A friend of mine – Jo – whatsapped me one morning and said, “My daughter died today, four years ago.” I saw this message when I was coming from the gym, endorphins thumping in my ear. I was surprised because I didn’t even know she had lost a child. To be honest, I didn’t want to start my day talking about dead children. Most mornings I don’t want to start the day with stories like this. I want someone to send me a video of a chubby Chinese baby dancing in diapers or smoking cigarettes, or a video of someone – preferably someone fat and black – falling in the rain. Because there is no fun in watching a thin white person fall in the rain, it’s like eating carrots.
Regardless, I said the kind things you are supposed to say when someone tells you something as devastating like this. Then she started typing and typing, so I sat in the car and read her long thread. She was planning to go back to Aga Khan and thank the mortician. I say, “Oh, the mortician?” She says, yes, because when she lost her daughter the mortician treated her like a “four year old.” He made her giggle even at that dark time. He treated her dead daughter like “she would wake up.” She wrote, “The worst was when I took her burial clothes but he was off duty and so he said wait for me and he came to attend to her on that day and the following day even when he was still off duty; he prepared her, dressed her up like I wanted and handed her over to me, not in a white box like I had requested because I wanted to see her as my baby and not her in a wooden box like a dead thing. The white fascinator fell over her small face. She was so pretty. My world had stopped but I found strength in who he was.”
“What’s this guy’s name and do you think he can agree to be interviewed?” I wrote because that story reminded me of Amerigo Bonasera. You know who Amerigo Bonasera is, right?
One of the greatest books ever written after the Bible is The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. If you are the type who’s too busy to read a book you will watch the movie that starts with Amerigo Bonasera – a mortician – asking Don Corleone, the Godfather, for a favour on the day his daughter is getting married because an Italian will not refuse a favour on the day his daughter is getting married. Bonasera wants justice for his daughter who was physically molested by some “American boys.” He went to court but the American courts refused to give him justice, so he’s there – hat in hand – to seek Italian justice from The Don. But first he has to offer friendship by kissing the Godfather’s ring.
Don: “Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? We’ve known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee. Let’s be frank here, you never wanted my friendship, you were afraid to be in my debt. You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, you made a good living, the police protected you and there were courts of law. You didn’t need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say, “Don Corleone, give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even call me Godfather. Instead you come into my house the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder for money.
Bonasera: I ask for justice.
Don: That is not justice. Your daughter is alive.
The Godfather tells him that he doesn’t need payment for the justice he will mete, but that one day he might or might not call on Bonasera for his help. Years later, Sonny, his volatile and impulsive son is gunned down under a hail of bullets by the Barzini hitmen paid by the Tattaglia Family and the Godfather calls on Bonasera to fix the body of his son, “I don’t want his mother to see him like that.”
As I go to interview Elkanah Mwinami, I feel like I’m going to meet Amerigo Bonasera, he who dignifies death. When I get to Aga Khan I realise that I have never known where the morgue is. I call Elkanah and he tells me to meet him outside the main laboratory because he also works in the lab as an assistant.
I don’t know what to expect of him. No, actually I do. I expect someone gaunt; a narrow face with a sinister nose. Someone with a thousand yard stare. I expect him to drag me to a smoking zone where he will drag at a cheap cigarette and talk about bodies like they are planks of wood. Dark lips. A sloping forehead, wide, but not as big as mine. I expect someone who can’t string together a whole sentence in English. I expect someone with alcoholic breath and red capillaries running in his teary eyes. Someone who coughs a lot without covering his mouth. A haunted-looking man with bony knuckles and dark nails on hands that handle bodies without souls. Zero eye contact. To mean, I went armed with prejudice.
He’s standing there, looking at his phone. He has on a white lab coat. He’s in jeans and loafers because it’s a Friday. He’s of average height, maybe 5’4” at the very most. Wait, that’s only average in Congo. He has a prominent stubble. His forehead isn’t wide as I thought it would be but it runs into bald. He doesn’t smile easily, but he laughs unexpectedly. His profile picture on Facebook is of him in a suit and tie, he looks like he shaved for that picture. That picture has 116 Likes and on it someone asks with his tongue in cheek. “Mheshimiwa fulani, have you gone for the swearing in?” Another called Maina has written, “Mbunge wa eneo gani?” and he has replied, “Canaan.”
