Late Mercy Wanjiru Weru, 1971-2014
A little-known woman breathed her last in the wee hours of Tuesday last week at the Nairobi Hospice. She had spent the last days of her life battling cancer, and when we visited her a few weeks to her death, she was in a lot of pain and had shrunk into a shell of her former self. Life was slowly ebbing out of her frail frame, and she knew it.
A few hours after her death, Mukurwe-ini MP Kabando wa Kabando eulogised her as a woman who has shown unique determination and enviable resilience, a woman who was full of an indomitable spirit.
But what makes this woman so special? Why is her story so important? To answer those questions, we will have to go back a few weeks ago, when she was stronger, and then, after that, go back a few years more.
Before we do that, however, we have to tell you that hers was not a charmed life; far from it. She was no different from many other Kenyans who have been beaten by the punches that life keeps throwing, but she knew how not to let those blows floor her.
What defined the woman who gave us this final interview of her life, the woman who allowed us to photograph her as she counted the hours to her last, was her refusal to be cowed and broken, her determination to keep fighting no matter what.
And, although she lost the battle to cancer, hers is a story that celebrates the heights to which an unbroken human spirit can soar. Here, her life story, in her own words:
My name is Mercy Wanjiru Weru. I was born in 1971 in Kangurwe Village in Nyeri County. I never knew my father as I was told he died when I was just one year old, so I was brought up by my mother, who never remarried. She did her best to provide for us, but life was hard. Every day was a struggle to meet even the most basic of needs.
My sister and I attended a local public primary school, where, fortunately, no one ever asked us for school fees. You see, the school was populated by the children of peasants who could not afford to provide a better education for their children in flashy academies. So all the other pupils knew what it was like to live in perpetual need.
However, my sister and I stood out because our case bordered on bleeding destitution. We were the poorest of the poor, the sort of family that other poor people feel sorry for because, even though they have little, the want across the fence is unimaginable.
I remember one time, the headteacher made a joke about how he could spot us from a distance — even in a crowd of other pupils — because our uniforms were so tattered they looked like a patchwork quilt.
But I am grateful that someone gave us the chance to acquire basic education. I did my KCPE in 1987 and scored 486 marks. That was good enough to get me into Chinga High School in Nyeri. I was elated. I loved education and was excited that I had made it past primary school.
However, I had to drop out after just two months because of lack of school fees. If it was not so expected, I would have been crushed. But I had to be realistic. I knew I was lucky to get those two terms. My mother just couldn’t afford to keep me in school any longer and I had no sponsors.
When girls in the village drop out of school, they share a common fate, more or less. If you cannot get an education, the next best thing is to get married and have children. That is what happened to me. A year after I left school, and aged onlu 18, I met and married a mechanic.
I thought marriage would provide a reprieve from the hard life I had led, but I was in for a rude shock. It was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. The man was brutal. He would beat me at the slightest provocation; and so, on top of the perpetual poverty we lived in, my life became enmeshed in violence.
I walked out on my husband at age 25, seven years into the marriage. I just got fed up with the beatings and took off with our two children, a son then aged seven and a daughter aged six.
I sought a new life as far away from my husband as possible. That was how I ended up in Kajiado town as a hawker, moving from house to house selling second-hand clothes to feed and clothe my two children. I was a single mum in a strange town, receiving no help from anyone. Life was hard.
And then, in 1999, a serious drought hit the country and affected my clothes business, so I decided to leave my children in the care of my relatives in Kajiado and head to Nakuru in search of yet another start. I hated leaving my children, but I had no choice.
They were so young: the first-born only 12 and his sister 11. It broke my heart. In Nakuru, I started selling fruits and sending back almost all my profits to Kajiado to cater for the children’s upkeep.
HARD TIMES AGAIN
Luckily, after a few months, my business picked up and I moved the children to live with me. But hard times hit us again and we soon left for Nairobi to stay with my cousins. We lived in Nairobi for almost two years before moving back to Kajiado, where I restarted the hawking business. By then, the children were in secondary school.
We settled down quickly, even became comfortable. The business was doing well, so, in 2007, just after my son Dickson finished Form Four, I decided to go back to school.
What I did not tell you at the start is that I took myself to school in Standard One back in the 1980s. My mother did not wake me up one morning, dress me in a uniform, hold my hand, walk me the few kilometres to school and hand me over to the class teacher.
