The increased cases of violence and sexual abuse in the country should be a point of concern to us all. It is this fear that has inspired Dr Kizzie Shako to become an advocate for victims of violence and abuse through the office of the Police Surgery Unit. Although the 34-year-old award-winning doctor started out in the field of forensic pathology dealing with the dead, she now speaks for the living too. She speaks to ESTHER AKELLO on her journey and what her job entails.
If you have ever watched the American hit TV series CSI where brilliant cops hit the streets to collect crime scene evidence and dissect dead bodies to deduce the corpses cause of death leading to the prosecution of a suspect or perpetrator, then you can relate with Dr Kizzie Shako when she says this is her dream career.
“I have always been curious. I realised I wanted to be involved in forensic pathology -the science of examining the cause of death of a corpse among other things- from an early age,” says the doctor adding people are often taken aback by her passion, dismissing it as morbid and an unhealthy fascination with death.
However, they say man plans and God laughs and while Dr Shako was planning how to develop her corpse-handling career, life decided the living had better use for her. In 2012, she was seconded to the Police Surgery Unit by the Ministry of Health to help police collect evidence through injury interpretation to bring perpetrators to book. This involved dealing with victims of adult and child violence, rape and sexual abuse, commonly referred to as special case victims, dead or alive.
“In 2010 I started searching for a masters degree course in forensic medicine with more focus on forensic pathology. However, the course I found was a distance learning degree in clinical forensic medicine offered by Monash University in Australia. It focussed more on the living injured, with a few aspects of forensic
pathology and anthropology. It was not as close to what I wanted to do but I thought it was better not to waste the opportunity,” she explains adding that if there is one thing she has become used to by now, is the fact that her career has decidedly taken a life of its own.
Back in 2010, Dr Shako had to watch as her fellow interns finished their internships and got posted to other hospitals as she languished on for another year at the institution she had been posted. “Somewhere towards the end of my internship, getting my internship results from the administration proved to be a hurdle and I had to stay on another year with no salary or allowance. Thankfully, the ministry noted the anomaly, investigated the matter and gave me my results. Upon further discussion over where I would prefer to be posted, without hesitation, I requested to be attached to any mortuary in the country,” she explains.
She ended up at the City Mortuary under the tutelage of renowned veteran and government chief pathologist Johansen Oduor, who trained her and later on supervised her autopsies. In 2014, the Police Surgery Unit came calling and she was swimming in new waters.
The road to activism…
For Dr Shako, being seconded to the Police Surgery Unit brought her to the brutal reality of the effects of violence. “The closest I had ever gotten to dealing with cases of sexual violence was when a six-year-old victim was put on my autopsy table. After examining her, I realised she had been abused prior to being murdered. To this day, that remains the most traumatic case I have had to deal with,” she says.
Even then, Dr Shako admits there was no real connection with the victims she conducted autopsies on, as they were already dead. However, at the Police Surgery Unit, she was forced to come to terms with the pain and trauma victims undergo. Not only that, she also found herself summoned to court to testify as a witness in their cases; something she didn’t look forward to.
“Initially the idea of being cross-examined and saying the wrong thing that could lead to a perpetrator walking free was so strong that I avoided testifying altogether. However, I realised that in addition to not fulfilling one end of my job, I was also letting down victims who were looking to me to help tell their side of the story. I resolved from then on to carry the burden if it meant bringing sanity and closure to even one victim,” she confesses.
That being said, there is no typical day for the soft-spoken doctor, as each special case file has its own intricacies. And while the Ministry of Health seconded her to the police service, she still has to deal with other responsibilities at the ministry. “Work can be strenuous. I report to the Ministry of Health and at the Kenya Police and I am expected to deliver on both ends. Often times, work at the ministry involves more of trainings, policy formulation on pathology and forensic aspects although from time to time I can also handle a corpse,” she articulates.
Dr Shako has also noted a disturbing pattern in her cases. “When I started out, I would see about three or four cases a day and now I deal with up to 12 cases daily. The number is higher when schools close,” she reveals.
Frustrated at the rise in the number of victims, she decided to do more and started a blog – Vunja Kimya (break the silence). “I realised some issues were across-the-board regardless of status, class or tribe but peoples’ ignorance on the issues perpetuated a negative attitude to an already taboo topic in society. I wanted to put a positive spin on the stories such as what to do to avoid vulnerable situations, or what to do in case you are already in one. The fact that people have responded with their own experiences is an indication that I am doing something right,” she reckons.
However, in a country where many people find justice to be elusive with the police force being rated as among one of the least trusted departments nationwide, should Kenyans engage the force and even believe that justice prevails?
“From my observation, the police work very fast especially as first responders. The system may not work for everyone but that should not be taken to mean it does not work at all. The fact that I am always in court is a testament that someone somewhere is doing their job and some perpetrators have been successfully prosecuted,” she says defensively.
In 2015, Dr Shako received recognition and was awarded the prestigious Business Daily Top 40 Women Under 40 award and labelled as Kenya’s only female police surgeon, a label she is wary of, terming it as a misconception created by the media.
“I want to be clear that, the Police Surgery offices are located in Nairobi. In Nairobi, we are a team of three and I am the only woman. However, there are other doctors in the country who do the kind of work I do. As for the question as to whether my gender is a big feat or achievement, I have never really thought about it because I am used to it to the point it seems normal,” she clarifies.
That notwithstanding, her work comes with a lot of challenges, for instance, owing to the fact that they are few at the Police Surgery Unit, there is little time left for anything else other than work and leave days seem like a pipedream. In addition, due to lack of manpower, other medical practitioners’ inadequate training with regard to abuse issues is glaring.
“We need to create awareness on issues surrounding sexual abuse, protection, policy making and advocacy especially of children. It has taken 10 years for me to learn all I know in this field and I am still learning. It is better to prevent fires than spend massive resources trying to put them out,” she emphasises on the abuse and violence plaguing the society.
Admittedly, the doctor says her work does not leave her with much time for anything but the one unit she will not compromise on is her family and specifically her almost four-year-old son, Levi. The single mother of one says becoming a parent has heightened her need to spread the awareness message.
“I evaluate every situation and I am very cautious and observant of any child around me. Sometimes I find myself investigating people or reading their nonverbal cues and upon further investigations, most admit to a history of alcoholism, violence or abuse,” she says.
While Dr Shako says all children are the same, her worry is the boy child has been forgotten even as women empowerment, a noble and much-needed move, is ongoing worldwide.
“We need to empower all children because angry children become angry adults who then sire other angry children and the cycle continues. However, my concern for the boy child is that if he is left behind, he may not be able to deal with an empowered woman and this can be catastrophic to their ego leading to a lot of internal issues which in my profession, have been manifested physically and negatively,” she expounds.
Despite how disturbing some might find her profession, Dr Shako says she does not have nightmares. Nonetheless, she does have moments when she takes some private time to center herself or spends time with friends and family, although strict doctor patient regulations prevent her from divulging case details. While it is recommended that professionals in her line of work get appointed counsellors to help ease their emotional burden, the lack of manpower has not this seen aspect of her work come to fruition. But she is determined to push on. It is in this spirit that she reveals that she is working on a book that deals with abuse issues and has even resumed her classes in forensic medicine in a bid to fulfill her dream of being fully involved in it.
Published in September 2016