Another – a lady – has written, “By the way, I don’t know why you don’t want to visit me in the ward, but if you want, come with this suit not a lab coat.” I think she’s being flirtatious or has dark humour because if Elkanah visits you in your ward wearing his lab coat, he’s coming to pick a dead body. Hopefully not yours.
We shake hands. We walked down the hallway, past the brick building that houses radiology department, at the end of the corridor, where the brick building meets another building is a small space that can’t fit two people. Here we wedge ourselves through that onto another corridor and the morgue is there with a blue door. We push through the next door and into a room with seats lined against the wall. This is the viewing room. Here, Elkanah wheels bodies in and the kith and kin gather around to view and pray. There is a picture on the wall donated by Farida and Irfan Keshavjee of a lady with one teardrop on her eye and a dove perched on her hand. The dove’s eyes are closed. Even though the room has chairs and two wall hangings our voices somehow echo in this room, which says that even though this room has furniture it still remains empty. You can’t fill a room that embodies such sorrow and loss with anything but prayer and hope. Many people have sat and stood in this room with heavy hearts and with great sorrow and they have looked down at their departed ones. This room, with all it’s chairs looking into each other, is the theater of death.
Elkanah grew up in Nakuru where he was born. In 1999, after high school he hopped onto a bus and came to Nairobi for the first time to look for a job. He worked as a loader in a warehouse at Kenya Cereals Board and then worked in a family business for a bit. Then he got a job as a lab technician at Aga Khan.
“I didn’t look for this job,” he says. “I wouldn’t have seen myself working in a hospital. I hated biology in school, hated the smell of Lysol, the cleaning solution. When I started my job as an assistant I was asked if I was okay to sometimes help in the morgue with pathology. I thought it was interesting, odd, but interesting, I said I would.” He laughs. “Growing up I would never come near a body, especially the body of a woman because they wore white and the image would remain in my head for so long.” He’s eloquent, confident and comfortable with English.
His typical day starts in the lab where he prepares solutions and equipment ready for the technicians. He says he’s not a typical mortician because they are not that busy. “We can go a whole week here without losing a patient.” Besides it’s expensive to keep bodies there for long so most people transfer them to other morgues. He always makes checks in the morgue to make sure the freezers are working fine and for notifications of any bodies that need picking from the wards.
“Do you know what the bodies who come here die of?” I ask.
“It’s not necessary that I know,” he says. “They die of death.” My laughter echoes in the room. “I don’t need to know the cause of death unless it’s something contagious.” He is married. He met a girl a years back and dated her. I ask him how that went; when did he tell her that he worked in a morgue?
“First date,” he says. “We had met for coffee one evening and I mentioned that I work in the department of pathology, that we deal with testing patients when they pass on. That I take care of them. She was scared.” He chuckles. “ She asked what does that mean? I told her we work with people who are dead, in a morgue. Some of these things you say them at the beginning, you don’t wait. So she knew me from the beginning.”
“Were you scared that she would be spooked and not see you again?”
“No,” he says. “ I would have been scared if I saw what I do as less.”
He has five children, the first three are from a previous relationship, the two – seven and eight years old – from his current. He says they know daddy works in a hospital. They come to work to see him and wait for him in this waiting room. With over 15 years experience working in the morgue he has seen hundreds of bodies, dealt with more bereaved families. He has seen how death changes people and how they live thereafter, with themselves and with others.
“Does it become easy?” I ask. “Is death something you have come to embrace and has that reduced your fear of dying?”
“No, it’s never easy.Every death is unique, and that’s what is fascinating about it, that no two cases are the same. But you know something funny?”
“No,” I say. I know I didn’t have to answer but I like to answer rhetorical questions. It’s my way of revolting against norms.
“There is always hope in death,” he says.
It was after his tea break last year when he was notified that he had to go to the wards to pick a body. The gentleman had just died under an hour ago. He was a young guy, maybe 35, recently married, two children, the breadwinner. So he goes up to the ward and in the room he finds the wife completely hysterical. “She was crying next to the body of her husband, screaming saying, ‘no, no, no, you haven’t gone,’ so I stand in the corner of the room and wait. It was almost an emergency case because she had high blood pressure and the doctors were worried she would harm herself. Anyway, she collapsed and was carried out of the room.” With the help of the nurse they heaved the body on a stretcher and wheeled it to the morgue.