No. I just woke up one day and presented myself at the local primary school. After the headteacher ascertained that I could touch my left ear with my right hand over my head, he allowed me to stay.
This same self-drive is what saw me go back to school aged 38. I had just failed to get a casual job at an NGO, not because I could not do it, but because they wanted someone “with papers.” I resolved there and then that I would go to school and get those papers.
I initially enrolled at Kajiado Hill Academy in Form One, but I only stayed for two terms. I was not doing well as I found the studies too hard. And I also had an eight-month-old baby who was demanding all my attention. I was distracted, so I decided to go back to Nyeri and move in with my mother, who would baby-sit for me while I went to school.
I wanted to enrol at Kangurwe Primary School because I knew I had to lay a good foundation in primary school if I was to eventually do well in high school. This plan almost failed because the education officers in Nyeri did not believe I was serious about going back to school at my age.
I negotiated with them for an entire month before I finally decided to seek help higher up. I approached the district education officer, who immediately gave me the go-ahead to join the Standard Seven class at Kangurwe.
I loved being back in school, although people thought I was crazy. They could not understand how I was comfortable wearing a girl’s uniform and being in class with children much younger than my own.
My classmates also found it strange for a while, but they soon got used to the idea. Luckily, I did not have to pay any fees because by then education was free.
I found the studies very easy. I joined the class in Third Term yet, at the end of the year, I emerged position two with 362 marks. However, I repeated the class the following year because I wanted to be sure I had covered the syllabus properly before joining class eight. I was not in a hurry, but just wanted to do well.
I sat my KCPE in 2010 and scored 379 marks. I knew I had performed well but I was a bit disappointed because I expected to do even better as, a few months earlier, I had scored 435 marks in the mocks.
In 2011, I received an admission letter to Kenya High School. That was something, but I did not allow myself to really celebrate until the day my application to the Constituency Development Fund went through and the officers called me to say they would pay my fees in full.
So there I was, at one of Kenya’s most elite girls’ high schools, and where, more than ever before, my differences set me apart from everyone else. It was not easy, more so because not everyone was happy that I was there.
The students were okay… very supportive… but some teachers and matrons went out of their way to harass me. It was as if they did not think that a person like me deserved to be in a school of Kenya High’s calibre.
The academic part of it was fine, although I struggled a lot because of all the responsibilities I had. During school holidays, I never had enough time to complete my assignments, let alone study, because I had to go back to my hawking business to cater for my family. I was still supporting my children and I had to earn enough pocket money to take me through the term.
I had to work very hard during the one-month holidays to make up for the three months I would be in school. I was hawking duvets at the time and business was good. I remember making around Sh150,000 one holiday.
As stressful as it was to juggle schoolwork with my responsibilities as a parent, I still managed to do reasonably well, managing a mean grade of B in the two years I was at Kenya High School.
But, even though I was doing well in school, my children were suffering back home, so I decided to leave Kenya High and join a day school near my home.
I reasoned that if I had been able to pass KCPE while in a local day school, then I could pass KCSE in the same kind of school. So I enrolled at Kiuu Day Secondary School towards the end of 2012.
Life was so much better at Kiuu. I got to spend more time with my family and I had more time to run my business.
In January this year I graduated to Form Four and started preparing to sit my final exams in November. However, after fighting this long to fulfil my dreams, it pains me that I might not be able to see them through.
I have cancer. I got sick in January this year, and since then I have not set foot in class at Kiuu. All I want to do is finish my education and be an environmentalist like Wangari Maathai. But I fear this might be the end of the road for me…
Let us take up Wanjiru’s story from there. We followed it up after that final interview, talking to her parents, teachers and doctors.
After weeks of misdiagnosis and haphazard treatment at local hospital, Wanjiru had been referred to Kenyatta National Hospital, where she was diagnosed with cancer of the biliary tract.
She had a tumour blocking her bile duct, which interfered with the drainage of bile. Instead of going to her gall bladder from where it would be used to aid in digestion, Wanjiru’s bile was accumulating in her body, leading to jaundice.
Doctors had installed a temporary tube onto her bile duct which was used to drain it into a bag outside her body.
They knew her condition was bad, but still gave her hope, telling her that she was lucky, and that they had one more trick up their sleeves. They told her about a procedure called biliary stenting that could relieve her anguish. It involved placing a tube in the bile duct to relieve the obstruction caused by her tumour.
