After finishing what he thought was a successful interview with TV personality John Sibi-Okumu, veteran surgeon and writer Yusuf Kodwavwala Dawood stepped out of the studio with gusto expecting an embrace from his wife who had been watching from the lobby.
His broad smile and open hands were, however, left hanging mid-air as a livid Marie did not want to see him, let alone hug him. Apparently, he had, during the interview, said he had four wives: surgery, writing, Rotary and Marie.
“Marie told me: ‘I don’t care about you having four wives, but I detest the order in which you have named us, placing me last.’ It was only after I assured her the youngest wife was the prettiest and most beloved that she was mollified.”
He was, however, wise enough to know that the truce he had secured was a temporary one and from then on, he learnt to list his “wives” in the correct order, placing Marie, his wife of 55 years first in the pecking order.
Unlike the Russian doctor-writer Anton Chekhov, who looked upon medicine as his lawful wife and literature as his mistress, Dr Dawood had formally married all his “wives”, becoming an accomplished husband to all — an eminent surgeon, a prolific author, a generous Rotarian and a committed family man.
It was only a matter of time, though, before something was going to give for the uneasy marriage and today Dr Dawood hangs up the scalpel, biding bye to a profession he joined 60 years ago and operated on tens of thousands of people across the globe.
“I qualified as a surgeon in 1958. But I had earlier qualified as a doctor in 1953. So I have done 60 years practising medicine, 52 of these in Kenya. In my heyday, I did up to 700 operations in a year. In the last 15 years, though, I cut that down gradually.”
He said he wanted to leave when people had not started asking when, but why.
“I wanted to leave when all my mental and physical faculties are fully functional so that I may enjoy my retirement. I wanted to take one wife out of the equation, the one that is really making a lot of demands,” he told Saturday Nation this week at his consultation office at the Nairobi Hospital.
To dramatise the toll this wife had taken on his family, he said he had to be “reintroduced to my children every weekend because during the week I hardly ever saw them.”
He said surgeons retire at 65 in countries where they are mostly employed, but where surgeons are self-employed, and there is a shortage of them, they work until they are unable.
“This is a level I did not want to reach,” he says, with his characteristic charm and fatherly mien.
But having assembled a loyal cadre of patients, who only knew his adept hand all these decades, wouldn’t he find it hard turning them away?
“I am now placing them, especially my breast patients with different surgeons. In surgery, one has to do a clean cut. I don’t want to fail my patients.”
He says surgeons are human and sometimes they make mistakes. He, however, does not add, as he does in his autobiography Nothing But The Truth: The Story of a Surgeon with Four Wives, that a patient scheduled for brain surgery can sometimes end up with surgery of the knee and vice-versa.
Some medical mishaps have changed the course of history like in the case UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden, whose botched operation cost Britain the Suez Canal. He lost the will to fight Col Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
“Having said that, I could look back with such a lot of triumph in my practice that the cases where I probably failed could have been very very minimal. The satisfaction is that they are unwittingly done and not done for any other motivation,” says the former chairman of the Kenya Medical Golfing Society.
So having witnessed Kenya’s history unravel since he arrived in the dying days of colonialism, what does he think about our development in the medical field?
“It may be difficult to compare Kenya with the highly developed world, but when I compare Kenya with African countries, which I visit in the course of my work, I can say that we are at the top both in personnel and technological advancement in equipment.”
He would concentrate on his three other wives, not least of which is to keep pace with the Surgeon’s Diary, a popular column in the Sunday Nation, which he started in 1980 as a weekly, but which he later made a bi-weekly “as it was difficult to find true stories that were at once dramatic, emotional, sentimental, suspenseful and humorous.”
Though surgery has a lot of patients, he says, the unusual doesn’t happen frequently. “I mean I can operate on a thousand hernias or a thousand ulcers, but unless there is something special about the patient, it does not constitute a story, which can interest my readers.”
He is not worried, though, about the material to run the Diary, now that what used to feed it has stopped as he kept notes and “stored some interesting events in memory.”
He also plans to publish more books to add to his stable of 11 — four based on Surgeon’s Diary, six fictional novels and one autobiography.
One of these books, the twelfth, has been ready for more than a year. “I am looking for a publisher who will give me an international exposure because that book will do very well in many English-speaking countries. Much as I respect the publishers in Kenya, their marketing is very limited.”
He warns that the book could be explosive. “It blazes a very different trail from what I have written. Not politically sensitive, but community-wise. I need to be careful how, when and where I publish it,” he said of the book, whose setting he hinted straddles Kenya, Uganda and Europe.
But surgery has also shaken his faith in God. “I was born a Muslim, and for many years, I was quite a staunch believer praying five times a day, fasting and celebrating Idd. I even made a pilgrimage to Mecca. But when I saw things I could not expect a kind, munificent so-called God allowing it — un-expected and undeserved deaths — I think I probably lost my faith. I couldn’t imagine a nice God doing this to his own creation.”
He, however, rebuffs suggestions that he is an atheist. “I wouldn’t say I am an atheist outright, but I honestly don’t know what to call myself, an agnostic may be. I do believe science created this world. If there was a god, we wouldn’t see all these injustices and diseases especially in children. You can’t say he or she led a bad life and he is paying for the sins.”
“In some place, I feel death is the end of life, yet at the same time, I don’t believe people lead their lives with nothing to live for, that there is nothing in the here-after. That it can be a total vacuum. But I am not quite convinced about (the) heaven and hell concept, the Day of Judgment, and so on.”
He is, however, quick to add that he believes in the principles of all religions — being truthful, goodness, chastity, honesty, the principles he has passed on to his children.
But he quickly brings us back to earth saying that although he is retiring from surgery he is not retiring from life, yet. And his feisty frame and spring in the heel despite his advanced years speak for him.
But surgery also did something else; it made him a writer. “I do see a lot of tragedy; a lot of suffering. There is so much disease and death in the world. To tell a man that his life had reached nigh, or his son has leukaemia or his wife has HIV is very painful. To keep my own sanity I have to write,” he told Saturday Nation in an earlier interview.
“In a work of fiction, I reckoned I could depict all my adversaries as villains and all my supporters as heroes, and free myself from all my complexes in one stroke,” says the admirer of Somerset Maugham, the medic-author of the famed Liza of Lambeth.
He will now be shuttling between Nairobi and London where he lives “on the edge of Karura Forest” and overlooking the River Thames, respectively. He says that although his coming to Kenya was entirely a matter of accident, he is happy the accident happened.
But these fond memories and tender feelings for the country are blighted by the fact that despite numerous visits to the Immigration offices, Dr Dawood has never been given Kenyan citizenship.
“I applied for my dual citizenship early last year, but it has been caught in various webs,” he says and adds that while he doesn’t blame Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku for the on-going clean up in the department, the civil service shouldn’t come to a standstill.
The award-winning author has received the Commonwealth Literature Prize and his book has also been nominated for the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award.
Dr Dawood is working on a television and radio series of Surgeon’s Diary. “We shall brand it as a Kenyan product and sell it all over the world,” he says.
Even though he titled his latest book The Last Word, he allays fears that he could be about to hang up the pen as well, saying: “The Last Word is the last of the quartet of books compiled from the Surgeon’s Diary, I will create a name for the next and the next work.”