When SIL LEAD board member Dr. Margaret Jepkirui Muthwii is asked if she grew up having to help out on the family farm in rural Kenya, or if instead she was expected to focus on her studies, she laughs (she does that a lot).
Margaret says that she and her eight siblings were expected to keep up with their studies, but there was no question about whether or not they’d help out on the farm. “We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t argue about it,” Margaret says, “We just woke up and there was a schedule.” The whole family went out to the farm to work, but she says that from a very young age she was chosen to come home early to prepare the food for everyone else. She laughs as she recounts how she wasn’t really suited to farming. “Something about my focus and energy wasn’t there.”
Margaret’s parents never learned to speak English themselves, but they were very literate in their own language, and her father was the first person in their village to insist that his daughters (as well as his sons) go to school. Her father was laughed at by his community for this, but he persisted and Margaret became the first person in her family to go through college and receive a degree. She insists she was by no means the sharpest child in her family, but the world was changing fast and as the youngest sibling more opportunities were available to her.
Her love of books and learning started at a very young age, Margaret says, watching her mother read her Bible. “It was alive to her,” she remembers. “She would even giggle sometimes, if she was reading. Especially the Old Testament stories. We grew up, if you will, eating the whole Bible… she loved it, and we had no choice but to love it because she read it all the time. And she didn’t bash it on us, she just enjoyed it.”
Margaret grew up thinking, “This thing works for her. It’s very beautiful on her—this faith.”
It wasn’t until college that Margaret realized that the Bible her mother read in her own Kenyan language was actually a translation from an ancient language. As her awareness of the history of the Bible grew, so too did Margaret’s awareness of the immense value of teaching people to read in their own languages.
“You see the struggle that people go through [to read in a non-native language] and what they give up culturally along the way. But if we train people to read in their mother tongue… it enables them not to have to struggle to learn a foreign language and at the same time learn literacy… they actually enjoy learning how to read and write; literacy builds communities in a very very fast way.”
“That’s what I really like about SIL LEAD. A lot of our primary engagement and energy goes to empowering people in that way.”
After college Margaret settled into a career as a teacher, got married, had a couple of kids. But she always knew that there was more for her out there. As a child her father had always said to his children, “Study, until you go abroad.” And although Margaret did not at first know what “abroad” was, it sparked a curiosity and a dream that continued when her husband went off to the University of East Anglia in the U.K. for a couple years to get his doctorate. Margaret applied for scholarships to do post-graduate work herself, and she, too, was accepted to the University of East Anglia. So she packed up her two young boys, moved to England, and got her Master’s.
There was no question, though, about whether she’d be returning to Kenya. Although Margaret would go back to the U.K. for her doctorate a few years (and another child) later, she was always eager to return to her country. When speaking of Kenya, Margaret’s ready laughter gives way to sincere enthusiasm as she talks about the beauty, freedom, and opportunity of the place she loves. A place where, she says, she doesn’t have to apologize that she is who she is.
Dr. Muthwii went on from her studies in the U.K. to have an interesting and purposeful academic career, and four and a half years ago became the Vice-Chancellor of Pan Africa Christian University, where her primary responsibility has been to grow and strengthen the university as a chartered institution. Under her tenure attendance at the school has doubled, and they’ve almost tripled their revenue.
When asked if she misses teaching, Margaret laughs and says that she still teaches a lot in one capacity or another, but that she misses the scholarship—reading around a topic, and then writing out her response. She never has the time for that anymore, she says. She always makes time for family, though, and generally spends her weekends with extended family, her husband, and whichever of her four boys can make it out with them to their country home, on the farm where her husband grew up.
Margaret began her life raising corn and animals in a corner of rural Kenya. Books and a love of linguistics and learning have taken her across oceans and around the world, but love of her home has always brought her back.