When My Beloved Aunt Died: A Reflection on Life

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday night at 11pm, I got a call that would change my family’s life forever.

My aunt, a mere 50 something years old, had just died hundreds of miles away in Mombasa, Kenya, due to post-surgery complications. I was alone in bed with my two sleeping toddlers and all I could think of was how surreal this news felt. My aunt, whom my husband had taken a funny selfie with just a few hours earlier, had fallen down on her way to close her living room window at night two days prior, and fractured her hip. I’ve been told that this was an accident waiting to happen, that her hip ligaments had been worn out to almost nothing, and that they had given in to the weight of her body. I’ve been told that this was fate.

At first I was angry.  I was angry that the hospital had been negligent in giving her care: perhaps the anaesthesia was messed up, or they mismanaged her diabetes before surgery. Had they been careless enough to let her go hungry for over 24 hours before going into the operating room? Shouldn’t they have referred her to a bigger hospital, one with more facilities and more expertise in surgery and diabetes? I had a pile of questions but everyone I talked to who was there with her in her final days told me simply that her time had come. 

I talked to a doctor friend of mine and expressed my feelings over the whole affair. “Was it medical negligence”, I asked her, “or was it fate?”

“It may be both,” she replied back after much deliberation on the topic. “The alleged negligence may have been the catalyst in enabling fate.”

I wonder: Are we really in control of anything?

I think of my aunt every single day. When she was widowed over 20 years ago, she had 5 children to feed, house, and educate.  With nothing more that a Singer sewing machine, she made barely enough money to make ends meet, yet she was never one to complain about what she didn’t have.  Sometimes when things were really tough, the family would go quietly hungry but nevertheless, they thrived under the loving canopy of their mother’s presence. The children were each other’s greatest wealth and their mother was Queen of their kingdom.

For most of her life almost everyone called her Aunty but since becoming a grandmother, they resorted to calling her Nyanyaa. She was the communal aunt and grandmother because not once did she ever show preference to her own biological relatives over non-relatives. Everyone respected her merely for her endless capacity to love indiscriminately. And in her death, people from around the world- those who spent years by her side and those who had the pleasure of spending a few hours with her- mourned for her.

And as I wind down writing this post I come to the realisation that maybe we are in control of our lives. Fate may have given my aunt markers that signify major life events-her birth, marriage, her husband’s death- but she was fully in control of her life. God chose her first and last page but she wrote her own story. She was her own author and her book, her legacy to the world, is a bestseller.


This post is in loving memory of my aunt, Fatuma Mohamed Ali Peni, who was my mother’s best friend, our family’s guiding light, and my inspiration. In the past few years, I have drawn so much strength and resilience because I had her shining example to emulate from.

May Allah rest her soul in the highest levels of Paradise.


How to Retire Early and Save The World

It’s another dreaded Monday: you wake up, shower, brush your teeth, drop the kids to school, drive to work, sit at the desk for 8 hours, sneak into Facebook in between the hours of 9-5, drive back home, eat dinner, put the kids to bed, throw yourself on the sofa, watch TV, drag your body to bed…and repeat the next day and the next, until Friday comes around when we all celebrate a hypothetical break, only for the cycle to repeat itself again next week, and next month, and next year….until death comes calling.

It’s mind-numbing.

We work to create wealth but does all this wealth really make us any happier? According to studies on happiness, wealth only makes us happy to a certain point. Once we’ve made a certain amount of money (we’ll call that the plateau), then any extra dollar made does not equal to a corresponding gain in happiness. In other words, any leftover from the plateau-fancier cars, bigger house, more elaborate holidays-are mere conspicuous luxury commodities. We upgrade to brighter bling simply to show the world our financial worth.

I’ve been following Mr. Moustache on and off for a few years now, and in his popular lifestyle blog, he preaches that the key to retiring early (he retired at 31 years old) is to spend a lot less than you earn. As a natural thrifter, I whole heartedly agree. In this fascinating talk, Mr. Moustache argues that 3 facts will make you richer:

Fact 1: We all suck at money…but we can change that with an attitude shift

Any money spent that does not make you happier is wasted (most of us fall in this category). Marketing convinces us that YOU MUST BUY X, Y and Z IF YOU WANT TO BE HAPPIER! but all that is really a pack of lies. A $2 spatula is really the same as the $20 spatula, a fancy car will get you to the same destination as a standard one, and a $200 outfit won’t make you any prettier than one for a fraction of the price. Luxury, in and of itself, is a state of mind. I’ve seen people living on a dollar-a- day diet who wear charity shop clothes and cycle to work, and carry themselves with so much self-love.

