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A woman’s love for the dead is shattering cultural boundaries

With over 10 years’ experience as a mortuary attendant in various morgues in Naivasha, Nairobi and the Coast region,Wairimu has seen it all

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Mrs Gladwell Wairimu taking a break outside the mortuary at Moi County Referral Hospital in Voi. Credit: KNA

From the cool, almost chilly, interior of Moi County Referral Hospital mortuary, the sharp metallic click of a rusty steel-lock handle being turned reverberates through the eerily quiet room.

Then comesthe screech of a heavy cabinet door opening, followed by a drawer being dragged out. Moments later, a strong unpleasant, stuffy sneeze-inducing smell heavily tainted with formalin suffuses the air.  After a while, there is another loud screech and a bang; the drawer is slammed and the door bangs shut. The sharp whiff of embalming chemicals subsides.

The soft shuffling sound of muffled footsteps approach and from the slightly darkened doorway, she appears.Dressed in a blue ankle-length garb, cream-colored latex gloves, a head gear and a white mouth piece, Ms Gladwell Wairimu, a short woman of slight build, resembles a scrub nurse who has just walked out of a surgery room.

With a practiced move, she takes off her gloves and mouthpiece in a fluid unconscious gesture that is graceful to watch.

“I am a surgeon for the dead; I cut them open to find out what killed them,” she notes calmly as she drags a plastic chair under a tree some meters away from the thick mortuary walls.

Even from that distance, the steady hum of machines that keep the freezers working is audible.At the age of 37, Wairimu prides herself in being the only female mortuary attendant at Moi County Referral Hospital, the biggest health facility in Taita-Taveta County.

READ: Why men earn more than women for the same job

She prefers the grander title of ‘The Undertaker’, saying it gives her work a classy touch.  Her calm open face, self-assured smile and crinkly eyes betray nothing about what she does for a living but as a woman, she has defied cultural dictates, gender stereotypes and employment norms to work in a facility few people, men included, would dare venture in.

With over 10 years’ experience as a mortuary attendant in various morgues in Naivasha, Nairobi and the Coast region,Wairimu has seen it all.  She has lost count of the bodies that have passed through her hands for preparation before their final journey in the afterlife but estimates they run into their thousands.

Understandably, most people are wont to shudder and recoil in fright at the relish she exhibits when narrating her experience with the dead bodies. The tales are as macabre as they are spooky but to the mother of eight, her passion comes from a genuine desire to give the dead the honour and respect they deserve in the afterlife.

Her love affair with the dead started in 2002 when the body of her cousin was discovered buried in a shallow grave in a house in Naivasha 11 days after she was brutally murdered by her husband. The body was at an advanced stage of cellular breakdown.

None of Wairimu’s relatives was brave enough to witness the post mortem that was conducted by police, but she volunteered and stood calmly throughout the operation; she later signed the report before going out to inform her spooked relatives what had transpired.

Long-distance trucker

“I had to be strong for my cousin; no one else was willing to stand for her in death,” she says, adding that that unique experience sowed in her heart a strong passion and compassion for the dead.

Further, her passion grew when she was employed as a long-distance trucker.

“In the course of my work, I would witness hundreds of fatal accidents along the highway,” she says, noting that as a trucker, it was her responsibility to assist fellow road users and so was actively involved in retrieving the injured from the crash sites and extracting dead bodies from mangled wrecks.

With such a gory background, it comes as no surprise that Wairimu would finally find her true calling working among the dead. She admits that working at the Moi county referral morgue is one of the most challenging experiences for ‘the undertaker’.

SEE: 24 simple steps that will transform your life 

Unlike other public mortuaries, Moi hospital morgue is one of the busiest. Being a public mortuary, it acts as a dumping site for all bodies found along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway or recovered from Tsavo National Park.

Apart from accident victims and patients who pass away while undergoing treatment at the hospital, the morgue is also the sole recipient of bodies of poachers killed inside the expansive Tsavo Park.