“I constantly thought about her and how sad that situation was, three days later she comes to pick the body with relatives and friends. The body was in this room here and I stood outside the room and could hear a lot of wailing and crying and later she collapsed again. It was very hard, such a young woman, now a widow at barely 32-years of age with children. I didn’t think she would make it but a few months later I ran into her in the corridor and I said hello and she looked strong and healthy. I was amazed. Looking at that woman I realised that there is hope for everyone even when there seems no sign of hope. Life continues even in death.”
“Do people judge you, think of you as odd, inhuman because you do what you do?”
“People think we are crazy, that we are alcoholics and that we are haunted,” he laughs. “When you meet me outside the hospital can you tell what I do? Don’t I support the football team you support? Don’t I have children I worry about like you? And isn’t my money good at any shop? Look…” he retrieves a thousand shillings from his wallet. “When I spend this money, will you know it came from the guy who works in a morgue? Does my thousand shilling note have a stain?”
There is some noise of something being pulled outside in the corridor, so I motion for him to stop talking for a bit because of the recorder. Behind us, above the line of small windows above, staff laugh and josh even when in the next room people lie in freezers.
Elkanah is on Linkedin, as a lab assistant at AKHUN. There is a recommendation that reads: Elkanah is a very bright man, principles and seasoned when it comes to trade union matters. He’s also on Twitter. Joined in November 2013. His profile reads, “adventist man, workers crusader and family man.” Yup. Us SDA people are many in this city. He has three followers and he follows three people. Guess who are these three he follows? You won’t. It’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Peter Kenneth and some guy called Sammy Ngaru “Mr Walker,” who from his profile picture is a medic at Aga Khan. With these three followers I doubt Elkanah is serious about reaching Canaan.
He has tweeted only once since he joined twitter, most likely the very same day he joined Twitter and was wondering how this beast works. He tweeted @Diokwach; He said, Hi@Diokwach. Diokwach said nothing. Diokwach is one of those guys you tweet and tell hi and they never say hi back. They are too cool to say hi back. I bet Diokwach isn’t SDA otherwise he would have said hi back. Most SDA people would say hi back if you hey-ed them on Twitter. Or on the road. That’s just how we were raised. Diokwach if you are reading this be a sport and please say hi back to @Elkanamwinami.
“What’s the hardest part of your job?” I ask when the sound dies down.
He sighs and slides further into his chair. “Babies.” Puffs his cheeks. “Dealing with a small baby is the hardest thing for me. It doesn’t matter how many times I have done it, when I hear I have to collect a baby I have to always just prepare myself for it.” He rubs his stomach absentmindedly. He has a small paunch which he seems very proud of.
“The babies between one and five years are the hardest because of the pain they cause to everyone, even those who didn’t know them. It’s painful to pick a baby from his parents and put them in a freezer and they have to go home without their baby.” We sit there in brief silence. “The difference with working here as opposed to standalone morgues like the private ones like Montezuma and the likes is that sometimes we know these children, maybe they were born here, or we have seen them come for treatment here, we know them, we know their parents and for us to see them dead is just very hard to handle.”
“Why do you think God lets children die?” I blurt out.
“I don’t know,” he stares at me. “ I don’t know.” More staring. Then he looks away. “ I don’t know why God would bring a child to this world, make them suffer and then let them die at 4-years of age.”
“Do you think about your own death?” I ask.
‘I do,” he says. “I know I will die, I don’t know when but I know I will. It’s not easier because I work here, you know.”
“When you think about it what do you think about?”
“Whether my body will be handled the same way I have handled the rest in my career.”
“And how do you want your body handled?”
“The best way…with respect., will I be well presented to my loved ones?” he says. “I mentioned that the people who lie in the freezer next door are patients. I treat them with the dignity of patients because they are special to someone, they are fathers and brothers and mothers and sisters and grandmothers.”
“They have left clothes behind, and photographs and memories and pets and they had favorite songs that will continue playing in their absence…”
“Yes,” he says cutting me off, thankfully, because I was going to take off on that thread.
The one case that he has never forgotten was when he was called from leave. His colleague, a staff at the hospital had drowned. He had to come back and prepare the body and assist the pathologist with a post-mortem. “I have never forgotten how it seemed odd that someone I had seen only days ago was now on our table, dead. This was someone who was never sick or anything, someone I had spoken to just that week.”
