On the way to the Kenyatta National Hospital Casualty department, in a fenced in compound, a willowy Somali-looking man in a white kanzu and a woman in black hijab are praying side by side on mats spread out on the brown grass. He cups his hand before him, head bowed, eyes closed. They face Mecca and The Maker. They must have a patient in. Everybody has a patient in. As I shuffle by, I wonder how many times the words “Lord”, “God”, “Allah”, “Jehovah”, are uttered each minute at KNH. Probably more times than in the biggest church in Nairobi any given Sunday. Which makes KNH a church in itself. A church of suffering, plea, grace, healing and mortality.
The large metallic kone elevator is full. In the corner is a man lying on a bed, covered in white sheet up to his chin. He lies there stiff as a flag post. With him are two attending nurses. The man’s eyes are shut. His cheeks are gathered a small pool of shadows. We opt to take the next lift. It’s approaching 6pm on Sunday evening, the tail end of visiting hours. There are throngs of people coming down staircases, saying their goodbyes as they walk loudly past. I see a child in a suit holding the mother’s hand, trying to keep up. It depresses me to see a child dressed in a suit. It’s like those guys who dress pets. Doctors squeeze swiftly past us, a blur of white with their stethoscopes garroting them. Angels in scrubs.
On the fifth floor, we head to Surgical Ward 5B. The women’s section. Someone who knows someone, who knows someone had told me, that there is an impoverished woman who is physically disabled in Ward 5B, she has breast cancer and is scheduled for a mastectomy. I hound misery. I’m with Wanjiru (her first time in KNH) the lady who had put me through the someone who knows the other someone who doesn’t want to be mentioned here because the Government of Kenya might just fire her because she isn’t supposed to speak to “the media” without authorization.
We walk into Ward 5B and there is a group of people gathered at the furthest bed near the window. The sun is slowly exiting stage left. Opposite is another small group at a bed. Next to the bed is a lady sound asleep. I watch closely to see if her chest is moving. It is. The rest of the beds are empty. Empty beds in a hospital can mean good or bad news. Either the occupants lived or died. Ward 5B smells of vacuity. I don’t want to call it emptiness because then that would imply that the space is occupied by air. It feels like a vortex without gravity, where souls pass through to another world. Like a holding area where your case is deliberated upon by people with wings and harps. It’s like the Rubicon. Yes, that’s the word I was looking for, the Rubicon.
There is a lady on bed 12. She’s a small ball on an even smaller bed. She’s sitting up, but she seems more hunched forward, her head resting on her hand. The troubles in her head seem numerous enough that they’ve weighted her head down. I’m familiar with that look. Towards the end of my mom’s life I would catch her in that position, head bent down, full of thoughts of death, of what would happen to us after she was gone, how long after would my dad remarry, what would happen to her clothes. A head full of flickering thoughts.
The lady has a yellow scarf and some old fleece jumper with a frayed and dirty collar.
She’s the only one in the ward not being visited today.
“It must be her,” Wanjiru whispers. We walk over and approach her, she raises her head like it’s made of ballast. Her wide eyes look like sunflowers that have been in the sun for too long. Her lips are chapped. Her skin is pale, that unhealthy paleness that comes with poverty or sickness or both. “Habari madhe?” I say in a whisper because that ward commands something in you. She mumbles, “Mzuri.” I ask her if she’s Jane Kavaya. “Ndiye mimi”, she says in a feeble faraway voice that seems to come from under the old fleece jumper. We gingerly lower ourselves onto the edge of the adjacent bed.
I introduce Wanjiru and myself. She slowly sips us in through a wooden straw made of cynicism. She asks, “Nyinyi ni wa nani?” And before we can find the appropriate response she says, “Nyinyi ni wa Mutuku?” Wanjiru says no and tries to explain our presence there. She doesn’t seem convinced. She seems crushed that we are not from Mutuku.
We tell her pole kwa ugonjwa and without warning, she raises one side of her jumper and shows us her left breast. Wanjiru gasps. A short quick gasp as if someone drove a sharp needle in her thumb. Maybe because of Wanjiru’s reaction she pulls down her jumper. But I see it. In that brief revelation of her breast, I see what cancer looks like.
Her left breast is the size of her head – and her head is the size of a decent watermelon. I’m no doctor, but it could be that the cancer enlarged her breast. It looks engorged, like something within it is straining to burst through. The colour of her breast isn’t the same colour as her face. It has these numerous veins running all over it like a web of deceit. It would be unfair to say that it looked jarring, because what was jarring I guess, was the fact that this 60 year old woman battling breast cancer tossed away her vulnerability to show perfect strangers her sick breast. I don’t know, but I felt indebted.