Even with her years of experience as a morgue attendant, she concedes that some assignments are very challenging especially if they involve dealing with bodies left for long at the mercy of the elements in the expansive park.

“Some are partially devoured by wild animals and it is up to me to reconstruct them and make them look almost as presentable as they did when alive,” she says adding: “The sweltering temperatures in the region accelerate the dissolution of body tissues left out in the open.”

Once they are brought into the morgue, her work starts. It involves careful reconstruction to ensure bodies appear intact to family members.

“This is often the case where a body is badly damaged and needs to be fixed through re-attachment of parts that were torn apart,” she says.

Wairimu says that it also involves administering of formaldehyde; a powerful chemical that once mixed with water, becomes a preservative and keeps the body in good condition.

ALSO SEE: Would-be pilot ends up as mortuary attendant

She points out that one must be well-versed in physical sciences so as to know the right amount of chemicals to administer. Knowledge on how to determine aspects like body mass and location of veins in the body comes in handy to avoid destroying the body.

“Most people think morgue workers are unintelligent lot who only require to be able bodied enough to carry corpses,” she says adding that if too little formalin is applied, it would slow down body cellular breakdown for a body with large mass.

“But we do more than that. We carefully administer chemicals intravenously to ensure the body doesn’t go bad. We must be good in body science too,” she says.

Her most trying moment istrying to find the next of kin to claim the body of their loved one.

“The dead need love just like the living. Abandoned bodies which lie in the mortuary months on end break my heart,” says Wairimu.

Gladwell-Wairimu-2-1024x576 A woman’s love for the dead is shattering cultural boundaries

Gladwell Wairimu pushes a gurney inside the mortuary at Moi Hospital, Voi. Credit: KNA

She opines that relatives and family members of the deceased might be desperately trying to find their loved one; it is her responsibility to try all channels to trace and inform them the whereabouts of the deceased.

“When I can’t trace them, I resignedly accept that the body must be disposed of and it is then buried in an unmarked grave according to hospital regulations, after obtaining disposal orders from the court,” she notes.

Wairimu defends her colleagues, saying that undertakers are the most misunderstood employees by the public, with many believing that morgue attendants are heavy drug abusers who cannot function unless they are stoned.

“Personally, I have never used drugs in my life; understanding that the dead are part of society is the key to living at peace even in the mortuary,” says Ms. Wairimu, who is comfortable in eating snacks and drinking between postmortem breaks.

She says the only difference between working with the living and the dead is that the latter are silent and don’t talk back to her, adding she equates such silence to having friends who didn’t speak.

Wairimu praises the hospital administration and her male colleagues for not discriminating against her because she is a woman.

Taboo

“I faithfully attend my shifts and have never asked them to reduce my workload or to assign me a less strenuous shift,” says Wairimu adding that this is an indicator men do recognise that women can perform assignments that appear daunting.

She, however, expresses regret that some of her relatives stopped speaking to her, averring that it is a taboo for a woman to earn a living from handling dead bodies.

“Such views come from lack of understanding the role a mortician plays,” she notes.

Moi Hospital administrator Mr Richard Nguti terms ‘The Undertaker’ as very passionate about her work.

“She is always punctual, prompt and dedicated; an asset to the department of morgue at the facility,” he adds.

Related: What killed Dr Mukhisa Kituyi’s son?

Wairimu attributes her strength to the massive support she receives from her immediate family which has not been affected by her work. “Infact, my husband is very supportive,” she discloses saying that if he wasn’t gainfully employed, her work would support the family adding that he even encourages her to  put in extra hours to earn extra cash.

Her children are also intrigued by her work in a morgue and one timewere excited when they found her wrapping up a postmortem operation.

“The children went home and narrated to a terrified house help what their mother does for a living.That was the last time my house help ever washed my clothes,” she said notingshe couldn’t bear to touch them.

Despite the challenges she grapples with in her line of work, Wairimu plans to one day open a low-cost funeral home which will cater for low income earners where she will offer top-class services at affordable prices.

