The following morning when I woke up, the six weeks I spent on admission at the KNH hospital with my baby girl replayed in my head repeatedly. The more I thought about her treatment, the more I wondered if the drugs had triggered the condition. Pendo had been readmitted a few days after being discharged from the same ward where we had spent a week. Returning here for a second time was depressing. One week had felt like eternity- I didn’t know how long this second round would last. Twenty four hours at most-I hoped. But the hours ran into days, days into weeks and before I knew it, a month had crawled by. Then I stopped counting: instead I snapped my knuckles every day and said to Pendo, ‘tomorrow we’ll get out of here alive’. It’s all I could do to keep the candle of hope burning. Having called off my K.U studies to attend to her, I would be here as long as she needed me to be. I just wanted her out of the ward alive and kicking.
I remembered the cold night after night, scrambled up on the floor, stretched on carton boxes for a nap with neither blankets for warmth nor pillows for support; in the midst of wailing sick babies and frustrated nursing mothers. The midnight and early morning call to queue for drugs to be administered to babies were the scariest hours of all; men dressed in green caps, mouth masks, white coats, hand gloves and green gumboots whisked corpses on trolley beds through the corridor-just outside the children’s ward as they headed for the emergency exit door. We stood in deathly silence and watched the overdressed men pass outside the door almost on a daily basis. It was horrifying to say the least.
Witnessing babies die in their beds, their mothers trailing behind, wailing in tears and agony as nurses pulled the beds of the ward was traumatizing. Within the six weeks, four babies who’d shared the same bed with my daughter had passed on. At some point I began doubting if Pendo would leave the hospital alive. The smell of death surrounded us; it felt like a dark angel was roaming in KNH in search for the weakest souls. Mothers were mostly sad and subdued, each holding a solemn prayer for their child. I was no exception.
For six weeks in a row, I sat on a plastic chair by day, and slept on the floor by night, watching my baby bedridden and frail, fighting for her life that had just begun. She was only four months old. I prayed and hoped, day and night that all would be well. “Tomorrow we’ll leave this place”… I kept saying, patting her little scarred arms. The scars were as a result of numerous pricks in attempt to get ‘good’ veins to insert cannulas for medication. She had tiny scars all over her hands, legs, neck and head. Half her head had been shaved for insertion of these cannulas. Every time a vein blocked and medicine could not be administered, I had to hold her down so they could find another vein for the same. Every prick and insertion sent a shiver down my spine. I could tell she was in excruciating pain from the expression on her face. Sometimes I wished I could wrap her up, hide her in the bag that contained her clothes and make an escape through the fire exit-but she was too weak and frail.
Several times I locked myself in the hospital bathroom, prayed and cried in pain for her healing. She was my first child- I was supposed to be a happy new mom nursing her new born; not this wary young woman with stress bags under her eyes, surrounded by somber expressions everywhere she turned. I just wanted to go home, away from all the wailing, pain and sadness in the hospital.
Then there were these rowdy women (majority hailed from Mukuru Kwa Njenga and Kibera slums in Nairobi). They stayed in the ward due to unsettled hospital bills surmounting to thousands of shillings. They had made the hospital their home and even assigned each other roles to welcome and familiarize new admissions with the ward’s daily schedule. Their babies kept catching new infections due to the living conditions in wards with the sick. The women looked comfortable, almost as if this was their second home. They were not in a hurry to leave the ward either. They bullied newcomers and ate their food. They snooped around the ward looking at other women’s items and gossiped about visitors coming in to see the sick. It was the only way they could pass time in this place.
Sometimes mothers would quarrel over missing pieces of carton boxes: These were our improvised bedding as KNH did not provide hospital beds for parents of the sick children. We were warned that some of us would get ‘too comfortable’ and forget to return to their slums. It was said that life here was far much better as compared to that in the slums. The hospital officials had no kind words for patients in the general wards- they were poor people and deserved no mercy for their poverty. Only patients in the private wards were treated with dignity.This was hell in a National Hospital!
The ward was crowded as the number of new arrivals and referrals kept increasing. One bed would be shared by three children of different ailments. The food was terrible yet many scrambled for it as the only source of energy. Whenever I couldn’t eat, a mother would book my food; I would queue and secretly give her my share so she would not be publicly shamed (by the bullies/cooks/matrons) as greedy.
I was dispirited at the hospital’s condition. It almost felt like a mental rehab center. Some women were bitter with life and cursed all the time. They were irritable and scared off anyone who tried to approach them. Some openly disagreed with their spouses, sending them away with whatever they had brought to the ward. Some were never visited, they never socialized either; they just sat by their babies’ beds in silence, day in day out until they were discharged. Others didn’t care; they would leave their babies, walk out of the ward and disappear for hours before returning with smiles on their faces. They had no apologies to make for the negligence towards their sick children. I was lucky to receive visitors, among them,my younger sister. She came to check on us as frequently as she could.. It felt good to sit with family and chat about everything and nothing in particular.
