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Africa Deaths Impoverish Families

August 24, 1998

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Lucy Nyawira Karigi’s life was a story of the one and the many.

A Kenyan consular assistant who died in the car-bombing of the U.S. Embassy, her generous spirit was the financial lifeblood of an extended Kikuyu family. She raised her dead sister’s children; she put cousins through school; she built a home for her aged parents.

``She was like the mother of us all,″ said her niece, Caroline Karigi, who with her aunt’s help is now studying at a college in New Jersey.

The story of Lucy Karigi _ who, at 53, had worked at the embassy for almost three decades _ is extraordinary, yet not particularly unusual in the culture in which she lived.

In Kenya, as in much of Africa, strong ties of the extended family _ and the enormous disparity between earnings in the city and the countryside _ make it commonplace for a single urban breadwinner to be the main source of support for dozens of other family members.

So now, more than two weeks after the attack on the U.S. Embassy killed 247 people _ almost all of them Kenyan passers-by or workers in an adjacent office building _ the blast’s reverberations are spreading to distant villages, touching hundreds of lives.

Aid workers liken it to a giant and fragile inverted pyramid, in which the death or disabling of a single worker can have catastrophic results.

A Red Cross official in Nairobi, John Sparrow, told of an encounter with a 35-year-old woman who traveled to the capital from her village, frantic with worry after her driver husband failed to return home the weekend after the bombing.

More than a week later, she finally found his body in the morgue, burned almost beyond recognition. By that time, she had spent nearly all the family’s meager savings on her stay in Nairobi _ and would be spending the rest on his funeral.

The dead man was the eldest of 11 children, with younger brothers and sisters depending on him, as well as his own wife and three children.

The embassy, along with the Red Cross and other agencies, is working on plans to help dependents of the dead and injured, but logistical problems alone will be enormous.

``It’s impossible to put a figure on how many are affected in this way,″ Sparrow said. ``And it will be very difficult to even determine where they are.″

One such place is Lucy Karigi’s home village of Ngandu, in the cool central Kenyan highlands 120 miles north of Nairobi, where most of her family still lives. She grew up in a thatched-roof hut with no running water or electricity.

On Tuesday, family members who had gathered in her clean but simple apartment in a rundown Nairobi housing project smiled despite their grief when asked how many people in the village had depended on Lucy’s assistance.

She provided the bulk of support for an extended family of about 30 people, they said.

``She was paying my children’s school fees,″ said her sister, Eunice Karigi, a careworn 38-year-old who works in Ngandu’s fields.

``She was working to get a visa for my daughter to go and study in America,″ said her cousin, Martin Wachira Ruitta.

``All our help is now cut off,″ said her tall and dignified uncle, 61-year-old Charles Wachira.

Twenty years ago, when her sister died, Lucy brought her two nephews and niece, then ages 2, 4 and 6, to live with her in Nairobi. They described her as strict but loving, never too tired after a day at work to cook a family meal and ask them how their day had gone.

Lucy Karigi’s determination to help younger relatives get an education grew out of her own struggles. For a family of subsistence farmers like hers, school fees, though relatively small, were an impossible expense.

Her family recalled how she helped work off her own fees by tending rabbits her mission school raised. She left home for Nairobi so she could go to secretarial school and get a good job _ the job that became her family’s lifeline.

``She used to tell us, `Work hard, live by your own sweat,‴ said the eldest of the children she raised, 26-year-old Caroline Karigi, who is now studying computer science at Middlesex College in Addison, N.J.

``If I’m able, I want to be like her.″

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