“Operating a funeral home is good business; however, the exorbitant prices charged by private funeral homes is a drain on the finances of poor people,” she says. “My future investment will be a morgue. This is a service that is needed by all and I hope to achieve that dream,” she says.

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Business Unusual

Would-be pilot ends up as mortuary attendant

Leshan Lontubu, a mortuary attendant in Narok, however, decries the many stereotypes being propagated about people who work in a morgue such as that one must be an alcoholic or a drug addict

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In many African cultures, death and the dead are feared and revered, and the sheer mention of a mortuary, a house where the dead are kept before their burial sends a collective shiver down the spine of many people.

Being a mortuary attendant is a job that most people abhor despite the joblessness that engulfs the country but one man has been working in a morgue for 11 years and for him, things can only get better. Mortuary attendants work in hospitals, mortuaries, funeral homes and county coroner offices.

Meet 42-year-old Leshan Lontubu; a Mortuary Superintendent (in charge) at Narok Referral Hospital mortuary and the second born in a family of six, when he was young he wanted to be a pilot or a doctor but things did not go his way. He got this job after completing his Form Four and later went on to study a certificate course in mortuary science at Chiromo campus of the University of Nairobi.

To him, the job is a calling and just not an ordinary like any other. Leshan says he loves his work of a mortuary attendant so much and could have asked for more since it was his choice.

Being a mortuary attendant, Leshan`s job entails receiving the bodies in the morgue, cleaning the bodies, labeling them properly for identification and preparing them for preservation by applying various chemicals required for the purpose and ensuring that the bodies are properly stored in the refrigerator.

Handling the dead

He also prepares the bodies for postmortem and is required to be physically present to help the pathologist bisect the body to determine the cause of death and then take back the body for preservation after postmortem.

As the mortuary Superintendent the Hospital mortuary, Leshan is also required to complete the necessary paper work to receive and release the body to the relatives or to any other person if there is a court order. “You see, in this country there are laws that govern how you handle and interact with the dead,” he says.

ALSO SEEThe worst jobs in Kenya are actually the most popular

He says working with the dead gives him satisfaction to help honour the departed and give them their last respects. He says he even sits with his family and advices them as a father to follow his footsteps, adding that it’s a job like any other.

Emotional job

But jokes that all long, his family has never been comfortable with his choice of job but later came to accept his choice and support him.

Mortuary attendants other than high school certificate or general education are required to have at least a diploma in mortuary science and can advance this to a degree or beyond. In this country, University of Nairobi is the only institution known to offer this course up to the highest level at its Chiromo Campus.

Being an emotional job, mortuary attendant is required to maintain composure in the face of extremely difficult circumstance. Physical fitness is necessary, as is attention to details. Most mortuary attendants training is learned on the job. If you plan to become a funeral director or, you will need a four-year degree in mortuary science.

Leshan says he is married and blessed with two boys and one girl who support and value his job. He says one of the challenges they face is when they get bodies that have gone very bad or unknown bodies that are difficult to identify before the postmortem is done, which could due to being disfigured in an accident or fire, for example.

“In this case, genetic tests called DNA is done on samples from the bodies and from those claiming the bodies,” says Leshan.

There are many stereotypes being propagated about people who work in a morgue. One of the myths is that a mortuary attendant must be an alcoholic or a drug addict but Leshan dismisses this saying they serve people who are not happy but sad people so one must be sober in order to help them deal with the loss.

Stigmatised

He says serving people who have lost their loved ones also affects him as a human being so most of the time he is not in a happy mood. “It’s a job that requires one to be in a sober mind in order to help detect the causes of the death of a patient and he even becomes bitter about these myths being spread about mortuary attendants,” Leshan says.

Leshan says some people claim the mortuary attendants are not human beings otherwise how can one live and work in an environment full of dead bodies but he says contrary to this belief mortuary attendants are human beings with feelings and theirs is a job just like any other.

