While most families enjoyed the coming of a New Year in 2011, Mariam Ali still hurts when she recalls events of the beginning of that year. Her five-year-old son suddenly fell ill following what appeared to be poisoning. Hers is a tale of misery and torment. Mariam’s tears flowed as she narrated events of that black Tuesday to MWAURA MUIGANA.
“It had been a long time since we had a Christmas family re-union in our Siaya home. So, for 2010 Christmas, my husband who works with BBC Africa Service in Nairobi suggested we travel upcountry to be with his ageing mother and other family members. Our five-year-old son, John Asiamba, was not as excited as his sister Akinyi, 11. He didn’t want to miss his favourite TV cartoons and video games while in the village where there was no electricity.
‘Mum, I want to play with my friends and watch cartoons. You’ll will find me right here when you come back from Siaya,’ he pleaded. It took a lot of enticing to convince him to come with us. We had a pleasant drive to Siaya on December 22, 2010, where we received an overwhelming welcome by family and friends. John immediately made friends with his cousins and other children in the village. He was so happy that his cartoons and video games were easily forgotten. He would play outside the whole day and only come to the house to eat and sleep. He really enjoyed playing in the open fields, a contrast from the suffocating environment in Nairobi.
We planned to return to Nairobi on December 27 after Christmas to prepare the children for school, but since they seemed to be enjoying village life so much, we extended our stay to the New Year. My husband had to return to work on January 1, 2011 so he travelled earlier on December 30 with plans to come back for us. He got held up at work and also encountered some difficulties in raising money for our children’s school fees hence we ended up overstaying in Siaya to the point that our children missed returning to school for some time.
I remember the day as if it was yesterday – Sunday, February 9, 2011. My son came to me happily boasting how a woman he called ‘grandmother’ had favoured him and treated him to fried eggs to the exclusion of other children. I felt uncomfortable that he had eaten food from a stranger against all advice we had given but he seemed extremely happy. When he came back to the house later, he appeared a bit tired and dozed off before taking his supper.
John used to wake up early to escort his friends to school and he woke up on the morning of January 10 raring to go. He didn’t even have time to brush his teeth or take breakfast before he dashed out of the door. I had started feeling that John was becoming a disobedient child since we went upcountry, and I was also getting impatient that my husband had not come to pick us up. I wanted the children back to Nairobi and school and not sitting in the village watching other children go to school. John returned shortly carrying seven pieces of sugar cane, another gift from a ‘grandmother’.
‘I’ll not share my sugarcane with anyone…it’s all mine!’ he said possessively. He counted the pieces and safely put them aside. Shortly afterwards, he said, ‘mama, mimi nasikia kuchoka,’ (mum I’m feeling tired). I told him he needed to rest because he was always out playing. I made him some porridge, thinking that he could be getting a cold. Within no time, John appeared very sick. My mother-in-law made him some more porridge but he would not drink it. He refused to get out of bed. Assuming he was just being difficult, we let him sleep. But I had this uneasy feeling about my son, wondering what he could be catching. As a nurse who has taken care of sick children, I didn’t think my son’s symptoms were serious enough to require medical attention. Looking back, I wish I had taken him to hospital the minute he complained of tiredness.
The other strange thing that happened was that a neighbour came to our house with a companion, whom she described as a pastor from Uganda, and their mission was to pray for my son. She was at pains to explain how she knew my son was sick. I declined their prayer offer, but became quite anxious and suspicious about the goings-on around us. I tried to wake my son up, but he would just open his eyes with difficulty and slump back into bed and not talk to me. I was used to John’s stubbornness whenever he run even a light cold, so his behaviour did not ring any alarm bells. Whenever he was sick he refused to eat food or allow me feed him and sometimes we had to result to force-feeding.
Then came black Tuesday…
Late in the night, I woke to check my sleeping son. He didn’t respond to my calling though he was breathing. He had also not touched the food his grandmother had put by his side for dinner. His shoulders felt stiff so I decided to give him a warm bath, hoping that would stir him. I put him back to bed and went back to sleep. I was woken up later by his screams. I calmed him down but noticed that he had soiled the beddings, which was unusual, as he would always call me to take him to the toilet when he felt the urge. I changed his beddings and put him back to sleep.
I woke up at dawn to check on him and found he had wet the bed again. He had a strange look on his face, with eyes fixed as if he was staring at someone behind me. He didn’t seem to notice my presence. My mother-in-law walked into the room and noticed how disturbed I was. She held the boy in her hands and the expression on her face sent a shiver down my spine. Screaming at the top of my voice, I implored her to get a boda boda taxi to take my son to hospital.
