Make It Count
Once upon a time on my way to school, I met a buffalo.
A circumstance that could have been avoided, had I walked my usual path. But I was too pained by thoughts of my sister to remember to go round the valley instead of across it.
I was barely the size of a blade of grass when I stumbled upon the bovine so I wasn’t sure what to do. We both stood our ground and a staring contest ensued. The buffalo was the first to look away — unbothered. So I kept walking, my self esteem declining a notch. Was I not a good enough meal? Or maybe I looked too miserable for its taste.
See, I wasn’t the kind of boy that cried into the heels of my hands but that morning I did. I cried as if every other thing I had cried for in my life had been a waste of crying. And I continued to cry several hours later; long after my sister had left. The welts on my buttock still stung; where my mom had wielded her belt. But that was not the reason I cried. How could my 12 year old sister be married off? I was only six. The age gap between us, just a number. We were very close. So to protest against her departure, I refused to go to school and my mom responded to this act of defiance with violence.
“You will go to school Daniel or you will starve.” She said to me in our native tongue. I glared at her and much as I wanted to, I couldn’t resent her. She did what any other villager in her situation would do. A single uneducated mother with five mouths to feed. Now four.
Eventually my other sisters followed suit, leaving just my brother and I.
I grew up in Homabay County in a semi permanent mud walled house the size of a virus. Lack was a constant in our home. For food, my siblings and I would either collect wood to sell or weed for people. And even then, going to bed hungry was not unusual.
By the time I was in 12, I was so industrious, I could sell beef to an Indian. Anything I laid my hands on was fair game; I sold cigarettes, soap, matchboxes, anything. My mom would walk long distances to sell clay pots in exchange for maize. But whether we ate or not she insisted on school attendance; which was just as well because there is not much to do when your stomach is hollow.
In school we hardly completed any syllabus. The teachers were few; some non-existent. We mostly read for ourselves. I excelled in Maths and the Sciences but performed terribly in the languages. It was apparent that numbers were my thing; words weren’t. And the lack of those words let me down in my final grade where I scored an E in Kiswahili and a D in English. So I was called to a local high school.
On opening day, I went to see the Headmaster and told him, “We am wanting to come here Sah but money is not coming.”
“Excuse me,” the headmaster leaned forward, his eyes on my tiny frame, “What language is that you are speaking?”
With that, my brother and I went back home — a half days journey — in search of school fees. We knocked on several doors. Some were opened and slammed in our faces. Others were not opened at all. My mom beat the path to the District Commissioner’s office to ask for help but none came. I tried to talk to our area Member of Parliament — nothing. Eventually out of desperation, mum went to one of my sister’s homes and said to her son in law, “I need money for fees for my sons and I will not leave until you help me. It’s 2000 Kenya Shillings for the term.” She sat there waiting and watched as the sky turned from grey to blue to black and came home empty. Eventually we called the villagers for a fundraising. Villagers who were no better than we were.
They raised 200 shillings.
I took 100 and my brother took 100 and we reported to school with barely a month left to the end of the term.
Because I was accustomed to studying on my own, I was self driven. Or maybe it was that I could now eat three meals a day, but at the end of the term I was position four out of 80 students. The headmaster suddenly took a keen interest in me. He would tell me, “You are a clever boy. Keep working hard.” But because it was customary to send people home for lack of fees, he would still have to send us home but would tell me, “Make sure you come back Daniel.” So my brother and I would trek round the valley knowing full well we would go back without a penny. And that was the routine every so often.
The next two terms, I was number two overall but after that I became number one and remained at the top until the end of high school. By now, the headmaster had taken such a great liking to me, he would let me stay at his house over the holidays.
When I got to Form four he called me to his office, “Daniel what are your dreams?”
“I mean what do you want to become in life?”
I was perplexed because you can only dream of what you can imagine and depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Mine was. But then I remembered some quacks back in my village who pretended to have healing powers and I said,
“Sah my village has quacks. I don’t like them.”
“I see. Now Daniel, I am being transferred to another school. I want to give you the option of remaining here or coming with me.”
“I will come with you Sah.” I now had words thanks to English Literature and a great teacher. “You have been of so much help to me. I don’t know whether your replacement will be as kind.”
“Ok. But I need your mum’s consent so go and ask her first.” I trekked home and asked mum what she thought, “Ojuka my son, there is no choice there. Go.”
That is how I ended up at Kodero Bara High School in Migori District. There, I performed even better in my studies and improved markedly in my languages. I was never sent home for lack of fees. It was too far anyway and to date, I don’t know who or how my fee was paid. I completed high school with an A minus and was called to Medical school.
I was now living my dream.
By this time I had connected with several members of the school Christian Union which I had been actively involved in. When I wasn’t staying with the headmaster, I was living with the teachers who used to run the CU. They introduced me to a group called SONET. South Nyanza Evangelistic Team — that used to preach in high schools.
It was this group that raised the money that I needed for my first semester in Medical School. In return I ensured I did my best. I would be the guy seated under the teacher’s nose in class absorbing information. It’s as if, if I sat anywhere else the knowledge would expire once it left the Lecturer’s lips. That’s all I focused on. Books and the CU and it was just as well because I wouldn’t have met my wife otherwise. She was both my classmate and a member of the CU.
We became fast friends and our friendship became the foundation on which our marriage is built on to date.
I excelled in Medical school and then went on to the then Kakamega Provincial General Hospital for my internship and later Garissa County Referral Hospital as a Medical officer. Because of my background I felt drawn to work in rural/hardship areas. I longed to make an impact. That is why I chose to go back to school to become a Surgeon.
I trained as a Surgeon for five years at the University then went back to Kapenguria for another five years. All along with my wife by my side. Despite being both employed by the National Government we never lived apart from each other.
Just before devolution a good friend and mentor of mine called Dr. Hassan called me, “Ojuka hi. The university has advertised for a surgeon. I think you would be a great fit. Apply.” It wasn’t a suggestion. So I did. And joined the Department of Surgery as a Lecturer.
Teaching for me is about transformation. A lay person walks into my class and six years later, walks out a Medical Doctor. A doctor walks into my class and five years later, walks out a Surgeon.
I have since added many feathers to my cap. In 2016, I went to Korea for a Fellowship in Breast Oncology. I am now a Breast Oncoplastic Surgeon. And I have dreams.
I would like to see a well developed breast unit in KNH and I am glad the number of breast surgeons in Kenya is growing. That’s the space I love and the space I want to see grow.
When I look back at my life, I can’t give credit to myself for where I am today. This is God’s doing. He used various people in different stages of my life to help me along the way. I believe that becoming a doctor is God’s calling on my life to use my skills to help people. And this belief permeates through my relationships with my colleagues, my students and my patients.
I am simply a vessel.
This is Dr. Daniel Ojuka who joined The Academy of Master Surgeon Educators for the American College of Surgeons. To making it count.
This is the feature article for the month. Next week, we resume regular viewing.