By Dr. Susan Adongo
Her first shift was on a Thursday night. “I wasn’t sure what to wear,” Edith Kamaru told me. But it didn’t matter because one of the technicians later gave her an oversized lab coat to don. There were three of them slotted for that shift — two ladies and a gentleman.
As she walked to work, she felt a chill travel down her spine like an invisible hand. The night wind was howling in her ear as if taunting her to turn back. “I knew I couldn’t. The choice was either to work, or go hungry.”
When they arrived at the morgue, the supervisor was waiting for them. “It will be a busy night for you guys. There are 17 bodies to dress. First dispatch is at 5am tomorrow so get to work,” he said.
When Edith was a young, scrawny child, living in the village of Ndeiya, she never thought she would one day dress dead bodies for a plate of food.
She was the 4th born in a family of 7 children. Her dad was a casual laborer, her mum a housewife. The 9 of them piled in a mud house the size of a virus whose floor was the colour of dead roses; a dusty muted red.
Two miniscule beds
The house was partitioned in three by a flimsy curtain. “On one side, the 7 of us crammed onto two miniscule beds. The lucky ones would be in the middle because that meant you were fully covered while those of us at the edge were left bare or in a tug of war,” she says.
Most nights they slept soundly until one of them wet the bed causing the rest to sleep on damp, putrid beddings for the remainder of the night. That was the norm in the Kamaru home. Scarcity.
“Once, the sum total of the food in our house was a kg of maize flour. It was not enough to make ugali to fill 9 stomachs. So my mum made porridge instead,” she says. Sometimes they would queue at the chief’s camp for relief food but it would run out very fast.
“I don’t remember playing much as a child. Unless chores were considered a form of play. If you were not ploughing the land, you were by the road collecting firewood or collecting leaves to feed the cow or working in the neighbouring farms for a few coins,” she adds.
And it was mostly for food. So going to school barefoot was not an issue. Neither were the jiggers that would burrow into her feet. “I would just sit, remove the jigger, wash the wound then carry on with my day,” she says.
Her first pair of shoes were a Christmas gift from an uncle of hers who worked in Bata. “He bought me a pair of sandak that I wore into the ground. It’s as if they were hemmed under my feet because I had them on all the time,” she says.
Edith, who was more mouthy than her siblings, was also sharp. “I was at the top of my class from when God was a child. Yet I barely had time to read,” she recalls.
Shared a tin lamp
The evenings after school were spent on domestic work and at night they shared a tin lamp that she couldn’t use to study. Paraffin was a luxury and had to be stretched for as many days as possible. “It would be selfish of me to use it to read,” she says.
So their mum would make sure they were all fed before the night swallowed the day then they would each wash their legs.
“The irony was not lost on me that she made us wash our feet every evening, only to tread on dust on our way to bed. But we did it anyway.” At the end of every term, when she would emerge at the top her mom would say: “You will go to Alliance,” even if they had no idea what Alliance was.
“I did not go to Alliance. (Alliance alumni wipe the smug off your faces). I instead went to Loreto Limuru Girls or ‘Kotet’ as it is known.” It’s not that she did not qualify for Alliance, having emerged the 2nd best student in the region, but one of her teachers impressed upon her that ‘Kotet’ was a good school.
Around that time, Plan International — an independent development and humanitarian organisation — upgraded their living conditions. “My mom would volunteer there offering community education and registration of needy families so they upgraded us to a two roomed brick house. It felt like moving to a palace.” Edith says.
The only challenge though was how to raise her school fees. To this end, her dad joined a Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SACCO) somewhere in Kikuyu where he hoped to start saving money in order to take loans.
200 chicken for high school fees
From his saved wages, he was able to get 200 chicken that he sold for her first term fees. A few well wishers came together to help. One aunt bought her shoes, another bought her a metallic suitcase.
Uniform however, was a concern. Luckily, her dad had a friend who worked in the school who told him he could get her uniform that had been left behind by the alumni.
“Imagine how I looked on the first day of school. My scrawny frame was dressed in oversized faded school uniform.” But Edith didn’t mind. She pushed through it like she did most things — with a smile.
“Having grown up in Limuru — albeit on the barren side of the track — I assumed, like in primary school, everyone would come from around the area. I didn’t realise it was a national school with students from all over the country!” She was slapped by a wave of culture shock.