This would stop the bile accumulating in her body and lessen her pain, while also giving them a chance to combat the cancer either with radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
But Wanjiru never got the stent. Her condition deteriorated too fast. She did this interview a few weeks ago and, by the time of her death, she could not talk and was barely aware of her surroundings.
It seemed that, as the bile drained from her body and soaked into her clothes from the leak, it also drained her spirit and resolve.
She was a pale shadow of the spirited woman who had sat for this interview a few weeks ago in her bed in Ward 5B of Kenyatta National Hospital.
Wanjiru’s light went out too fast, extinguished by a particularly aggressive form of cancer that did not give her a decent fighting chance. She will be missed, not just by her friends and family, but by the people who witnessed her fight to acquire a meaningful education.
One of those people is her former principal at Kiuu, Ms Euraria Njimu, who says that the school will not forget too fast the determined student who had served as the school headgirl for a few short months.
A FEW DECADES AGO, cancer was considered a disease of the Western world, attributed to too many over-processed foods and too little exercise. A funny disease for the rich, just like diabetes.
And then it started showing up in Africa, creeping into bodies that had been fed mostly on traditional, all-natural foods; bodies that had never known a sedentary lifestyle.
Now, cancer is the third deadliest disease in Kenya, beaten only by cardiovascular and infectious ailments. Every year, this disease kills 7.9 million people across the world, and contributes seven per cent of Kenya’s annual mortality.
And things are getting worse every year. A World Health Organisation report shows that, every year, 10 million people are diagnosed with cancer globally, majority of them in the developing world.
If the trend continues, in 2030, the year by which Kenya hopes to have achieved its Millennium Development Goals, 15.5 million people will be diagnosed with cancer, and 12 million of these will not survive.
According to 2006 data from the Nairobi Cancer Registry, breast cancer is the most common type of the disease in Kenya, contributing to 23.3 per cent of all cancer cases in the country.
It is closely followed by cervical cancer at 20 per cent, with prostate cancer coming a distant third at 9.4 per cent. Therefore, based on purely physiological reasons, a woman is more likely to contract cancer than a man.
In 2006, 2,354 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer; and 65 per cent died of the disease. According to the regional cancer registry at Kemri, about 80 per cent of reported cases of cancer are diagnosed at advanced stages, when very little can be achieved in terms of curative treatment.
These grim statistics point to a country that is thoroughly unprepared to deal with the scourge that is cancer. Most of the healthcare facilities that provide cancer treatment are located in Nairobi and its environs, presenting a grim challenge for cancer patients in the rest of the country.
Some have to travel more than 600 kilometres to Nairobi, from where they have to join the long queue of people awaiting their turn at the limited diagnostic or treatment equipment.
According to Dr Sultani Matendechere, The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) secretary general, Kenyatta National Hospital has only two radiation machines, one which is old and outdated and keeps breaking down.
“Cancer patients have to wait even up to six months for their turn at the machine, by which time the disease has progressed so extensively that treatment is rendered useless,” he says.
“Often, these are poor people with no relatives in Nairobi, so the KNH outpatient department becomes their home for the months preceding treatment, and they are reduced to sleeping on benches and begging for food from well-wishers.”
Public hospitals are hopelessly unprepared for the country’s growing burden of cancer, yet, ironically, two of Kenya’s former health ministers, Ms Beth Mugo and Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, have fallen victim to the disease. Both sought treatment out of the country.
Even more telling of the country’s medical care inadequacy is the fact that Kenya only has two cancer registries; one at KNH in Nairobi, the other at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret. This makes it difficult to obtain any conclusive statistics on cancer for the rest of the country.
Although former President Kibaki signed into law a Cancer Prevention and Control Act in 2012, designed to address the matter of cancer registries, among other challenges, the situation on the ground remains largely unchanged.
“More areas have established palliative care centres and raised cancer awareness since the signing of the Bill,” says the KMPDU boss. “However, the bigger problems remain unaddressed; the hospitals remain unequipped, doctors remained unskilled and care remains costly.”
If the cancer landscape remains as horrendous as it is, its survivors will continue to be the well-heeled who can afford exorbitant treatments in private hospitals, and people like Mercy Wanjiru Weru will remain at the mercy of a broken system that plays Russian roulette with their lives.