We arrive in Mang’u village in Rongai, Nakuru, on a relatively sunny Wednesday afternoon.
Francis Mwangi’s home is not difficult to find since everyone seems to know him. We find him washing clothes.
This is an odd sight, especially because at 66 years, Francis is no young man. In fact, in a society that is largely patriarchal, and in a rural area such as this, this is a very odd sight indeed.
He is so absorbed in the chore, he only notices us when two dogs surge towards us, barking. Francis promptly commands them back to their kennels and comes forward to meet us.
“Ah, it’s you! You have done well to visit us. We expected you yesterday, but you’re very welcome,” he says and ushers us into the house, while asking us to give him a few minutes to finish washing the washing.
Later, he will prepare a meal for his wife, Mary Wanjiru, wash the dishes, and clean the house. These are duties he has been doing for over 20 years now and does them with efficiency and determination.
His wife, Mary, has been bedridden for 27 years following an accident that left her paralysed from the waist down. The room where Mary lies has witnessed pain, denial, and heartbreak over the years, but in the midst of the dejection, Francis’ love and commitment to his wife has remained true.
Watching him adjust one of the pillows supporting his wife and asking whether she is comfortable, there is no doubting his concern for her. At the foot of the bed is a small television that Francis bought to keep her entertained when he is out.
TEST OF LOVE
Around this village, many people know the couple’s story — at least the surface of it. What most of them do not know, though, is that during these 27 years, Mary’s and Francis’s marriage has undergone the ultimate test of love.
“We have gone through periods of pain, tears, and eventually acceptance and laughter. It is not easy to accept the news that someone very dear to you will never walk again,” says Francis.
On the day of the accident, Mary was on her way home after visiting her mother in Lanet, Nakuru. She had left home on Thursday afternoon after cooking supper for her family and bathing her three youngest children — Irungu, Moses and Josphat. She recalls that earlier, she had been in the shamba weeding her maize crops before feeding their two cows.
“I left a small portion, which I intended to finish the following Monday,” says Mary.
But that was never to be.
On Saturday afternoon, while travelling back from her mother’s, the vehicle was involved in an accident near Nakuru town.
“The matatu was speeding. As it tried to overtake the car in front of us, the driver lost control of it and it hit the vehicle from the back,” says Mary.
Mary, who was in the front seat, was thrown out through the windscreen, landing in a ditch.
“Since I lost consciousness, I am told that the car we had hit swerved to where I was lying face down and ran over me — I am told that I was lucky to have survived.”
She was rushed to Nakuru General Hospital by good Samaritans, where her older sister, Grace Wangui, found her. She had been informed about the accident by a neighbour who had been travelling in the same matatu.
On Sunday morning, Grace, who says that her sister had not been attended to, transferred her to the Nakuru Nursing Hospital.
“I found her in the same bloody and dusty clothes she was in during the accident, even though she was conscious,” she says.
Says Mary, “I was in a lot of pain, but I was determined to live — I had children to raise, a husband to love, and a home to keep.”
All this time, Francis did not know about his wife’s accident.
“There were no mobile phones those days… I had expected her on Saturday, so when she did not return, I became anxious, because it was unlike her not to keep her word.”
That Sunday afternoon, his sister-in-law, Grace, sent someone to break the news to him.
“Even before he said a word, I knew that he had bad news — my heart sunk and I waited for the worst.” Francis immediately left for the hospital, where he found his wife unconscious and in a bad state.
“I will always be grateful to the doctors at Nakuru Nursing Hospital because they saved her life,” says Francis.
Their youngest son, David Irungu, was a toddler then while his older brother, Moses was in Class Two. Their oldest son, Stephen, was in Class Eight and was to do his KCPE examinations that year. His mother’s accident affected him so much that he performed poorly.
Moses, now 33 years, says that he learnt about his mother’s accident when he overheard his classmates talking about it.
“It is a bad way for a child to learn about something like that because the first thing that comes to mind is that she will die. It took me a long time to adjust to the news and I ended up repeating Class Two and Three, since I could not concentrate in class,” he says.
A month after the accident, Mary, who was still in hospital, was transferred to Kenyatta National Hospital for spinal treatment. She stayed there for six months. With difficulty, Francis had taken over her duties, which he admits he had taken for granted before the accident.
“Looking after young children is no joke,” he says with a laugh.
The doctors performed corrective surgery, but ruled out the possibility of Mary walking again. Mary, who had been an energetic, fit, and healthy 36-year-old, returned home in a wheelchair.
Were it not for her husband’s support and encouragement, she says that she has no idea how she would have coped.
“He has been a good husband and no woman could ask for better.”
Initially, Mary was comfortable in a wheelchair and appreciated been taken out to bask, but after a while, it became painful since, as she explained, her damaged spine could no longer support her back. That meant remaining in bed.
Talking about playing multiple roles, Francis says that balancing between being by his wife’s side (she needs constant care) and going out to look for work has been his biggest challenge, but one he is not about to give in to.
“The accident occurred when we were young. We had so many dreams we planned to fulfil together — those we had to shelve.”
As commonly happens in such tragedies, there were those who saw him doing what they considered “a woman’s chores” and wondered why he could not just marry a second wife to help him.
“I was often told that I was too young to carry my wife’s burden and should instead get a second wife. But I asked myself, what if I was the one lying in that bed? How would I have taken it had she left me for another man?”
He continues, “This was the woman who had given me six children, and who spent 20 years by my side. There was no way I could leave her or replace her.”
He admits that the multiple roles he has to play often leave him drained. To recharge, he regularly meets with a few close friends at one of the hotels in the local shopping center.
“We discuss anything from politics to issues affecting our village. I really look forward to these meetings.”
Alice Wangui, Mary’s long-time friend, praises Francis for his dedication. She says that he does not allow anyone to bath or feed his wife or wash her clothes and bedding.
“He believes that it is his responsibility to take care of his wife and would rather keep her company than socialise with his friends,” she says.
Taking care of Mary, Alice points out, is expensive, especially since she needs a change of diapers several times a day.
“Every cent he gets from the crops he grows goes into taking care of his wife’s needs,” she adds.
For a person who knows that she will never walk again, Mary is quite optimistic.
“I am luckier than most,” she answers when we ask what inspires her optimism. “I have a husband who is still by my side, a family, and friends who drop by to see me — there must be others in my situation who have no one to care for them,” she adds.
There are regrets though.
“I miss going to church and interacting with other people the way I used to, but what I have missed most is being by my husband’s side since we made a good team.”
She adds, “I am supposed to be his wife his helper and sometimes I feel bad when I see him do everything I used to do — how I wish I could show him how grateful I am for the love he has shown me.”