Sometimes I stood at the large closed windows and stared at the moonlight in the dark sky. The smile-shaped crescent moon seemed to mock me. We were like prisoners jailed in a hospital.
I missed the sound of laughter. I missed the smile of the morning sun and its warm caress on my skin. I missed the smell of fresh air and the sound of sanity. Every evening I looked through the large windows and stared at the sky, watching it darken as the sun sank. Sometimes I saw clouds gather and form patterns before downpour. The rain drops looked like tears drops to me. I wished I could stand outside and soak my worries in it. From the fourth floor where the ward was located, I could see the hustle and bustle of both vehicle and human traffic as Nairobians went about their business oblivious to the world in a building a stone throw away. I imagined the freedom of playing with my daughter; walking in the crowd, rushing home or to some place and chatting with friends and family.
One day, a woman came in with a six month old baby girl (Mukami). She looked too old to be the biological mother of Mukami. She was always aggressive and abusive to anyone who came close to her child. Nurses did not escape her frosty words and negative attitude either. I was however surprised at how warmly she spoke to me and kept crossing over the beds to come and sit next to me and chat about nothing in particular. She became so motherly to me, I began to feel comfortable around her. After some days of frequent chatting, she came over and started a conversation.
Mama Mukami: “How old are you?” she enquired
Mama Mukami: “You look very young. Girls of your age are out there having fun and enjoying their youthfulness while you are stuck here with these old women and nursing a sick child. Is this your first born?”
Me: “Yes. Why?” I stared at her suspiciously. I didn’t understand where this conversation was heading.
Mama Mukami: “She is so beautiful I would pay anything to have a baby like her. You need to go out there and meet the world. Don’t stay locked up here while you can have your freedom. I can offer you some assistance.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Mama Mukami: “You look exhausted and sad. I doubt you even have experience raising a baby. I can do it for you while you grow a little older.” She smiled charmingly. I didn’t smile back. I wasn't amused and one of my eyebrows began to curve up as my hands went akimbo.
Me: “Are you insulting me Mama Mukami? What do you mean do it for me?” Why would she want to be my nanny? She looked too uptight, too aggressive and too negative: Qualities I didn’t like in a woman leave alone a nanny.
Mama Mukami: “No. I don't mean it in a bad way. What are you currently doing with your life?”
Me: “Am a student in K.U but called off my studies to attend to her” I pointed to Pendo with my thumb then regained my posture-hands akimbo.
Mama Mukami: “The more reason why you should let me have this little girl and take care of her. Who pays your University fees?”
Me: “My mom, why?” I drawled.
Mama Mukami: “You must be a real burden to your mother my dear. Kwani baba mtoto hakulipii? (Why isn’t the child’s father paying?). You should be able to support yourself. Sell this baby to me and let me cover all your fees until you are through with K.U. I’ll pay you a lump-sum and in excess for your upkeep. I’ll give you all the money you need in exchange”
My eyes popped wide open in shock. I gagged my mouth in surprise.I took a step back to have a better view of her face. It matched her words-stupid.
Me: “What! Are you crazy? Who does that? And why come to me out of all these women here?” I whispered loudly. The women around me must have overheard as they all turned around and stared at us. She noticed and reacted.
Mama Mukami: “What are you staring at you busy bodies!” She shouted at them, then turned back to me.
She leaned closer to me and lowered her voice. “I desperately want a child. I delayed childbirth my dear. I was building my career and by the time I was getting into marriage, it was too late.I lied about my age so my husband expects me to have children. Pesa ninazo my dear, mtoto ndio sina (I have the money my dear, a child is what I don’t have). You can have many more children when you grow older unlike most of these women here. Why are you acting so surprised? We’ll walk out together like friends then we exchange: Cash for the baby.You’ll forget very fast once you get back to study and move on like she never existed. Just assume you had an abortion. Girls of your age do it all the time. Take cash and stay away, I’ll take very good care of her. Think about my offer.” She winked at me, patted my shoulder and made a ‘shut up’ signal with a finger to her lips before walking back to Mukamis’s bedside.
I cringed at her absurd suggestion. I wanted to hit her backside with something as she walked back and wished I could shoot her with my eyes.
My head refused to understand what she had just said. I sat in my chair, leaned back in shock and closed my eyes. I told myself, “This conversation has not taken place.” I looked at the woman: Mukami was no doubt bought from someone. Cash for my daughter? Absolutely not! There was nothing to think about.
That night, I clutched my little Pendo in my arms and slept on the floor, with her frail body close to my bosom. Nothing under the sun could ever compare to her. Nothing was going to separate us. She was priceless.