My screams drew my sister-in-law’s attention and she came to check what was going on. She gave my son one look and walked out without saying a word. I was confused. She walked back with a bucket of water and gave my son a bath, dressed him in clean clothes and laid him on the bed. This confused me even more because nobody seemed in a hurry to take my son to hospital. I went into a panic. I kept asking why my son was just looking straight and not blinking, but no one gave me an answer.
Feeling nauseated and weak I couldn’t even hold my son when the boda boda taxi arrived to take him to hospital. My sister-in-law carefully wrapped him and put him on the taxi. I was awfully frightened when I felt my son gnaw his teeth and there was green foam coming out of his mouth and nose. Being a nurse by profession, I suspected John’s body was dealing with poison. He needed urgent medical attention. I rode with my sister-in-law in the taxi, totally confused as to what was going on. I didn’t even know where the taxi was taking us as I had not given any instructions but my sister-in-law seemed to be in control. After a short ride, I fell off the boda boda and hurt myself and dirtied my dress. I returned back home to change while my sister-in-law and my son continued with the journey.
After changing clothes, I took another boda boda and followed my sister-in-law and my son. I was completely immersed in my torment when I noticed the boda boda carrying my son driving back with my son still in my sister-in-laws hands. The two drivers spoke to each in whispers and when I asked what was going on the driver of my boda boda lied to me. He told me they were returning the child to his grandmother to be given some potent medicine, as he was very sick. Apparently, my son had died before reaching hospital.
We also turned back and followed my sister-in-laws’ boda boda. By the time we reached our homestead, it was filled with high-pitched cries, which of course meant there was a death in the family but not being a Luo, and still unaware that my son was dead, didn’t understand. I was scared and even more frightened when we reached the door and I saw my son’s body sprawled on the floor. I thought he had fainted and ran to hold him. To my shock, his body was stiff and cold. Now I knew why people were wailing. My son was dead. I don’t recall what happened after that. I must have fainted. When I came to, reality dawned on me that my son was dead and a sharp pain that has persisted since pierced me.
I recall the neighbour who had brought in a preacher, consoling me and telling me not to tell my husband what had happened. My son’s friends were all tears when they came from school and John was nowhere to play with them. One of the children promised to tell me what happened to my son if I promised not to tell anyone. He told me that my son was picked by a woman from the playing field where they were engaged in their games and given some fried eggs. The other children were jealous because only their friend ‘from the city’ had been given eggs.
I was shown the woman and when I asked her what she had given my son, she cried and said she could not harm the little boy whom she ‘loved very much’. She accused me of acting on false information from people envious of our friendship. She pleaded that we forget the rumours and sustain our relationship since we were family. Even if there were family grudges, my son should not have been used to settle scores. My son was a small, innocent angel. Though it hurts badly when I think of him and how his young life was cut short, I have left everything to God, who is the best judge.
When I called my husband to inform him of our son’s death, I found his phone switched off. I called the office and they told me he had already left for the day. I called his close friend and colleague and asked him to pass the news to him. My husband called back after getting the message and when I told him our son was no more, he told me I must be out of mind and disconnected the call. He was shocked beyond words. He immediately travelled home.
Since I am a Muslim, John was buried on the same day. The burial was a very sad affair. I thought it was a bad dream, which I would wake up from. I could visualise my son running to me and lovingly embracing him. I recall it rained heavily soon after the burial and I cried my heart out for leaving my son outside in the rain while I sheltered in the comfort of our house. The reality painfully and slowly dawned into a traumatic experience that haunts me up to this day.
We realised staying upcountry was deepening the shock and hurt. We needed to get as far away as possible to forget everything. We returned to Nairobi the following day. Sadly, one can never forget the death of a loved one no matter how far you run away. The pain in my heart is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
Back in Nairobi without my son, my heart and body were battered so badly that I could not handle our one-year-old baby, Yasmin, properly. I was apprehensive of going out in case neighbours and friends asked where John was and what killed him. While I knew where he was – buried six foot under in some village in Siaya – I didn’t have an idea of what killed him, as a post-mortem was not done. I have no clear answers to many questions but a strong belief that my son was poisoned.
Our daughter Akinyi took the death of her brother very hard. She couldn’t also handle the many questions she was being asked at school and in our neighbourhood and she was always crying. She was so traumatised that she missed school the entire term. I was also not coping very well. I went into depression. I moved to Mombasa to live temporarily with my mother. She recognised I needed psychiatric help and took me to hospital. This helped me to start living again although I’m still haunted by the death of my son. I feel the guilt of not realising my son was very sick and taking him to hospital in good time. I hope with time this painful wound will heal.”
Published in January 2012