Many years ago, I was in Kisumu on attachment as a trainee journalist. It was heady, exciting work, together with my first taste of independence – it was a long way from home. I met and mingled with people I had only seen or read about on TV and in newspapers. There was the thrill of seeing my work in print and read on the radio and traveling to far away places at a moment’s notice to chase a story. I was young, I was happy and all was well with the world.
The news organisation I worked for had features every often they would give an ailing and needy person free press in an effort to help them raise money for treatment through public donations. So far in the time I was working there I had managed to avoid these assignments and that was just fine with me. A seasoned journalist had told me one day that these stories were considered ‘fluff’ and would only be broadcast if there was enough time left over from ‘real news’. I would watch with a cold lump in my stomach as people trooped in to tell their stories to the camera. For many of them it was their last hope to raise money. Little did they know that it was all a gamble, their voices would be competing to be heard over politicians sermonizing, over sensational scandals and international intrigues that the Kenyan public devours hungrily every night in their living rooms. Even when they were heard it was still a gamble that people would give their money to help.
One afternoon, predictably sunny as most Kisumu days are, I was summoned into the garden, a grassy unkempt lawn within the compound where most of us spent our lunch hour, by a senior reporter to find a cameraman setting up his equipment and a placid woman seated on one of the rickety chairs we usually put outside to soak up the sun. I was asked to interview the woman on a ‘problem’ she had, my heart sank; it was one of the charity cases I had dreaded so much.
As I sat down and flipped over my notebook to a blank page, I smiled to put her at ease, she looked back at me expressionlessly. She seemed tired and her face was deeply creased, her dress which hung over her thin frame was faded and worn, so were the black turned gray Bata rubber shoes on her feet. The camera man finished setting up while we sat in silence. When he was done, I launched into the standard prep questions name, age, where do you live? She answered them in broken, accented Kiswahili, late thirties, single mother she named a location I was familiar with then explained that she was sick and needed help. It started as a pimple, she said, here at the side of my head- she pointed at a place just above her ear covered by her headscarf – and then it spread. She started taking off her headscarf, untying it from the back with practiced ease; I could see the cameraman starting to zoom in from the corner of my eye.
The headscarf came off, exposing a completely bald head covered in a swath of white bandage. I cannot work in the farm because of the pain, she continued, dropping the headscarf in her lap. I nodded sympathetically taking down notes. She hesitated then put her hand to her head again and peeled the bandage off her scalp in a slow deliberate movement, my hand which was hovering over the notebook stopped mid- air as I got a glance at her wound. I heard the cameraman give a sharp hiss, the one you make when you accidentally put your hand in hot water.
My children, she said, ignoring the expressions on our faces, they need food and school fees. I was too stricken to nod this time, my pen was still mid – air and so the sentence went unwritten. Realising I was staring, I glanced down and discovered to my horror that what I thought was a bandage was actually a clump of tissue paper, stained and soaked through with yellow pus. I don’t have enough money for an operation, the doctor says I need 250000, all of this was dictated to me in a monotone.
I felt tears start to water, as my eyes oscillated from the tissue to her head. Cancer – Basal cell carcinoma, she pronounced her ailment in perfect English, it was startling to hear amidst the broken Kiswahili.
The wound was a pink and yellow glistening mass spread unevenly on one side of her head deeply indented as though it was eating into her flesh, thick gooey pus kept slithering down her forehead as she talked. Reaching into a green paper bag, she extracted an already opened roll of toilet paper and dabbed at the discharge never missing a beat in her narration.
When she finished her tale of needing almost a quarter of a million shillings for treatment that could or could not save her life, she sat still and silent, her bony hands folded in her lap and looked into the distance. I remember thinking how eerily at peace she seemed in that hot Kisumu sun, in an strange garden so far from her home and likely contemplating her mortality with two strangers looking on. I, the fresh and eager young reporter, could not find anything to say because I was coming face to face with the unfairness of life, realising that no matter how heartbreaking her story was, it was still a gamble, just another news item which would have to compete for attention among the rest.
I wrote the story but I never forgot her and her quiet determination and acceptance of what was to come. I hope her voice was heard over the politicking, I hope it roared over the scandals and that she got the help she needed. I hope because I didn’t search with eager anticipation as I did all the stories I turned in because I was afraid it wouldn’t be heard, that it wouldn’t matter anyway, that a politician with a microphone in his hand would say something that would drown out a woman’s chance for life.
© Neema Yienya 2009
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