“Death seems to still surprise you,” I say.
“ It does,” he says simply and doesn’t expound. He starts to say something but his phone trills and he looks at it and looks at me, “may I?” I wave him on and he answers it.
“Do you ever carry work home?” I ask it as a very dark and inappropriate joke but thankfully he misses it or maybe he just ignores me all together because he answers something totally different. “I mean do you have dreams of dead people sometimes.”
“Never,” he says. “The only time I think of work when at home is when I’m planning my day the next day. Otherwise I have ordinary dreams which I don’t remember the next morning.”
He tells me of death that is avoidable. Like drunk driving. He says it’s the most useless way to die because all it requires is to make different choices. He sometimes sees people who succumb to death from driving drunk and he looks at them lying on the cold slab with cuts and bruises and blood that long clotted in their brains and heart and he says it’s the most selfish way to die because you leave behind people with pain.
“Has someone ever come back to life in your morgue?” I ask.
He laughs. “Never. I have heard of people who wake up in public morgues. I think these are drunks who are picked and thrown in there and later wake up. Once we put you in the freezer you are not waking up, nobody who gets in that room on their backs leaves on their feet.”
I ask him if he thinks when people die they still hang around for a bit, their spirit remains and if so if he feels death in the morgue, or the idea of it. He says he doesn’t feel death in the morgue. The morgue is mostly quiet. Nothing moves there apart from him. There are no spirits hanging around idly. This is not some movie. People die and they are finished.
I tell him about lores I have heard before from my people. How sometimes dead folk refuse to abide. There was one I heard of this guy who died and when his body was put in a car ready to be transported back to shags in a convoy, the car refused to start. How the driver started the car severally and the car just wouldn’t start. A mechanic was called who checked the car and was puzzled when he couldn’t see any mechanical problem with the car. Everybody was puzzled. Then some old man with a collapsed hat said that the boy didn’t want to go to shags, he was unhappy about something. The mother was called and she came into the car and sat near the coffin and talked to him in a hushed pleading tone.
I wasn’t there but I think she said something like, Son, don’t do this. Please. We have a long journey home and we are ready to leave. The sky is pregnant and it will start raining anytime now and we don’t want this rain to find us here. So please kindly allow us to leave and not bring shame to our family. If it’s this Probox you don’t want to be carried in we can change cars if we can. We could transfer you to the Mercedes but that car has no space, Auntie Getti decided to carry her utensils and her wooden coffee table, so please just bear with us son, allow us to start this journey, please.
When she finished talking to him the pastor prayed and the driver was asked to start the car and the car started this time and they went to shags in peace.
Elkanah chuckles when I tell him this story because I’ve dramatized it a bit. “I see you are from my sides of the country.”
“Well, sort of, I’m from South Nyanza, not Western.”
“Those beliefs are there and unfortunately I don’t know if they are true or not.” he says. “What I know is that every person has a right to faith in whatever they chose. Let nobody lie to you that it’s only Africans who have beliefs. White people and Asians also have strong beliefs. Some stronger than us. I have seen white men who have requested me to leave this room so that they can stay alone with their deceased and they stay here for five hours talking to their loved one. There are people who believe they can communicate with the dead. There are people who visit the graveyard with flowers and spend hours there, sitting there talking to their departed. Why? Beliefs are complicated and everyone is entitled to what they believe.”
“Would you prepare the body of your own child?” I ask.
“Yes.” he says. “I don’t believe anyone else would prepare it the best way like I could. I think that would be the last thing I can do for them. But there is only one body I can’t handle; my mother’s body, for the reason that we are Africans and out of respect we can’t see our mother’s nakedness.”
“Is your mom alive?”
“Who handled her body?”
“A colleague called Katana, he no longer works here. He was the one who trained me, everything I learned I learnt from him.” he says. “When my mother died I was working here. The hospital extended a courtesy to me and allowed me to keep her body here. Her body stayed in the freezer here for over a week and each morning I would come to work and open the freezer and look at her. The most difficult part was working, going about my business knowing that my mother was in the freezer in the room. It was very difficult. I didn’t cry the whole time, until the day of the burial. That was the first time I ever cried in my adult life and it’s never happened since.”
