Casualty of War…

The sky was a blameless blue, when a middle aged gentleman landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

A few years later, he will be back at the same airport, full of naked fear and uncertainty.

But no one knows this yet.

On the day that he landed, a staff member assigned to him from The Office, handed him a checklist he needed to complete, before his first day at work. He scanned through it as his driver wove through traffic and decided that he would start with the medical check up.

This is how he met Dr Wanjiru — who I will refer to as Shiru in this article.

A few days later at a hospital, a Senior Nurse walked into the consultation room where Dr Shiru sat filling in medical claim forms, “Doc, there is a high profile Government Official who needs a full medical. I don’t want him to wait. Please see him.”

“Ok.” She straightened up and moved the forms to a corner of her desk. She expected him to barge in with an entourage of people and demands as most of his ilk were known to do. Instead, there was a gentle tap on the door and if she wasn’t expecting him, she would not have heard it.

“Come in.” She looked up to see this towering, easy on the eye caramel-colored gentleman in a T shirt and navy blue jeans.

“My name is Dr Esther Wanjiru,” she flashed her badge, “How may I help you today?”

“I have just been posted to Kenya from Ethiopia and I require a full medical for work.” His voice was soft yet assured.

“Ok. I will need to examine you and order some tests.”

It was a straightforward consult. A matter of ticking boxes and filling forms. It went by fast. A few weeks later however, he was back in her consultation room. “I am worried,” he said, “when I came back to pick my results after you saw me the first time, the doctor I met told me my cholesterol levels are very high yet I am very active.” She could tell by the chiseled edges of his body and the iron board shape of his mid section that he was. “The doctor started me on meds but I am not comfortable taking them,” he continued.

“Ok. Let’s take another look at your results together.”

They went through the list and she told him, “In my opinion, I don’t think you are that badly off. We can start off with lifestyle modification.” She then took time to educate him on what constituted a lifestyle change. “A nutritionist would help modify your diet.” She suggested.

“This feels more palatable to me. Do you have someone in mind?”

“Let me see if I can get you a contact,” she said as she thumbed through her phone. The process was taking longer than expected and he kept glancing at his watch.

“Erm, I need to go. What if I leave my number and you can reach out to me once you get the contact.”

“Ok then.”

That exchange was the beginning of many.

At first it was simply to give information like where the best Ethiopian food could be found, where to find what, or places to visit over the weekend. They then grew to be confidants, sharing jokes, observations, disappointments. They discovered, for example, that both their fathers had died, causing great distress to their families, a fact that would’ve bonded them in itself.

Their maturing friendship was surprising in its swiftness and intensity. In a few months, they were courting and after a year, they were married. And then a baby came.

Life was great! They lived in an area where you could watch the President take a morning jog. Not the president of your chama guys. Of Kenya. Whenever she left the house, even for something as basic as grocery shopping, she looked camera ready. Picking items at the store was done without as much as a glance at the price tag and when she was done, their driver would take her wherever she needed to go. She once mentioned a famous market place to her husband, “Babe there’s this place called Toi market where people sell nice second hand clothes at reasonable prices. Maybe I can get some good deals for our daughter’s clothes.”

“Why would you want our daughter to wear clothes other people have worn?”

So every item their child wore or used was branded.

This favor extended to his workplace. She was on a first name basis with his peers and even his boss. Going to see him at work — which was a highly secured area — was like walking in between different rooms in their house. The guards at the gate would greet her with enthusiasm when she was driven in. She would be ushered past regular security protocols to the highest office with no qualms. The only reason she kept her job was because of how hard she had worked to become a doctor and because of a loan she was servicing.

You see, Shiru was a girl from a fractured home. She was brought up by her mother, hearing only of her father from the local news — that is if you consider village talk to be news. “Did you hear what Daktari did the other day when that lady went into labor in the market? You know the one whose baby was facing the wrong way?”

“Of course! I heard he turned the baby while it was still in her stomach then delivered it.”

“And how about how he rescued that boy who had been bitten by that snake?”

On and on they spoke of his healing exploits; ranking him to be just a level lower than God.

So Shiru found herself drawn to him through these stories. Drawn to the need to intervene in a crisis. And that is how her own desire to become a doctor was borne. To be like a father she had never known.

But the journey to get into medical school was as hard as riding a bicycle backwards. It wasn’t enough to say, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.” She had it in her mind that since her dad was a medic he would work some magic and get her a place in Medical school. These thoughts permeated her work and she performed dismally in her final high school exams.

And then he died.

So she ended up in KMTC ( Kenya Medical Training College) studying clinical medicine — the closest thing to what she wanted. She completed her Diploma in three years and proceeded to internship but the stirring in her to become a doctor did not go away. She couldn’t settle so she sent out applications to medical schools around the country hoping to get accepted. Several rejections came before she finally got a place.