That night, Mama Mukami terrorized nurses on the night shift, accusing them of incompetence and negligence. She claimed she was heading to Nairobi Hospital for better services, and that baby Mukami should be discharged.
The next day, Mama Njeri passed by my bed with a handbag and opened it so only I could see inside. She had bundles of cash (in currency of thousand Kenyan shilling notes) stashed in a transparent plastic bag, hidden under Mukami’s clothes. She forcibly hugged me and slipped a note into my jacket; spanked my bottom and winked at me. “ Good luck and call me.” She said with a smile on her face.Some women stared at me and smiled. They didn't look surprised. They knew what was going on. The note had her phone contacts and two words ‘piga hesabu.’ (do the maths). I neatly folded the paper and put it into my mouth, I chewed and spit it outside the window. It was a closed chapter.
For the next few days after Mama Mukami’s departure, I sat in my plastic chair and dozed off the entire night, with my hands touching Pendo so that any movement would wake me up. I feared someone would steal her. It was an uncomfortable posture so I switched back to the floor and dozed with my eyes half open. I started having nightmares triggered from witnessing the loss of lives and watching mourning mothers leave the ward without their children. Two young women (my age mates) walked out of the hospital and left their kids, never to return. An overweight woman slept on the floor with her little son breastfeeding. She fell asleep and suffocated the poor thing to death with her large breasts. Men and women of God (as they claimed) flocked into the ward: Some to pray; others to prey (they exchanged cash for babies from vulnerable young girls/women).
By week four the carton boxes could not cushion my tired body-the exhaustion began to take a toll on me.At one point I developed a splitting headache. I could not stand the light from the bulbs. Everything seemed to spin around me and my body felt so weak. I was shivering nad sweating at the same time. There were voices in my head-all incoherent I could not make sense of anything. I was feeling ill with my baby still bedridden. I thank God for my sister’s presence. She had come to visit us when she found me looking sickly. I needed medical attention as my entire body was in pain. I thought I was going mental.
A nurse on duty checked me and advised that I seek medical attention while my sister looked after Pendo. By the time I got downstairs from fourth floor, the lift had spun my head around and made me feel like my soul was flying with my feet on the ground. I was hysterical and saying all sorts of things. I noticed some nurses laughing at me and some young doctors shaking their heads. I wasn’t amused, I was in pain and didn’t understand what the laughter was about.
“ Where are you from?” A Doctor asked.I lifted my left hand; a white tape had been stuck behind my wrist to indicate that I was some sort of a mother with a patient in the ward.
Then, with many body actions and facial expressions,I tried to explain:
“ Ward four. My daughter and I are living there. Four weeks now Doctor. Four weeks. can you imagine? Inject me with something. Anything. I’m in pain. A lot of pain Doctor. I’m dying. My daughter is also dying. My head is bursting. Everyone is talking, I can’t hear well. Take me to a quiet…’ He held my hand and helped me up the diagnostic bed. My thoughts were interrupted. The Doctor remained silent and seemed to be doing something like a check up. I thank God for that tape on my wrist- I would have been bundled up and whisked into the mental ward and injected with God-knows what to calm me down.I was still shivering and sweating.
“I am tired. I just want to sleep on a bed. A real bed. Bring me my baby, they will steal my baby…I” I saw the syringe in the Doctor’s hands. Under normal circumstances, I’d have sobered up, jumped off the bed and bolted for the door. I couldn’t: I wanted the pain in my head and body to stop. I watched helplessly as he pulled my pants low, wiped my gluteus maximus with a sterile cotton wool swab, then… sting! I felt the pain spread in my large muscle, before darkness crept in and my eyes shut. Finally, there was some peace and quiet. I don't remember how long it lasted before I was taken back to the children's ward- a different room where the bed was larger and I could climb in and sleep some more. My sister was already there, sleeping on a wooden bench with her eyes open. It was an uncomfortable site and I felt sorry for her. She smiled on seeing me. I tried and smiled back.
................................................................................ I survived whatever it was.
Walking out of KNH after six weeks of madness, I felt like an alien from some outer space. Outdoors, it felt strange that life was going on as if nothing else was happening behind the hospital walls. I thought everyone was staring at me strangely as we boarded a bus home. I held tightly to my little baby and felt a sigh of relief that she was still alive. She was six months old but looked like a newborn- tiny and very light skinned. They had recommended weekly visits for intense physiotherapy to get her into shape as her muscles had weakened from weeks of lying in bed without any form of exercise.
We had attended physiotherapy for three months until she turned nine. It was during her nine-month clinic that I was referred to the specialist who eventually broke the news that Pendo had autism.
I looked at Pendo and wondered-What if I had sold her to Mama Mukami? How would she have have taken on the news of the condition? Would she have looked for me and claimed for a refund? Would she have abandoned her in the hospital corridors and disappeared or would she have sold her to another woman more desperate than herself?
There are seasons of madness and I had just run through one.