Askari! Your Wife Needs Surgery!

It was 5 o clock. Daniel was walking from the busy and dusty roads of Kawangare, through the serene and shaded roads of Lavington and then on to Westlands. He had to report to work by 6pm. He had walked this route for the last 3 years and could walk it blindfolded.

His favourite part of his daily trek, was a stretch through Riverside drive, where he got to cross the Nairobi river or is it the Chiromo river? He was never too sure. The narrow rocky path snaked between the high stone walls of two private compounds that opened to a small patch of green, apparently no man’s land on the banks of the river. It reminded him of shags. How long would it be before someone grabbed it?

The only thing he hated about the stretch was having walk across a thick sewage pipe over the polluted river. It was a simple task but he remained extra careful. No one had fallen over but it could get slippery when it rained, increasing the chance of slipping and getting injured. Any stupid act that could land one in a hospital had to be avoided. The cost of health care in Nairobi could kill you.

He walked up the steep winding path that led him onto Rhapta road and hurried on. He passed a beautifully manicured home as a white lady stepped out to walk her shaggy and small dog. She flashed him of those plastic smiles and then looked to the ground. One of these fine days, he would get to work for one of these expats, especially a diplomat. They said one could live on the tips from the employer alone.

Five years ago, Daniel arrived in Nairobi straight from the village in Nyanza, as a naive youngster seeking a job to support his new family and an opportunity to prosper. He had tried the mjengo sector, working as an unskilled construction labour, mostly doing the heavy lifting and it was short lived. Then he moved to the security sector after a relative got him a job as a watchman.

The money was nothing to talk about but at least it was steady. 7 nights a week, 21 days paid leave, was as good as it got. Throw in some car washing duties and errands for tips and the income could be supplemented. As he approached his workstation, there was lot weighing on his mind.

His wife in the village had been rushed to the nearest clinic earlier in the morning. They were expecting their second child. His phone had run out charge before he could get the latest update and he had to charge it.

He had worked in the same station for about 9 months. The residents of this apartment block were very private. Everyone kept to themselves. They came in three distinct categories.

The ones who did not see you. They hardly made any eye contact and only talked to the watchman when they wanted to complain about a neighbour or when you took too long to open the gate. Then there was the type that called him, “Askari”. They raised a palm as they drove in. Sometimes they made small talk, mostly to gauge the political climate to know whether they would be safe from his kind in the city during the election.

Then there was the 1 percent. Those who saw him, knew his name, made time to talk and treated him like somebody. In this apartment block, there was only two of that sort out of 30 residents. One of them was away. The pilot. The other guy, the guy of Biashara, was around.  Daniel was banking on him.

As soon as he plugged in the phone and switched it on, it rang. It was his brother in village. He picked the angst in his voice. Things were thick. The 2000 shillings he sent the day before had all been spent on transport. They had visited three public hospitals. There were no doctors.

“This doctors’ strike thing is no joke”.

A complication had occurred in the pregnancy. His brother was apologetic when he explained that they were forced to take her to the only private hospital in the area. They had no choice. His wife was facing an emergency. She would need to be taken into the theatre. His heart sunk.

“How much do they want?”

“15” his brother replied.

Thank God, he had exactly 1570 in his Mpesa account.

He sent the money and his brother called back immediately.

“Sorry but 1 meant 15 000 shillings!”

They needed a deposit before she could be admitted to the theatre. That is the price. He tried speaking to the admission clerk and got a very stony response. No money. No treatment. Where was he going to get that kind of money at 7.30pm in Nairobi?  His wife and child could die. He had to think.

He made a few calls but all he got were, “Jameni! Pole. God will find a way!”  Then he remembered the Biashara guy in B5. He would try his luck. The worst that could happen was a rejection.

So he gathered some courage, knocked on the door and there was no response and then pressed the bell. The Biashara guy appeared in shorts and a T shirt but quickly dismissed him. He was busy on the phone. He would talk to Daniel later. There goes his only hope.

Daniel picked up his phone again and tried to reach an uncle in Nairobi who always chaired funeral committees. He would find a way but even the resourceful uncle was at his wits’ ends. It was the 20th of the month. No one had been paid and it was January. “Si, unajua?”

The time on his phone read 8.30 and he had run out options.

Finally, the Biashara guy stepped out for a cigarette and listened to his earnest plea for help. Without hesitation, he went back to his house for his phone and sent him 6000 on Mpesa.  Daniel thanked the man, over and over again until it got embarrassing and Biashara guy calmed him down.

Then Daniel got back to his brother and sent the money with explicit instructions.

Make sure she is admitted, we have more than half. We will get them the rest. Insist, we have more than half. Insist. Please Insist”.

15 minutes later, his brother called back. They had agreed and for the first time that night, he felt some relief.

The Biashara guy settled back into his house in time for the 9 pm news broadcast. There was a studio interview that featured the officials of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board officials stating their position on the strike and the contentious failed CBA agreement. There was no solution in sight 52 days in.

The Biashara guy knew people were hurting but only until now, did he realise how badly.

Now he knew.


Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Kipkoech

    The Kenya today, you can’t afford to be sick.

  2. How true, How real, How sad…the poor are suffering. Where are our leaders…..just sad

    • Hey Wahome, a time to stay awake and have more compassion and speak out for those doing worse than us.

  3. Quite some good read. I love Pala’s writtings

  4. So painfully true wuod Gem, the Kenya of 21st century is brutally alien to me. A country where voter registration supersedes the clamour for better health care.

  5. This is very real, the shoe is pinching others more than it does us. I’ll need to reflect and share more.

  6. Joshua Odanga

    A society where partisan leaders spend Billions of Tax-payers money to front a questionable-credential plagued official for AU top post while Kenyans are dying of thirst and starvation and 52 days without access to Constitutionally guaranteed health care . When a leader hopes into a plane to lobby for AU post, when tens of soldiers have just been killed by the Shebaab? Such society is destined to fail.

  7. Gabriel Okumu

    This is reality for many of our folks. The things many take for granted. Thanks´for highlighting

  8. This is not just a poor man’s problem, rather it is all our problem. There’s only so much one can ride on insurance for private hospitals before it runs out and one is forced into the public system.
    We’ve all known how we rank a distant last to our politicians’ priority lists. I just wonder why we go and vote for them again and again.

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