ability.

What’s your favourite quote?

You’ll forgive me, for it’s quite long. 

It’s an extract from A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles:

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that others people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”. 

Two books you would recommend?

I’ll give you three. 

  1. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
  2. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
  3. What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey

*Writer’s note:

I had fun catching up with Olive. Her story remained stencilled in my heart, haunting me to write it; let you share in the inspiration. She reminds me of the words of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. President, in the speech, The Man in The Arena:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


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