The five years in medical school passed like a kidney stone. Not only was the work hard, but the financial difficulty she faced compounded everything for her. Her mom had to scrimp and save to get her through.

Still, the adversity was the fuel she needed to get through her studies. She completed her degree fulfilling her dream and went on to internship. Altogether it had taken her ten years. In return for her mother’s sacrifice, she also took out a loan to build her a home.

So you see, she still had to work even if her husband provided for everything.

Until the 3rd of November 2020.

When civil war broke out in Ethiopia.

The country - located in the horn of Africa - started to cannibalize itself and it’s a he said - she said narrative depending on whose side is telling the story. As they fought over who ruled for how long and who stole state resources and who fired first, the unfortunate casualties were the thousands dead, the millions displaced and the worst drought the country has faced in 40 years.

After the war broke out, her husband slowly transformed before her eyes. He who was previously full of laughter would come home agitated. “I don’t understand why the government would do this!” he would say most evenings after work. “People are dying in my country!” He would say while trying to reach his family to check on them. Things escalated and the internet in Ethiopia was shut down and communication became erratic. Add to that the lockdown and restricted movement due to Covid. He, like everyone else, had to depend on the news to get information on what was happening on the ground. He became restless, his demeanor changing like the wind.

One day he got a call, “Your mother is terribly ill. You need to come see her.” This added to his anxiety because he was unable to reach her or any other family member to ask her how she was doing.

“I have to travel dear. I must see my mom,” He told Shiru one morning.

“But, isn’t it dangerous?”

“I have no choice. I can’t reach my family on phone. If anything happens to my mom…”

“Ok. I understand.”

“But don’t worry dear. The office will facilitate my travel and safety. There is a Security officer who has been assigned to me. I will be ok.”

“Ok. I pray everything will be ok.”

He booked his ticket, made arrangements and left almost immediately.

When he arrived at the airport on the other end, he called her, “Hey dear, I have landed safely. So far, so good. I will try my best to communicate when I can.”

“Ok my love. Stay safe.”

What she didn’t know was, that was the last time she would hear his voice for a long while.

In the following days she tried to reach him but her calls went straight to voicemail; her messages unanswered. She had seen how hard it had been for him to reach his family when he was still in Kenya so she wasn’t worried. Not at first.

A week went by and she received this message from him, “Remember you are my hope and light. No matter what happens, do not forget this.”

She became frantic.

“What do you mean?” she replied. “Are you ok? Is everything ok? Is mum ok?” Her thoughts only allowed her to think something had happened to his mum. If he was still able to text her, then surely he was ok. Or was he?

Until he replied and said, “I am not in a good situation. I will call you when I can.”

“What are you saying? Is the security officer with you? Babe? You there?”

She sent message after message for two weeks with no response. He was offline.

Shiru lay awake night after night eating the bread of anxious thoughts. During the day she was exhausted but could not be still enough to rest. She tried to reach his other relatives to no avail. Their daughter caught on to her anxiety and regressed in milestones. She had started sleeping by herself in her room but now would not let go of her. She had stopped breastfeeding but now wanted to stay latched onto her mother’s breast. Her diet changed, her mood deescalated. It’s as if she too could tell something had happened. But what?

Another two weeks passed when at 3:00 am Shiru’s phone pinged, “Babe, send me your passport numbers now!” It was him.

“Babe oh my God! Are you ok? What happened?”

“I do not have time. Send me those numbers.” His tone was clipped.

“The passports are in another room. I don’t want to wake the baby. I..”

“Shiru,” he had not used her name to address her in a long time, “I don’t know how else to say this but I need those passport numbers. Please get them urgently. I will explain later.”

She was up and rummaging through their document drawer in a foggy state, her heart exploding in her chest. At least he was alive but what could be going on? She sent the numbers and waited for his response but the message never came.

Several hours later, he sent a message saying, “ I have left Ethiopia. I am in another country.”

“What?! What do you mean?” She could not disguise the shock in her voice, “What happened?”

“I can’t tell you much but there was a plot to capture me and I escaped.”

“What!”

“Yes. Mum was not even sick to begin with. It’s just…” He sighed as if he didn’t know what to say. “We can’t talk much for now. When I get a chance I will call you soon.”

And life as she had known it changed.

Shiru remained in shock for the next couple of days. How did things change so quickly? She took leave from work as she was barely able to function. Her time was spent wallowing in confusion. What did he mean someone tried to capture him? How did he end up in another country that fast? Why their passport numbers? Was she safe? Who could she tell?

What she didn’t know was that was not the only bullet in the barrel.

End month came, rent was due, and it hit her that she was living in a house she could barely afford. And more than half her salary was committed to paying back a loan. She tried to access her husband’s dollar account but couldn’t. It had been frozen. And she didn’t have the ATM card anyway.