He says as a mortuary attendants, they are stigmatised and even when walking on the streets, many people don’t want to associate with him and some are even heard saying, ‘that is the mortuary guy’.

Lontubu-211x300 Would-be pilot ends up as mortuary attendant

Leshan Lontubu, a mortuary superintendent (in charge) at Narok Referral Hospital mortuary speaking to this reporter at the morgue. Credit: KNA

Leshan also says people have a myth that a person working in a morgue can communicate with the dead, adding that this is very wrong as no human being can communicate with the dead.

Another myth is that people believe people who are brought in the morgue and are not dead are killed by the mortuary attendant, an allegation that Leshau categorically denies.

He says that mortuary attendants are also human beings with feeling and besides the bodies are normally confirmed and certified dead through a number of tests carried out just to be sure that indeed they are dead.

READ: Mother who killed son for Sh20

Leshau also says when body is brought to the morgue, its refrigerated after three hours and this is just in case the person is found to be alive which has never occurred, but just in case it occurs, a doctor is required to be called in immediately and the patient is taken to a ward at the hospital for assistance but the matter is kept confidential.

He views his work with dead bodies as a calling and contrary to myth that people who work in a morgue experience nightmares, Leshau has never had any nightmare. “When I’m out of the morgue, I forgets everything that has happened that day and concentrates on his family,” Leshau says.

Leshan says members of the public should be sensitised about careers such as his because young people are shying away from these kind of careers because of misconceptions and very soon, such careers will not have the necessary manpower to run them and yet they are careers like any other and are important to the society.

“Imagine a world without mortuaries, or mortuaries without the people who work in there,” Leshan says.

Many youth engage in activities which ruin their lives after becoming desperate to get a job and make a living but Leshau advises every jobless youth not to be too selective in career choice and should consider a career in Mortuary Science which is grossly understaffed and afterwards be counseled and sensitized on the issue of death.

Just like any other job, mortuary attendants face a number of challenges; handling people who are in pain by trying to fit in their shoes is a bit difficult as Leshan has found which is a bit difficult.

Overstretched facilities

He recalls one particular incident where he was dealing with family members who were too traumatised after losing several members in an accident and he had to understand and communicate to them though a family spokesman.

Narok Referral Hospital Mortuary where Leshan works was built to serve only the hospital but it serves the whole county and as a result, the facilities are overstretched thus increasing the workload for the mortuary attendants who are there.

Related: Autopsy reveals Chris Msando’s painful death

The work load is too high as there are only two mortuaries in county, one at Kilgoris District Hospital and the one at Narok Referral hospital where Leshau works. Because of the failure of ordinary wananchi to take up such jobs Leshau and his colleagues are overworked.

Leshan, for instance, is thinking about going to further his studies but he cannot be released because there is no replacement. And the community needs him. Facilities too, are not adequate and one can easily contract a disease in the morgue, but luckily, this has never happened to him.

Leshan says in his career he has observed that people fear the dead and would like to further his studies in order to educate and sensitize the public about Mortuary Sciences and other careers which are grossly misunderstood. He advises young people to take on this job as a career as it is a job just like any other.

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Business Unusual

Kenya turns into a beggars’ paradise

Statistics show that the percentage of beggars in Kenya has risen from 6 to 12.5 in the past five years

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A beggar on the streets of Thika town. The beggars are ferried by car, motorbike or tuktuk to their respective slots by enthusiastic handlers, who pick them promptly in the evening after a day’s collectio

Kenya is ranked the most generous country in Africa as most Kenyans have no problem sharing their meager resources with other Kenyans thus the coined the Harambee adage.

The country’s generosity, research indicate, has been growing in time making beggars’ rate to rise significantly. Statistics show that the percentage of beggars in Kenya has risen from 6 to 12.5 in the past five years. Beggars coming from as far as Rwanda and Tanzania have found refuge in Kenya considering the generosity of the Kenyan people.

Our immediate neighbours from Tanzania have contributed 4% of the new beggars in the country’s cities and towns.