She is from Masaku. She has a 25 year old daughter, who in turn has a seven year old kid. She has had polio since she was a child and is physically disabled. Last year she fell sick. When you fall sick in shags you go to the local dispensary, where you are given Panadol by some clinical officer whose diagnosis is a guess as to what you could be suffering from, and then you are sent home to get well. You don’t get well. You keep falling sick. Your back is rubbish. The pain curls around your ribs. You don’t sleep well. You lie in your dark house during the day, with goats stopping by at the door to stare into this dark pit that has swallowed you. Someone suggests you should go to KNH and there they discover that you have breast cancer after a battery of tests. You need to get admitted but there is no bed. So you go back to Masaku and come back after a few days. You get bed 12.
Number 12 could be a good thing. Think 12 disciples or the 12 tribes of Israel or the Greeks who imagined 12 tribes on Mount Olympus or the Shi’a Muslims who listed 12 ruling Imams who followed Prophet Muhammad. The number 12 could work for her. Or not.
The completely bewildering thing about meeting Jane is that she doesn’t seem to know she has cancer. Sure, she says ‘watakata hii’ to refer to her breast, but she seems oblivious of the disease that’s necessitating the mastectomy. I ask her how she is feeling and she complains of pains in her lower back and her ribs, and nausea when she eats. She doesn’t speak fluent Swahili, so sometimes she says stuff in Kikamba, most of which gets lost in translation. She keeps asking me, “Wewe ni wa nani?”, finally I tell her, “Mimi ni wa mbali.”
Around the bed at the far end, the group is now praying loudly in Kikuyu over an equally loud TV from the reception area in the distance. On Jane’s bedside is a squashed packet of ribena, a roll of tissue paper, Colgate kadogo and at the foot of the bed an orange washing basin and bathroom sandals. I wonder where her Bible is.
What strikes me is her loneliness. She seems so lonely. Like she has been abandoned there at the hospital. I ask her if she has been visited by family and she says no. Her uncle came the previous day. If she’s 60, I wonder how old her uncle is. I don’t ask.
She isn’t on WhatsApp obviously. I wonder how many times her phone rings in a day, and if she even has airtime to call. There is no TV in the room or a book to read. And when people come to visit other patients she just sits alone on her bed, alone with her enlarged, cancer-ridden breast and her thoughts. I wondered how that was; not to have family around you during such a time; to sit there alone and not have anyone pray with you. Or to tell you that you will be fine. All you do is sit there and wait all alone for them to cut your breast. I wondered if she thought of death. And how often. Or if she was scared, and what scared her the most.
I asked her if she prays and she said she does. “Mimi ni Mkristo.” Her head drops back. Head heavy with uncertainty. She keeps adjusting what I want to believe is her foot but the way it’s placed it could be anything. Polio is awkward.
“My mom was called Jane”, I hear myself blurt out at some point. I don’t know why I felt the need to tell her that. It is unnecessary, and easily the most foolish thing I will utter by her sick bed. I can’t comprehend my actions. Maybe I’m desperate to fill the pockets of silence that she sometimes hands out to us, when she stares down and recedes to a place we could never comprehend. In hindsight maybe I was desperate to establish some kinship by nomenclature because we couldn’t sufficiently answer the question she persistently asked of us: “Wewe ni wa nani?”
Nonetheless, when I uttered those words I saw, from the corner of my eye, Wanjiru slowly turn to stare at me incredulously. Only then did I realise that I had used past tense (“alikuwa anaitwa Jane”). I prayed that she wouldn’t ask me more about my mom because then I would have to tell her that she died, and you don’t want to tell someone sick, ailing from cancer that they have the same name as a dead person. Foot in mouth. Thankfully she just smiled. A smile that needed lots of ironing.
Before we leave we ask her if she has bills pending and she says her uncle had paid 25K. We ask her if she needs something, food, anything, she shakes her head.
She only asks us to pray for her.
If you will be praying tonight, or tomorrow, include Jana Kavaya of KNH’s Ward 5B Bed 12, in your prayers. Pray so that the Lord can offer her serenity to accept the things she can’t change, because God knows there is a hell lot she has no control over now. Pray for her to get courage to change the things she can, and the wisdom for her to know the difference. Pray for Jane as she faces the knife and stands at the edge of that daunting Rubicon.
PS: Jane is scheduled for surgery this Friday