Fact 2: You can save enough to retire in 10 years….if you spend less then than you earn

A high income earner and an average income earner can both retire at the same time, adjusting for spending habits. If I make $30,000 a year and spend significantly less on living basics yearly (eating in, cycling, cheap housing), I will have, on average, saved the same amount in 10 years as someone earning $300,000 who spends much more on a ‘luxury’ lifestyle (eating out in fancy restaurants, daily taxis, mansions).

Fact 3: Work is better for everyone if you don’t need the money

Imagine that you’ve finally saved away enough money to retire at a relatively young age. You still work, but you work on your own terms and you work at a job that you love. I love this quote by Mr. Moustache: The purpose of work is to create. The purpose of earning money is to have enough money.

Anything that you create out of love feels good, and people tend to buy goods and services laced with goodness.  Think about your own buying experiences: how good did it feel to order from a company whose owners cared about the product they were selling, versus buying from sales people who felt like they were being forced to go to work?

Also, when you work out of passion, you will be able to focus on projects that matter to you and to your community. Passion-driven work is hard, but it rarely feels ‘stressful’. If it feeds your soul, it will also feed the world around you.

What do you think about these facts? Have they inspired you to change your own life?

Is It Stress or Is It Passion?

Sometimes writing can feel a little like building a house specifically for the purpose of air to pass through its windows and doors. No human lives there and day and night, the sound that you put out echoes right back. You pour so much heart and soul into each and every single word  and send your writing out into the world, only for it to go unacknowledged or worse, unnoticed. It’s lonely sometimes and to the immature mind, this- the act of writing and releasing-can seem like such a foolish waste of time. Who in their right mind would spend hours  creating something only for it to wash down the internet drain like a pot of discarded pasta water?

Stress and passion. 

Anything you do out of passion will not feel discouraging. In fact, you will often take failures as directional signs that will helpfully point you on the right way. You may get lost once in a while, but you will always have a resolute determination to find your way home. Writing is my thing; the process of writing is my real reward and the recognition I get from others is just an extra bonus point to the intrinsic joy I get out of expressing myself through words. For others, it may be painting or making music or cooking.  The point is, whatever makes you come alive is never a form of punishment. It is will always feel like an interesting curiosity to be pursued.

This reminds me of the time we had just moved into our new home and I had to paint a sunshine yellow coat over my kids’ deep auburgine colored room. I painted and painted, one coat, then two, then three, and by the end of the day, I was fuming. I never wanted to see purple again. I never wanted to see paint again. I never wanted to touch a paint brush in my whole life ever again. I called up my artsy sister that night, hands and hair covered in specks of yellow, and told her of my frustration and exhaustion. “I wish I was there to paint that room!” she said excitedly. In her mind, a day painting was a day well spent.  To each their own, I guess.

Writing, like any other creative pursuit, is not about receiving. It’s about giving. When I put myself out there-when I write with honesty and authenticity-I am, in fact, offering to the world the best of myself. I often write with an annoying voice in my head screaming ‘failure! failure!failure!, but I write anyway because I know that not writing for fear of failing is actually the biggest failure of all. So fingers to keyboard, I tap away as lovingly as my fluttering heart can guide me.

“As a soul, you have the freedom – and earned responsibility – to transpose your personal process of evolution, to manifest your greatest talents and vision, into the work that matters to you most as a means to personal redemption.”
― Darrell Calkins


When I Cried For My Dead Mother-in-Law, God Sent Me This Instead

On a recent clear sunny day, I was sitting on a bench in the playground crying my heart out.

The tears came down my cheeks fast and nothing my husband could do or say would make them stop. I was having one of those days again which, as a mother living far away from two of her children, felt hopeless. There were so many complex thoughts going through my head and I couldn’t make a single one of them hush down.

‘Children should never live apart from their mother’ I thought to myself, over and over again like a trapped hamster in a running wheel.

I felt depressed,

and guilty,

and angry.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, my boys weren’t living with me and there’s nothing that I could do (at least at that moment) to bring them home.

“The only woman who could have ever understood what I feel is Mama Sakina,” I angrily answered my husband when he asked if there’s anything he could do to ease the pain. Mama Sakina was my husband’s mother (now dead) and like me, she also had to endure an extended period of distance parenthood. My husband was raised by his father and stepmother.

“If she was still sitting here with me, I’d ask her so many questions. I’d ask her how she survived, how she kept hope alive, how she never let this experience turn her into a bitter person.She’d understand. She’s the only one who’d understand.” I leaned forward on the park bench and dug my face into my hands.  That moment felt like a very dark and lonely hole.

