Three Kenyan Stories

2009
Murata, Ariana

Night falls. The mosquito net forms a gossamer cloud around me as I nestle under the blanket, listening to the rain. Thunder roars and a crackle of lightning shatters the darkness. Faint strains of benga music drift in from the street. Are the Kenyans dancing even on a night like tonight?

Thunder booms, tolling for those ravaged by Kenya’s HIV epidemic. Lightning sizzles, exploding like the post election violence that has ripped through the nation. Children and young adults lie in coffins, their lives and Kenya’s future devastated by machetes and disease.

Kenyans dance to benga and hip hop. They eat nyama choma, and when there is none left, they eat ugali. The air simmers with the fragrance of sweet mango and ripe avocado. There is always room for one more in the crowded hut, one more at the table. Kenyans laugh and dance because they rejoice in life.

There will be three bolts of lightning tonight, connected with three Kenyan stories. It is my eighth week as a medical volunteer with Family AIDS Care and Education Services (FACES). I have been battling against HIV-sometimes with success, often with failure. I lie awake, thinking about a woman, a man and a baby, tied together in life-and death-by the spectre of HIV.

STORY ONE - THE WOMAN’S SCAR

Is the woman listening to the thunderstorm tonight?

A tortuous scar marred her pretty face. The woman fingered the scar gently. We sat in her mud hut, shaded from the scorching sun, and listened as she told her story.

Her first husband was a fisherman from the Luo tribe. He would follow the Nile perch up and down the coast of Lake Victoria. Each year, fishermen died by drowning or by a hippopotamus’ jagged teeth. Her first husband died too, wasting away in his bed. Following the Luo tradition, the woman was inherited by her husband’s brother. She lived with him and his other wives, until he too dwindled away. The woman moved to Kisumu, and married the local witch doctor.

“Then this happened,” she said in Luo, pointing to the scar on her face.

The vesicular rash of shingles-a sign of Stage 2 AIDS as defined by the WHO. The woman went to a clinic to get treatment. At the clinic, she was diagnosed with HIV. The woman displayed no emotion. It was already a challenge to find food and to survive. HIV was just another burden for her to bear.

“We have your medicines,” I said, holding out the bottles of anti-retrovirals. “You need to take them to stay healthy.”

There was sudden panic in her dark eyes. The witch doctor did not believe in these medicines. He believed only in his own herbs and concoctions. He had found her HIV medicines in the past, and thrown them away.

Two small children ran into the hut. The woman embraced them joyfully.

“I will bring them to the clinic to be tested,” the woman promised. “Perhaps next week, when my husband is away for the day. He will be very angry if he knows where I have been.”

The next time we made a home visit, the woman was gone. She had missed her scheduled clinic appointment. Her hut was empty. No one knew where the family had moved.

This was commonplace, as I soon learned. Families would move from hut to hut, from slum to slum, constantly migrating. Taking their burdens and scars with them as they went.

STORY TWO - THE MAN’S CASSAVA

On Mfangano Island, we brought medicines to the man. He had two wives and seven children. His first wife was HIV negative, while the second had recently tested positive. All of his children were healthy.

The man was a fisherman, until his nets were destroyed by the post election violence. He now did construction work. His monthly income was 3,000 Kenyan shillings, around $40. His first wife earned a small sum by making home brew. The family was often close to starvation. Their regular staple was cassava, a tuberous root.

He offered tea. I accepted, not realizing what this ritual might mean to the man and his family.

There was no teapot and no sugar. A single cup of tea was produced, rich with luxurious milk. The first wife placed a bowl of cassava and a plate of lentils onto the table. She then disappeared from the room.

A scrawny kitten begged on the floor. A naked toddler stuffed pieces of cassava into his mouth, staring at me with hollow eyes. The rest of the family was conspicuously absent.

The cassava crunched deliciously in my teeth. As I looked at the food, I slowly grasped that the family would eat whatever I left behind. The man, smiling, asked if I wanted more.

Humbled by his generosity, I blinked back tears. Here was a man with a terminal illness, who had watched many of his friends and family die. Each day was a struggle to survive.

The man, who had so little, was offering me everything that he had.

STORY THREE - THE SILENT BABY

In the clinic, the HIV-positive baby rested in the arms of its aunt. It was small and shrivelled, and had weary eyes. It weighed 12 pounds, a bit more than the birth weight of most infants. It had suffered much during its short life, more than many do in a whole lifetime. Its mother had passed away, leaving the baby in its aunt’s care.

“How old is the baby?” I asked.

“Almost eight months,” answered the aunt. She did not know if the baby was feeding well. She was overwhelmed with caring for her own large family.

The baby was severely dehydrated and malnourished. It would have to be hospitalized. I threaded an intravenous line into its tiny vein. The baby did not struggle or cry. Instead, it stared out at the world silently-only a few months old, but having given up on life long ago.

EPILOGUE

The thunderstorm is abating. I will be going back to Canada tomorrow, back to my life of privilege and hope. These stories will be carried home with me, never to be forgotten. They have shown me the darkest valleys of life, the shadows of poverty, disease and violence. But they have also shown me the brightest peaks in life-generosity and human kindness-that will be treasured forever. I whisper a silent prayer for the woman, man and baby, and for all of those living in Kenya. The safari grasses ripple, and the cradle of mankind rocks gently in the night.

Theme: Death and Dying | Décès et le mourir
Theme: Family | Famille
Theme: Health Care Delivery | Prestation des soins de santé
theme: Patients | Patients

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.

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