IF THE LITTLE GIRL had known that the man offering her words of comfort was none other than President Moi, she might have smiled at him.
But there was confusion all round, and 11-year-old Florentina Mwasi was in too much pain to recognize the kind man who stretched out his hand to help her. The President was laughing, a big contrast to the grimace on Florentina’s face. Perhaps the laughter was to re-assure the little girl that all was well.
In fluent Kiswahili, the Standard 5 pupil at the Star of The Sea Girls’ Primary School in Mombasa, narrates the events that led to her unusual, and unforgettable, encounter with the President.
“It was Wednesday, August 21, 2001. I went to school early because I was part of the group that was going to entertain the President at Tononoka Grounds. Although we had rehearsed thoroughly for two weeks, we had to sing the song over and over again to again to ensure that we got it right.”
Then she breaks into song, remembering some of the words they sang.
“Rais Moi, Twakupenda, Twakupenda, Twakupenda Baba. Rais Moi, Chopochanga, Chopochanga, Chopochanga Mama.”
“When we got to school, my best friend, Aisha, told me that the President would be at Tononoka Grounds at 3pm. The choir had 24 pupils selected from Standard Four and Five. After lunch, we got into a bus and headed to Tononoka.
“The grounds were crowded. It was very hot and dusty. At 3pm, very many vehicles arrived. Most of them were big, black and shiny. Some tall men were running next to the vehicles. Then people started clapping and shouting that the President had arrived.
“Many schools entertained the President. When our turn came, we sang and danced for about one minute. Then we were told to go and sit down. Although we were singing for the President, I never saw him because he was sitting somewhere high up. The other schools sang after us, then the function ended.
“Suddenly, shouts of ‘Yuaenda! Yuaenda!’ filled the air. Someone shouted that the President was leaving. Everybody got up at once. They started to push forward so as to get a glance at the President.
“Suddenly, I was pushed from behind. I couldn’t breathe! It was hot. Someone stepped on me with sharp shoes. A huge man stepped on my toe and pushed me forward. I was about to fall when I felt another big man hold my arm.
“Although his hand was gentle, it was cold. I shivered. I felt cold and scared. Then he told me in a gentle voice. ‘Njoo Kwangu!’ (Come to me). He was laughing. The other tall men around him were laughing, too. They surrounded me.
“The man who held me had very white teeth, with a gap on the lower left side. He was not very black or brown. He had on black trousers and a grey coat and very shiny black shoes. His tie had red, blue and white stripes. He was very clean!“
“Suddenly, the other men next to him pulled me away very roughly. They did not want the man to touch me. They looked harsh. I did not know who the man was. But I was happy with him because when I was being trampled on, he rescued me.
“I did not know who the man was.”
“Then my music teachers, Mrs Khavehere and Ms Mbugua suddenly appeared. I felt happy. I hugged them tightly! Then another man who was holding a camera came and asked me my name and the name of my school. He wrote in a very small book!
“When my father came for me at school, the teachers told him that I had been photographed with the President. I was very happy.”
Florentina’s Headmistress Sr. Albina Mwasi describes the incident as symbolic, and a blessing in disguise.
“We were happy to see the name of our school in the newspaper. We were the only primary school in Mombasa that performed in the Tononoka Grounds that day. Like the Biblical story of the short Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to get a glimpse of the Lord Jesus and ended up hosting him, the president noticed Florentina and reached out to her.
“She was being trampled upon by adults who should have lifted her up to enable her to see the President. The Lord made us shine. Florentina’s appearance in the Daily Nation made us feel well represented.
“She was being trampled upon by adults who should have lifted her up to enable her to see the President.”
“My only regret was that while we had trained seriously and intended to perform for five minutes, we were only allowed one minute.”
Florentina’s father, Joseph Paul Mwasi, a mechanic by profession, said he remembered his daughter’s day of fame clearly.
“When I went to pick her up from school, the teachers told me what had happened. The following day, my colleagues showed me the picture in the Daily Nation and so I went out and bought my own copy. I was very excited and I felt very important.”
Mwasi went to the the Nation offices and asked if he could have a copy a copy of the photograph.
“They blew it up for me. I framed it and hang it on our sitting room wall. There is no other picture in the room. We didn’t want any other picture next to it.”
Mwasi says he felt like they had been visited by the President in person.
“The incident proved to us that the President really does love children as he usually says.”
Florentina’s mother, Ann, 32, had just come from church when a friend showed her the Newspaper.
“Although I had heard a rumor about my daughter taking a picture with the President, I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the Newspaper. I was happy about my daughter’s luck, to be held by the President himself.
“So many people would want a chance to meet him or just to shake his hand, but they never get to do it. But my daughter is only 11, and she has been touched by the President.”
Anne, a housewife, remembers receiving a stream of visitors at their home that evening. Neighbors, relatives and friends crowded the house, curious to see whether the incident had in any way changed Florentina.
“In fact, she has changed for the better,” her mother says. She is more confident and ambitious.” Florentina had said she wanted to be a nurse, when she grew up.
And Florentina hopes that the next time she appears in a newspaper, it will be a happier occasion, much better than that of a vulnerable child being trampled upon!
Credits: This story first appeared in the Daily Nation, Weekend Edition in 2001.