It was here that she found out about groups of foods. “We would have rice and ndengu for lunch or rice, peas and meat and I had never known you could eat a carbohydrate, protein and vegetable in one meal!”
There were students from wealthy families who had the luxury to skip meals and eat grab; those were her best days. “I would pack my food and theirs into my gut until I would reach that delicate balance between pleasure and pain.”
Sent home for school fees
On the first visiting day, her dad came to see her on his bicycle. She was ecstatic to see him. He had tucked his socks into his trousers and carried with him a large, green plastic paper bag.
In it, there was boiled maize and mandazi that were brown black in colour. “It was only when I saw how others were visited that I felt different. If you have lived like a mouse all your life, you assume everyone else lives like a mouse; until you stumble upon a cat, then a rabbit and oh my an elephant. Then, you realise people live differently.
One of my roommates was visited by both parents, each driving their own car! They then placed a carpet on the grass with bumper to bumper containers of food on display. I would see chapati, pilau, beef stew, chicken and feel intimidated.”
Thankfully, some students noticed she didn’t have much and shared their loot. “This is how I tasted lasagne for the first time in high school.”
Her dad packed his bike and they walked around. “Dad, I am worried about next term’s fees,” Edith looked at him her gaze heavy with anxiety. “Edith, usijali utasoma. I will find a way.”
She knew their situation all too well yet her dad seemed so determined; his voice a form of therapy. Despite his assurance she was sent home every single term after that for lack of school fees.
Once, when she was sent home, she went into a church that was right outside the school gates, knelt down and cried her heart out. A heart that was too heavy to hold. In between her tears she said, “God you can see I am going home. I don’t even know whether they have enough food, let alone school fees.”
After that she got up, walked to Limuru town and asked an uncle of hers for bus fare to go home. “My uncle didn’t have much to spare. He gave me 200 bob.” But when she got home, she found there was no food so they used the balance to get something to eat.
“I sat home and asked myself, is there any reason to stay here?” She felt more of a burden going home to ask for fees when her siblings were sleeping with hollow stomachs. So she went back.
The school admin was understanding after they were appraised of her situation. They told her dad, “You leave her here. We will stay with her as you try to get something,” she told her.
So her dad would walk to corporate institutions asking for help. Plan International offered her a partial scholarship, World Vision contributed a bit and he got another top up from the CDF fund. But the money would be a coin in an ocean.
The balance continued to accumulate. And every once in a while she was still sent home. “Once, I saw a classmate bite into a biscuit and I thought, God I just need the basics. Just soap, some toothpaste and cotton wool to use during my period.”
One time when she reported back to school after being sent home, the headteacher asked her dad, “What are you able to do, so that we can see how to help?” “I did not go to school but I am good with my hands,” he said in Kiswahili.
‘Why are you talking to that man?’
The headteacher clasped her fingers, placing her hands under her chin in deep thought, “There is a building behind the dispensary that needs renovation. You say you can do masonry and carpentry yes?”
“Ok. We can let you work there, without pay, to reduce the fee balance.”
And so her dad joined the workforce at school. He would cycle there, park his bike at the front and get to work. And the gesture moved Edith to tears; to see how far he was willing to go for her to go through school.
Sometimes when he could, he would bring her boiled maize and scorched mandazi to eat. It was on one such day when she was talking to him that a school cop saw her.
“Why are you talking to that man?”
The cop looked him up and down unimpressed with what she thought she saw. Edith didn’t miss a beat, “Because he is my dad.”
“Ati your dad? Are you sure?” ‘As if I would confuse my dad with a stranger on the street’, but she didn’t say this. Instead she said, “Yes. He is my father.”
“Oh! I am so sorry.”
Edith furrowed her brow. Why was she sorry? Was she missing something? The cops words remained embedded in her mind like a trapped fly. ‘I am so sorry..’ She doesn’t know when the transformation happened but after a while when she would see his bike, she would feel sorry for herself.
Time passed until she finally completed high school and excelled. She was called to medical school but she couldn’t get her leaving certificate because she still had a fee balance.
