Dr Betty Gikonyo’s autobiography, The Girl who Dared to Dream, is a deeply engrossing, well written narrative. It not only chronicles Gikonyo’s life experiences but traces East Africa’s political, social and indeed, medical history.
Launched in Nairobi at the end of September, one of the strengths of this book is the manner in which the renowned Kenyan cardiologist openly shares her early struggles while raising a family and building a career. She talks about the period from when she had her first child towards the end of medical school, to branching out from government employment to founding her own practice.
Gikonyo’s autobiography captures the situation of women in the 1970s and 1980s, and how they built their careers. Interestingly, she dispels the notion that patriarchy was an impediment to progress. If anything, the men in her life were pivotal to her life’s journey: Her father ensuring that she and her sisters went to school; her brother acting as a role model and support system; and her husband, as a thoughtful and encouraging partner.
Born in Kiamabara village in Nyeri County in central Kenya, Gikonyo rose from humble beginnings. She attended the prestigious Alliance Girls High School in Kiambu County; the University of Nairobi and universities in the US, where she specialised in children’s cardiology.
From a young girl who wore her first shoes at 13 when joining secondary school, she grew to become one of Kenya’s most prominent medical practitioners, founding the Heart-to-Heart Foundation — a medical charity dedicated to the control, prevention and treatment of heart diseases in children — and the Karen Hospital in Nairobi, jointly with her husband Dr Dan Gikonyo, also a respected cardiologist. He was the personal doctor of former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki.
The book also details occasional humorous moments such as when the young family chose to return to Kenya from America despite friends trying to talk them out of it.
One American cardiologist who hadn’t paid them much attention during their time there, surprisingly invited them for a meal. He then told them out to order good American steaks and enjoy the meal, because it would probably be the last juicy steak they would ever have now that they were returning to Africa. This was in 1984-1985, when a severe famine had swept over the continent, and Western media was awash with images of starving and emaciated people.
Indeed, this is one of the interesting points for reflection that the narrative brings in: The idealism African returnees from the diaspora arrive with — big dreams to uplift their societies — only to find their efforts thwarted and their good intentions frustrated by bureaucracy or a lack of facilities. The couple were, however, able to weather the storm and eventually established a world-class facility — the Karen Hospital— that could treat complicated heart ailments.
She takes us through the hardships her team underwent trying to get banks to give them funding for the hospital, and colleagues to invest in it. She narrates how they worked overtime, often holding consultations late into the night. The hospital was finally opened in early 2006.
We get tit bits of history such as Kenya’s Dr Joshua Likimani being the first African doctor to graduate from Uganda’s Makerere University in 1939. The colonial medical practitioners, however, did not receive him well, treating him as an inferior person because he was an African. Makerere was the only medical school in East Africa then.
We also learn that Gikonyo’s elder brother, Dr Wallace Kahugu, was among the top 20 African doctors in Kenya. Kenya’s pioneering intelligentsia was a small community comprising the few who had graduated from Makerere University College. They had degrees in medicine, economics or agriculture, while a few came from Dar es Salaam with degrees in law.
At Makerere, Gikonyo’s brother graduated in 1959 among a group of seven doctors comprising five Kenyans, one Ugandan and one Tanzanian.
An autobiography can sometimes tell you more about yourself. A particularly good one acts like a torch you shine into a mirror and the light reflects back on you, causing you to evaluate your own life circumstances. The Girl who Dared to Dream succeeds remarkably at this.
It is a book that not only medical practitioners, but people from all spheres of life will find useful. Entrepreneurs starting up businesses, young students who have recently completed school and even professionals on progressive career paths will find some useful pieces of information in this book.
The manner in which Dr Gikonyo continually points to her profession as not just a money making opportunity but one that meets the needs of society is a thoughtful and compassionate perspective on how a career can be more than just a job — that it can be a calling to serve.