Just then, Sakina, my four year old daughter, and late mother-in-law’s namesake, came closer to stand beside me. She had heard me crying so she dropped her playing to come see what was wrong. She stroked my hair gently and softly released the grasp of my fingers from my face. With her little hands, she raised my chin and brought my eyes level to hers. Her eyes softened as she gazed into mine; they spoke of understanding and companionship. Then, with her tiny little fingers, she brushed my rolling tears away. Her presence filled the air with tranquility.

“I’m sorry, Mama” she said in her sweet, innocent voice, “everything will be fine.” And with as far as her hands could stretch, she hugged me tightly. As our cheeks touched, I could feel myself melting into her warm embrace; the urgent thudding of my heart calmed down and my breathing came back to normal. I felt light again.

I looked up and smiled. Sakina smiled back and just then, as if nothing momentous had happened, she skipped back to little her brother who was busy trying to climb up the ladders to go down the slide.

God had just answered my prayers in the most unexpected of ways.


5 ways of Coping With Difficult Times

Everyone goes through hard days.  No matter how strong or confident we are, we all go through periods in our lives when we question the very reason for our existence: we break down and feel too weak to look ahead and sometimes the very wings that gave us flight begin to weigh us down. This is the human condition: to be in a perpetual state of high and lows.  Success, in my book anyway, is like going through a car wash: you get scrubbed up and beat down but you come out shinier on the other end.

I’ve been separated from my boys for some time now (for reasons that I won’t go into), and some days can be very, very dark. In the past, I used to feel like I was trapped under huge rocks of intense sadness with no light in sight.  It was scary to feel that powerless.  I compare that feeling to someone grabbing the remote off of your hands and changing the channels on your own TV set while you just look helplessly on.  You get upset but all you do is sink back into the couch further until it swallows you whole.  When I hit rock bottom, I knew I had to change because I didn’t want to end up being that old lady who was angry at everyone, including myself.  Instead of despair, I chose hope.

Next time you feel depressed, try these exercises to get yourself our of despair and into hope mode:

Exercise gratitude

I may not be living with my boys but alhamdulillah, they are in good health.  I do have wonderful stepsons and a supportive husband. I live in a wonderful city which allows me to indulge in my many curiosities.  I get to get a chance to make a difference in other people’s lives every day through my philanthropic activities.

The thing about gratitude is that it forces to focus on the ‘right’ rather than the ‘wrong’. It pulls you back into the present, back to your breath, out of your head, and into the cosy nooks of your heart.

I keep a gratitude journal and each night, I try to write down 3 things that I am grateful for that day.  Think of anything that you are grateful at this moment and write it down. Talk about it. Share it with a friend. If you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, put your hand over the left part of your chest and feel the ‘thump, thump, thump’ against your cavity walls.  Hear that? That’s a sound of better days to come.

Take an inventory of successes (and helpers)

Think of all your accomplishments you’ve achieved in the last five years. Write them down and think of how you got from point A to point B. What hurdles did you have to overcome along the way? What resources did you call in to help you deal with those roadblocks? Was it prayers/your family/a good book/a song/a place?  Successes are never a one-man performance and it’s a relief to know that we can lean into something much greater than ourselves. Helpers helps take the anxiety off.

Personally, I was astounded when I looked at my own list of achievements. It made me realise that my accomplishments far outweigh my defeats.  Woohoo! Another thing that I realised? That I am surrounded by an abundance of blessings. Tragic moments brought my family closer together and moved me nearer to God.  My personal relationship with God and my family are now two things that are dearer to me than anything else in the world.  Sure, I still worry about future storms but my assurance in prayer and family always floods my head with peace.

Tie your camel

An Islamic narration points to one incident when a Bedouin asked the Prophet Muhammad “Should I tie my camel and place my trust in Allah for her protection, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah to protect her?” The Prophet replied, “Tie her first and then have trust.” [At-Tirmidhi]

In other words, work towards the manifestation of your blessings.  Don’t wait for happy moments to fall off the sky. If you want to get somewhere (physical or otherwise), create a game plan. Map out exactly what you need to do in order to take you from HERE to THERE. I am a firm believer in the power of list-making so I prefer to write my game plan down. Then, get to work. Put the time and effort in. (Don’t forget to reward yourself along the way: go to a spa, travel to Iceland, get a double scoop of icecream…whatever tickles your fancy.)

Keep doing what needs doing now in order to get what you want for the future.

Approach everything with a healthy dose of curiosity

When you come to a stumbling block rather than jumping to an ‘I AM DOOMED’ conclusion, look at the block with a curious set of eyes. Place hope at the forefront of every problem and push through building a solution by engaging the world around you. Chances are that the problem you have has been experienced by someone else before, so look for wisdom from people who have been through the same.  Personally, I find books to  be wonderful sources of knowledge and for almost every life crisis I’ve faced, I’ve faced it head-on with a book in hand.