Before she could swallow this bitter pill, her husband’s boss called her and asked her to meet him at the Office.

When she met him, there was no preamble. “Where is your husband?” He looked nothing like the man she had interacted with so freely in the past. His spongy features were now hardened into new shapes.

“I…I don’t know.” She sat up, her neck and back like coiled springs from lack of sleep.

He smirked and looked at her like you would a child you know is hiding candy behind their back, “Listen. I know you know. You must tell us!”

“I really don’t know. He went to see his mum in Ethiopia. You know that don’t you?” Her tone rose. “He just left. I am unable to reach him. In fact I thought you were calling me to give me information on where he is.”

“You are lying!” He shot her a smoldering look.

And back and forth it went between them with no one ceding ground.

Back at home, her communication with her husband was stunted. They spoke in brief sentences and mostly to see whether the other person was breathing.

One of the things they spoke about was the need for her to join him. This is how her journey of relocation began. A costly journey. To be licensed to work as a doctor in that country, she needed to do some exams. Expensive exams.

So she sold her car. The plan was this. Finance the exams, read, pass and relocate. Some of the money would also keep them afloat until they joined him. Nothing had to change. Right?

She offloaded her car fairly easily and filled with adrenaline she started to read.

Sometime later, someone from her husband’s office called her again, “Hi could you please bring the plates back?” Since her husband was indisposed she could not continue to drive his car with its red plates.

“Sure,” she responded, and went through the process of paying tax in an effort to keep the car. Her war chest was dwindling. She just needed one last document from his office to finalize the transfer process so she took the plates back while picking the document.

That day when she drove through the gates of the Office, the guards who would fall over backwards to welcome her, greeted her with grim expressions. One would think they had never seen her before. Where previously they used to speak informally in Kiswahili, now they spoke formally, searching her car like they were expecting to find contraband. She was quickly given a visitors tag and shown to the waiting room — a room she never knew existed until that day. Not even when she was dating her husband.

She met his boss and quietly asked him for the document she needed.

“How can I give you the papers? You have betrayed us! Where is your husband? Where is he?” He shook while he spoke his words rushing out in rage. He wagged his finger at her smiling smugly, “I will not give you those papers. Unless you lead him home. Traitor!” The air in the room grew heavy, almost solid. She felt her innards coiling in on themselves. What do you say when your husband is called a traitor? Her lips had gone dry. She licked them and found her tongue had dried too.

Nothing more was said after that. She practically ran out of there and has never gotten those papers to date.

Her only recourse was to focus on the exam. The exam which was her only way out of this quagmire. She poured her heart and soul into it and finally sat for the paper.

And failed!

Until then she had been delaying her despair. But when she got those results, she disintegrated.

Failing the exam was not in the cards. And her money had dwindled. She went to the bank to try to get leniency for the loan but that didn’t go well. They refused.

Suddenly she could not put two thoughts together to function. She knew she needed help. She started therapy. There was a lot they discussed in their sessions but Shiru remembers the therapist saying, “You have to crawl out of this hole and the way to do it is to change everything.” Shiru had to turn down the volume knob of her life and recalibrate.

The first thing she did was to vacate their home. She moved from being the President’s neighbor to living in Kiambu — 16km away. Next, she requested a transfer from her employer to a satellite clinic in Kiambu town. She then changed their family diet. Stopped buying animal proteins and switched to plant proteins except for the baby on occasion. She stopped shopping in the supermarket and started to rise early to buy food from the local markets. All her branded lotions and shower gels were quickly replaced by bar soap. She bought second hand clothes for her daughter and in time all the high end stores she used to visit even stopped sending her messages. The time she used to spend hanging out with friends having a good time was replaced by extra shifts at work to plug the financial leak. She couldn’t meet her friends anyway. Most of them lived uptown and she had no car. Taking a taxi was a luxury she could no longer afford. Her circle changed by default.

And because time does not stand still when you are going through shit, her daughter kept on growing and needed to go to school. That meant school fees. This is something she had never considered. I mean, in her plans, she was not even meant to be in Kenya.

She picked herself up by the bootstraps, and went back to reading for her exams. She applied herself to acquiring the information despite all the challenges she was facing.

She re-did the paper and passed. Went on to do the second paper — and passed.

It has not been easy for Shiru. She has lost so much including the opportunity for her daughter to get to know her dad in her early years. History repeating itself.

Still, she refuses to stay down. The challenges keep coming in waves and in the silence she has learnt how to ride each wave as it comes. She is currently a few steps from getting the paperwork to join him. She has not given up. She wont.

We wish her well.

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MedRoomeyes

MedRoomeyes

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Medical doctor; OG Specialist; Health advocate through stories that educate and entertain.