I ask him what he has learnt working as a mortician for 15-years.
“No deaths are ever the same. I never handle anyone’s grief as the same. There is always a background that you don’t know of. I have also learnt never to pretend that I understand anyone’s pain. I never tell them sorry, I have learnt to say ‘take heart’. God always knows why things happen but you can’t tell that to someone grieving because some people don’t believe in God, so you have to be very careful what you tell them. The best you can do is give them hope and sometimes that means you just stand there respectfully and say nothing.”
“Silence is powerful,” I say. “It sometimes says more than words.”
“Exactly,” he says.
Elkanah is 43-years now. He doesn’t want to retire doing what he’s doing now. As many people in their 40’s do, he’s asking himself, what next? What can I do that’s mine? He says it’s tempting to walk away from employment and open his own thing that is in line with what he does now but he believes that “it would be a waste of life to have one experience in life.” He wants to raise his children, he says and give them a better education than he had. I ask him what he wants of them and he says, “Let kids choose their own paths, don’t dream for your children. I don’t want to tell them what to do as long as they are happy doing whatever they choose.”
“Has working in this ‘dark’ environment changed how you live your life?” I ask him.
He thinks about it for a tad. “No. Have you ever met a chest doctor or physician who smokes? Or a tailor who has a tear in his clothes? Of course they are many. Why would a doctor smoke and not even exercise when they know the dangers better than anyone else? We will all die no matter how careful we are. You will eat vegetables and avoid fat but you will end up here. If your heart loves meat, eat meat. There is no guarantee that avoiding meat or alcohol or bread will prolong your life. Enjoy life, be happy. Also don’t let other people dictate the life that you live, or wait for their approval, you will live like a slave. If I lived for others’ approval I wouldn’t be working here, I would be so scared of what people think of me.”
He’s active in the trade union circles. Occasionally he plays football at a field near City Market. He loves football, is a great supporter of AFC Leopards and Arsenal. He isn’t much of a drinker, but on the occasions that he drinks with his friends he drinks a Pilsner. Today, being Friday, he will conclude his sabbath readings and participate in sabbath school the next day, Saturday. He doesn’t work Saturdays, so please try and not be his client then.
“What do you fear the most?”
“Death,” he says. “It’s because of how we are raised as human beings; we are raised to fear fear death. Death makes everyone equal. Over the years I have seen many people in that freezer, from the very wealthy, the who’s whos to the unknowns. It doesn’t matter who you are, there are times that a powerful person is on my table, dead, and I think to myself, this man is helpless now -with all that power and money he doesn’t even have a name anymore, he’s called a body.”
“I’m surprised that doesn’t change how you live your life…”
“Well, it makes you humble,” he says. “Makes you know that you are nothing really. You can go. Nobody can buy immunity to death. Two things you can’t win – God and death.”
The best part of his job is when someone bereaved tells him “thank you.” “It’s better than money because it’s genuine,” he says. “‘Thank you’ is better than ‘please’, you know why?”
“No.” I want to giggle, answering rhetorical questions. Surely, I must annoy him.
“Because ‘please’ is mostly a matter of courtesy, but if someone is in sorrow or pain because they have lost someone and they tell you thank you with tears in their eyes they mean it.”
His phone rings again and he tells the other person that he’s on his way. I guess I have to let him go. I ask him, “When you die, like we all will, do you have a preferred freezer here that you would like to be put into?”
He chuckles. “Oh, yes. So we have two freezers, each with three compartments. One of them is newer than the other. That’s where I would prefer to be kept. I have a favorite freezer and even my colleagues know it. I told them that if I die and someone is in that freezer they should be removed to allow me to be there.”
“It’s not a big deal. It’s like your favourite spot in church!” he laughs as we leave the room. “Don’t you always go to sit in your favorite place in church? Same thing!”
Outside, in the corridor, we make small talk. You know, the weather and things. I ask him if I can get in the morgue to look around. He says no. I say, I will be fast, just a quick look. He says that’s against policy. Oh well. I shake his hand in goodbye and tell him it was a pleasure and refreshing talking to him. He says, “It was very nice.” Then I say, “We shall meet again, I’m sure, hopefully when I still have a pulse.”
He laughs heartily. I made the mortician laugh! I’m done. I’m validated. I don’t care if Tamms never laughs at my jokes.