By a stroke of luck, a mistake or a miracle, when she went to clear for a book she had lost, the headteacher said to the secretary, “Ok give Edith her leaving certificate.”
When she had it in her hands, she took to her heels confused that they had given it to her. “I was not going to wait around for them to figure it out.”
In the two year gap between high school and college, Edith scrimped for every coin she could get. The situation at home was still status quo. “We would wake up in the morning and have warm water and leftovers for breakfast, then head to the farm.”
Joining medical school
They would be paid anything between Ksh. 25 to Ksh. 50 for farming in their neighbours land. For lunch their mom would cook white maize in a pool of water with mafuta ya nyama and if they were lucky, potatoes.
In the afternoon, they would be back at the farm with the sun on their backs. “You know, the sun is never too hot when you are desperate for money for food.”
Then they would be back home in the evening for chores and maybe ugali and sukuma wiki. Repeat.
“The only time our diet changed was on Christmas day when we would have chapati, cabbage and soup. Or when mum would stumble upon matumbo which she would cook separately and give to us as a snack.”
When Edith finally joined medical school, she found out about the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) loan and told her dad: “You don’t have to struggle with me anymore.” Her younger siblings were now also in school so she told him to focus on them.
The HELB loan however, was delayed so one day while going for anatomy dissection class her lecturer stopped her, “Young girl, where is your lab coat? You can’t go for dissection without one.” She explained her circumstances to him.
Locum in the morgue
“You know,” he told her, “We usually offer locum in the morgue to needy students. But we don’t give it to ladies. It’s very manual.”
“Try me,” Edith said, “I am no stranger to manual labour. I have carried bags of maize and manure on my back. I can do it.”
He sighed and gave her the look a father gives his 5 year old daughter who asks him for the car keys to drive. But her situation sounded so desperate so he said: “Ok. If we get another lady, then we will let you work. We can only have 3 students for each shift. A shift starts at 5pm and ends at 8am.”
Another lady applied and they started work in December of that year. “Our work was mainly to receive bodies at night, dress them for burial and dispatch them.
Thursdays and Fridays were the busiest. Our first day was a Thursday.” When the supervisor mentioned they had 17 bodies to dress, Edith’s jaw dropped. “Were you spooked?” I asked her.
“Of course. But not so much because I had been exposed to anatomy dissection. But still..”
“Tell me about the first body you dressed..” I prompt.
Prepping the bodies
“So first, when you report to work you lock yourselves in and only open up to receive a body. Then you check the dispatch book to know the different times the families want to pick the bodies. This is to help you arrange the coffins in order of time of dispatch. After that, the dressing begins.
“My first body was a man who weighed about 100kg. I remember staring at him and seeing wads of flesh. He was stiff and we had to put on every item of clothing the relatives had brought. Imagine pulling inner wear up his legs, then passing a vest down his head; and you couldn’t bend him too much because formalin sometimes seeps out and can stain clothing.”
“After we were done, we cleaned his face. But nothing prepared me for the journey from the trolley to his casket. We had to lift him and place him in the coffin. And you don’t just throw people in, you place them and arrange their torso and their limbs.” They did that 17 times over the first night until her back wept.
As with everything in life, they adapted. They became faster and more efficient at prepping the bodies. “Did you ever think of quitting?” I ask.
“Are you kidding? They were paying Ksh. 15,000 a month. That was so much money. I was able to feed my family, pay fees for my younger siblings, buy school books and even save. I couldn’t work there throughout the year because of my classes but I worked every single holiday in campus.”
During their shifts, some people would be nasty to them. “How can young girls like yourselves do such work? You must be smoking weed in there.” Others would sympathise with them and give them 500 bob tips. They didn’t know they were helping to feed a family in Ndeiya.
There was once a relative who told them: “Our sister had braids when she died and in our culture we can’t bury someone with braids. Could you undo them?”
And so they would sit with combs at night and undo hair; in the end they would get a tip of 1000 bob. Once, another person asked them to cut off a bit of hair from a loved one for them to have.
“We looked for scissors, cut for them pieces of hair which we would wrap neatly and give to them.” Another tip. Still there were others who wanted extra make up for their loved ones.
“The mortuary has make-up but some people wanted us to use brands so they would come with their own and describe what they wanted us to do.” More tips. Once in a while they would get difficult people.