In Thika, for instance, there are over 100 beggars spread across the various corridors and markets within the town and it is surprising that most of the beggars are not residents of the town.

READ: 11 fuel saving tips for Kenyan drivers

Early in the morning, beggars are ferried by car, motorbike or tuktuk to their respective slots by enthusiastic handlers who pick them promptly in the evening after a day’s collection.

Pablo Musioka, a street beggar who hails from Tanzania, has been on Kenyan soil for the last seven years where he has been getting his bread and donations from well-wishers.

He has a wheel chair that was donated to him by a Kenyan well-wisher and this was the greatest achievement for him as he can move around more easily.

“I never went to school because my mother was poor and a single parent. At first she was ashamed of me and she would leave me locked up in the house when she went out to fend for us. We lived in the interior parts of Makena after we left our home country until I was introduced to the streets to beg,” said Musioka.

Beggars, who are mostly led to the streets by family members or fellow beggars, sometimes have no other alternative than stretching out their hands for well-wishers help.

Musioka and his mother came in search for job in Thika town and this was how he was initiated to the street as a beggar. He has been on Thika streets for seven years now with his mother who ferries him daily to go and beg.

“My mother carries me to the streets every morning and picks me up in the evening. It’s been seven years now and my mother is now weak and fragile, she can’t work anymore. I am the sole bread winner. I can’t quit begging,” added Musioka.

ALSO SEE: Kenya ranked most generous nation

Miremba Natukunda from Uganda has been a street beggar for three years. She has a paralysed child who is psychologically disturbed. She doesn’t have any family in Kenya except the well-wishers who feed her and her son.

Natukunda, who resides in the sprawling Kiandutu slums, has been living in Kenya for the last three years and she says that Kenyan people are more generous than her people back home and to her Kenya is more than her native home.

“I do not have relatives in Kenya and I do not wish to go back to Uganda because my home now is in Kenya. My husband together with his relatives threw me out of their home after they discovered that my child was paralyzed,” Natukunda said. “I realised I had to protect my son and that is how I took off and came to Thika a place that I now call home,” revealed Natukunda.

SEE: Self-development advice that will transform your life

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Business Unusual

Kenyans rearing crickets to meet growing demand for special proteins

The cost of establishing a basic system is about Ksh3,096 (US$30), in addition to the cost of the initial breeding colony

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A kilogramme of crickets can sell for approximately Ksh516, according to those rearing them.

When Jane Mbiriri’s granddaughter was diagnosed with acute malnutrition six months ago, she had limited knowhow on the best remedy for the condition and only wallowed in self-pity in her humble house located in rural central Kenya.

The 62-year-old farmer was at wit’s end having no stable source of income to afford a balanced diet for the granddaughter as recommended by the physician. Mbiriri is currently raising three of her grandchildren following the demise of her only daughter one year ago.

However, her search for an affordable and sustainable source of protein for her granddaughter led her into discovering cricket flour which, as she puts it, got her granddaughter’s growth curve back on track. Scientists have in the past cited crickets as a great source of protein compared to soya beans and beef, which are among the conventional sources of proteins.

Cricket floor

In Mbiriri’s case, the insects, which are slowly finding their way into Kenyan recipes, have proved their worth. “At first when a friend recommended cricket flour and promised to get me some from her source in western Kenya, I almost turned down the offer since I had never heard of it,” Mbiriri told Xinhua. “But my options were limited. My dairy cows do not earn me enough to afford the kind of food these children are supposed to eat.”

She has since embraced cricket flour, which has immensely improved her granddaughter’s health, and is contemplating on rearing the insects herself. “In our last visit to the doctor one month ago, I was very happy with the results as my grandchild has now gained weight unlike previous visits,” Mbiriri said. “The cricket flour is not as expensive as other flours and now that I have established a relationship with the supplier, I get discounts from time to time,” she said.

Initially she bought the cricket flour from a farmer in western Kenya but she has now established a new source not far from her home, where cricket farming is gaining traction.