Give back

It is said we are only as rich as what we give out to others. Generosity doesn’t only involve money; it can be giving your time, your knowledge or skills, or your effort, to others.  Studies show that giving to others increases feel-good chemicals in our brains, thus making us happier in the long term.  Charity and volunteerism are both ‘drugs’ that we should all get high on.  If you want to fight depression, help someone else in need.

Tough times do not have to define your life.  What strategies do you use to cope with difficulties?

Forcing ‘Salvation’ Down Women’s Throats Kind of Defeats

Forcing ‘salvation’ down women’s throats kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? What happened to each person being accountable to their actions? In the words of Hillary Clinton “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. It doesn’t matter what country they are in or what religion they claim. They all want to control women”.

(Quote from :http://www.femmesforfreedom.com/english/)

Strengthening Our Swahili Communities: When Words Are No Longer Enough

I have noticed lately that there seems to be a rise in religious overzealousness without much practical applications to fundamental religious teachings of being a responsible citizen of the community.  While I have derived my observations specifically from my interactions with fellow Muslims from my East African community via social media sites, this trend seems to be more pronounced among social circles that identify themselves as fairly conservative and traditional.  Before I go any further, I would like to state that I am pro-democracy and free speech, and I believe that each person is entitled to living her/his personal philosophy as long as it doesn’t harm others.  The problem I have is that there are plenty of ‘proud to be Muslim/Islam is the best’ declarations without much practice to them.  The old adage “Talk is cheap” has not survived this long for no reason-people tend to say a lot without necessarily doing a lot.

One of the key characteristics that separates humans from other organisms is self-determination.  Non-human lives are largely determined by environmental factors and their actions are basically driven by individual primal survival needs. Their day is generally summarized as ‘today I will either be the hunter or the hunted’.   Humans on the other hand have higher and more complex social brains; the evolution of our intelligence has allowed us to constantly push physical boundaries so much so that the saying ‘the sky is the limit’ today sounds rather old-fashioned.  Our social intelligence however sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. While we are at a point where we are exploring life on Mars, we tend to be Neanderthals when dealing with each other. It’s no wonder we are constantly bashing each other back into the proverbial Stone Age.

ImageAlbert Einstein is quoted as saying “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.  Our community today is ridden with poverty, corruption, and poor education standards; factors that contribute to the underdevelopment of our society.  Every Mpwani is talking about our Swahili towns being taken over by non-indigenous folk.  There is real fear of our once proud and indestructible culture dwindling to extinction.  Things need to change in order to stop our towns from going in a downward spiral.  To talk of positive change is good, but in order to ensure long lasting and sustainable improvements, the very nucleus of our social DNA has to be altered.  We need to think on a micro scale rather than a macro scale.

There is a verse in the Quran that states:

“And indeed Allah does not change a peoples’ condition unless they change what is in themselves” (13:11).

I honestly feel that changing the world doesn’t start with complicated legislations, high-tech machinery, or performing social welfare stunts that would rival Superman’s physical feats. Often times, the greatest impact for global change starts with our own personal conviction to be that change. And before you can start telling me that ‘mateso yetu ni majaliwa’ (our problems are pre-destined), I challenge you to think of problems as opportunities for growth rather than decline. Think of human beings as balls in a pool table; our individual movements have a direct impact on other balls as well.  The way we come into contact with other balls will determine how those other balls roll, eventually determining if that winning ball will fall into the hole or not.  If you were a ball, would you give a winning ‘hit’ to other balls? In your daily life, will you grumble about how life is unfair or will you be the one that makes someone else’s day better? Will you give a smile rather than waiting for one? Will you build yourself up economically rather than wait for government handouts (that are dwindling every day anyhow).  Will you be the one that inspires others to serve the common good?

Mombasa, Lamu, and the rest of the Coast have what it takes be a key player in Kenya’s development.   Consequently, our increased participation in activities that promote self-reliance will also ensure that our standard of living will improve as a whole.  In the popular song ‘Azimio la Arusha’, taarab legend Juma Bhalo extols the virtues of self-reliance:

“Ni jambo lenye fakhari-mtu kujitegemeya,

Humwepuka kila shari,-na balaa za duniya,

Kwa uwezo wa Qahari- mambo yote hutengeya” 


(Self reliance is a virtuous attribute, one to take pride in,

Through self reliance, (social and economic) calamities of life are detracted away from you,

By God’s will, a lot of success goes in your favor)

In the end, perhaps it is common human decency that will end up being our saving grace.  The concept of do unto others what you would wish to be done to you has to be the social norm in order for us to be successful as a group.  Declarations of religious pride don’t elevate a community. Actions do.