“Some relatives bought a suit from Sir Henrys for their loved one. We really struggled to prep their person only for them to come and say they wanted to ascertain that the underwear they bought is the one we put on.” That meant undressing the body for them to see and then redressing them.
Sound that made us run out
One time, during a shift someone brought a body that was warm. They received the body and the family left. They closed the doors to the morgue and placed it on a table where the technicians would put formalin in the body the following day.
“I think the guy had just passed on because he really felt warm. As we maneuvered him on the table, a sudden sound came from him ‘mmmmh’ as if he was agreeing to something someone had said. In a split second, there was no breathing person left in that room.”
They ran out into the darkness, straight for the guard’s house as if he would protect them from the dead.
“After a while we went back and being 3rd year medical students, we were able to check his pulse and look at the pupils. We confirmed that he was truly dead but it was a night I will never forget.”
With the HELB money and the savings from working at the morgue, Edith completed medical school. The siblings who she took through school were able to finish well and help support their parents back home.
After she got employment, she went back to Kotet to enquire about her fee balance, only for them to tell her that the then Minister of Health, Prof George Saitoti had waived all the fee balances. And she was able to get her official school certificate.
She worked and went on to pursue a Masters course in Psychiatry. “Why Psychiatry? Did it have anything to do with your background?” I ask her.
“Initially I was not sure what I wanted to specialise in but whatever it was, it had to be something I was passionate about and something that could serve the underprivileged. In Med school I had an interest in how people behaved and how they think. So, psychiatry. Whatever it was I did not want my motivation to be the pursuit of money.”
Considering how you grew up, why would you not want the money?
“It’s cliche but money is not everything. Growing up, we had a rich neighbour who had huge tracts of land. He owned several cars and had built a big house. When our tin lamp would go off, the light from his house would leak through the cracks of ours to help us see at night. He is actually the person who brought electricity to the area.
“Once, he came to buy kai apples from my dad and his kids accompanied him. I would look at them in amazement. They looked so clean and shiny with really nice shoes and they spoke English! If money had a look, theirs was it.
“The only problem was they kept getting robbed. Thieves would frequent their home with guns and because life is full of plot twists, he and his wife became estranged and he remarried. His second wife was murdered and the family broke down after that. Years later, he committed suicide.”
This situation made her ask herself over and over, if money was truly everything, their neighbour might have been alive today. “I don’t mean to say money is not good, it is simply not the motivation for my decisions.”
Helping the less fortunate
Other than medical practice she is involved in community projects to increase access to health care. “Once, when my grandma was unwell, I had to put her on a donkey cart to take her to the health centre which was so far away and then bring her back home. She later died.” Because of this, Edith looks for opportunities to bring healthcare closer to the less fortunate.
“I would have wanted to go back to Ndeiya to give back but it’s not possible because I live and work in Eldoret. That is where I focus my energy now. Anytime I see a woman in need, I see my mother; when I see a young lady in need, I see my sisters. I have looked for grants for training of nurses and clinical officers to be able to give quality care in the villages.
“It would be amazing if everyone could afford to come to Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital to see a specialist but the reality — like it was for me — is there are people who can barely eat, let alone get fare to come to hospital. And if they come, they cannot afford consultation. That’s why she is fighting in her own little way to bring care to their level. “That is how my background has informed my practise.”
Out of her 7 siblings they are still supporting 4 by educating their children. She was also able to build her parents a home and still supports them. “Do you fear poverty?”
“No. But I am a miser so I struggle to do things for myself. If I buy an expensive dress, I feel guilty and wonder what that money could have done for my sister or just someone in need. If I go for dinner, I wonder how many meals that can buy for someone else. It’s a delicate balance for me.
“My kids know my story and I take them to visit my mum and their cousins. I try to ensure I don’t over compensate and give them everything I did not have.”
“When I go to work and see the plaque on my door that reads Dr Edith Kamaru Kwobah, MBcHB, Mmed, PhD, HOD, Department of Mental Health and I look at this girl from Ndeiya I know that nothing is impossible. If my father could take me to Loreto Limuru with nothing, then nothing is impossible.”
The writer, Dr Susan Adongo, is an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. She writes about the experiences of her colleagues in the medical fraternity.