Rosemary Kariuki was named Local Hero in the 2021 Australian of the Year Awards, recognising her incredible achievements with friendship and God at the centre. She started out in the Parish of Baulkham Hills and she and her Baulkham Hills friends share their story and friendship tips.
When I tell Rosemary Kariuki, Local Hero Australian of the Year for 2021, that I’m coming to her house one evening not only with a photographer, but also her friends and we’re going to have dinner, she doesn’t bat an eyelid. She loves being with people.
Rosemary’s friendliness has changed the lives of thousands of women in Sydney, many of whom were victims of domestic violence. She’s been in an international touring play The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a movie about the play, and more recently her very own movie, Rosemary’s Way. Her Local Hero award is just one of many she has been presented with since she arrived in Australia in 1999 having fled violence in Kenya. As she matter-of-factly lists the speaking and TV engagements she has lined up for the next week, not only am I impressed, but grateful that she still made time for me.
Today, I’m sitting around her table with her good friends from the Parish of Baulkham Hills, Lucy and Peter Maguire, talking about friendship. While they met at work in the community sector, it was a particularly memorable Feast of Pentecost event at St Michael’s Church, Baulkham Hills, which they both recall as being a turning point in their friendship. Rosemary remembers Lucy’s Irish potato soup – potatoes being a staple for her tribe in Kenya. Lucy remembers Rosemary’s African food and the spectacular African dress and headdress she wore. Irish Lucy also stood out to Rosemary as St Patrick is an important saint in Kenya.
We talk about friendship and of God and how important these are in their lives. Rosemary credits God with everything that has happened to her.
Packing for her trip to Australia, she included lots of small gifts. “Why?” I ask. She explained that in Africa, you give gifts in return for people helping you. “I knew someone would open the door of their home to me,” she says. “I had faith.”
She arrived in Australia alone, at night, with next to nothing.
“I said a prayer,” says Rosemary. “Then I saw a lady at the airport, and I went up to her and told her my problems, that I had very little money and nowhere to stay. The lady just said: ‘Let’s go’. I will never forget that family or thinking that night, ‘I’m going to sleep under a roof!’”.
She found a place to live and a job. As she told Australia at her Australia Day Award presentation this year, she lived in an apartment building of 15 units where no one ever spoke to her. One Christmas, she sent everyone in the building a card with her phone number on it. That was enough to get the other residents talking to her, and she was on her way to making her first friends. “They asked me about my culture and invited me for meals,” she remembers. She recounted this experience in her Australia Day Award speech, “Open your door to your neighbours and get to know them,” she told Australia.
Friendship making change
As well as involvement in the Baulkham Hills Parish, Rosemary joined the African Women’s community and organised the inaugural African Ladies’ Dinner Dance, now in its 16th year. She wanted immigrant women to have fun and make friends but also hear important messages. At the first dance, she organised a speaker on domestic violence. “The next week, 20 women reported their abuse to the police,” she says.
Today, she is a community liaison officer with the NSW Police. Brochures and pamphlets “don’t do the job” to help women who feel trapped and scared, she says. Her method is to offer herself as a friend they can trust and who will walk by their side, especially those with no other family in Australia.
Faith and friendship with God
Rosemary, Lucy and Peter share a strong faith. They have spent much time talking about their faith, and supporting each other in difficulties.
“I’ve never really been afraid because I know God will make everything ok,” says Rosemary, who now attends Mary MacKillop Catholic Church in Oran Park. Lucy’s friendship with God is also central to her being. The two of them talk about times they almost doubted God. Rosemary recalls being furious with God when her beloved second husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. His last words to her were, “God brought you to look after me.” “That answered my question ‘Why did this happen?’,” she says.
Lucy is thrilled that Rosemary openly discusses her faith in the media. “When Rosemary won the award, I said a prayer to God to the effect ‘I want you (the Holy Spirit) to be seen through this award’,” she says, delighted at how often Rosemary’s faith is reported.
Rosemary’s faith has also helped her see the good in people. It has helped her overcome anxiety. “If I see you, I see the positive,” she says.
Friendship keeps it real
Besides letting you be yourself, true friends keep you grounded, says Rosemary. Her sister has told her that her success mustn’t change her. Rosemary has resolved that even if she becomes Prime Minister, she’ll sneak her friends into Parliament House and continue to share the laughs.
The women Rosemary comes across tell her they don’t have friends. That’s why she becomes their friend who doesn’t give up on them. “Friendship gives them hope,” she says. “Once they have a friend who cares, they care about themselves and start to help themselves.”
Rosemary and Lucy’s friendship tips
- Go out and meet people from other cultures. Sharing cultures is beautiful.
- You don’t know the difference just smiling and saying “hello” may have on someone.
- If you’re anxious about relationships, remember you don’t really know what is going on for that other person, so take a risk and reach out.
- Making your first friend is the hardest. Once you know you have someone’s trust and friendship, it is easier to make other friends.
- Volunteer to help others and you’ll soon make friends.
- Be a great neighbour by doing nice things such as mowing the lawn for them.
- “Leave it with the Lord” if you feel a friendship isn’t working for you right now.
- “If you give with one hand, God will give you back 100-fold,” says Rosemary.
You can find out more on Rosemary’s movie at rosemaryswaythefilm.org.
Rosemary is also a director of Kenyan charity hannahcommunity.org.
This article was originally featured in the Ordinary Time/Winter 2021 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.