READ: Cockroach milk more nutritious more than cow’s
SEE: Raila’s daughter makes millions from farming snails

“I also plan to venture into cricket farming, which from what I see is paying more even than dairy farming as the crickets are not capital intensive,” Mbiriri said.

She belongs to a growing army of small holder farmers who have gradually embraced cricket farming.

Joseph Kairu took up cricket farming recently. The cost of establishing a basic system is about Ksh3,096 (US$30), in addition to the cost of the initial breeding colony of crickets.

To start such a colony, at least 200 crickets are required, and the colony should not be used for feeding until well established and the first babies mature into adults.

Kairu, who has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, saw a rising demand for cricket flour as an alternative source of protein for people residing in rural areas. “I come across so many cases of malnourished children. I realized there is a need for alternative sources of protein after a recent assignment in Turkana, where for every 10 babies that I attended to, more than seven suffered from high protein-energy malnutrition,” Kairu told Xinhua.

ALSO SEE: How to choose fats that improve your health

Even though most Kenyans are still debating on whether to embrace alternative eating habits, there are those like Mbiriri and Kairu doing it and seeing the results. “There is a group of women in western Kenya who are already earning huge income from cricket farming and that is where I got some of the tips on cricket rearing,” Kairu said.

Members of the group, made of 20 farmers, rear crickets each on their own but market their products collectively.

One of their clients is a leading hotel in Kisumu. “This is where I came across the different ways in which the crickets can be prepared,” Kairu said.

According to Kairu, a kilogramme of crickets can sell for approximately Ksh516. “We are still far from embracing such alternative sources of vital nutrients, but with proper marketing and heath campaigns, I believe Kenyans will respond positively,” said Kairu.

READ: 20 things in your house that are dirtier than the toilet seat

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Business News

Donkey meat used in producing medicine

Chinese nationals are keen on trading for the donkey hides and private parts for use in their thriving pharmaceutical industries.

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Staff from Star Brilliant slaughterhouse in Naivasha work in the facility that currently slaughters over 100 donkeys per day. Photo / KNA

China and South Korea are now the main market for the country’s donkey by-products including hides and private parts said to be used for production of medicines including fertility ones. Kenya already has three donkey slaughterhouses both in Naivasha, Mogotio and Lodwar where demand for the donkey has been on the rise.

The Chief Executive Officer of Naivasha-based Star Brilliant slaughterhouse John Ngonjo Kariuki said production of the donkey products had doubled in the last one year despite a number of challenges facing the sector.

He told the press after a tour of the facility, which has employed 150 workers, that Chinese nationals are keen on trading for the donkey hides and private parts for use in their thriving pharmaceutical industries. “The Chinese are using the donkey products for production of pharmaceutical and fertility products,” he said.

The CEO added that currently the Naivasha abattoir was slaughtering over 100 donkeys per day but this is expected to double following the acquisition of a Ksh20 million refrigerating machine.

“We have a new market in South Korea and we are making plans to start exporting donkey milk which is very nutritious,” he said.

During the tour, Ngonjo defended the sector amid allegations that it was responsible for the rise in donkey theft in parts of the country, adding that they were working with the local administration and the department of veterinary services to ensure the slaughtered donkeys were legally acquired.

While revisiting an incident that occurred last week where stolen donkeys were found in the facility, the CEO clarified that the culprits had since been arrested though the owners had resolved the issue out of court.

Related: Donkeys run out as meat consumption grows

On the future of the sector, the investor said that the country had adequate donkeys to sustain the three slaughterhouses, adding that according to the 2009 census, Kenya had close to two million donkeys and anticipated that the number has increased.

The revelation comes in the wake of fears expressed by a section of stakeholders who feel that the trade was not sustainable as there were no policy guidelines to manage the sector.

However, the investor said plans were underway to start rearing their own donkeys or support farmers across the country come up with the best rearing methods to increase animal numbers and help improve the sector.

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