Death, in the African context, is extremely cruel. Especially to widows and orphans.
When John Kevin was driven into St. Terrycam Secondary School in Rangwe Constituency, of Homa Bay County, in early March 2006, he vowed to never go back to the place he had all along known as home. And he almost didn’t. He arrived three weeks to the close of the first term. He joined Form One the exact way Form Ones should never joined Form One. Empty handed, desperate and sickly. He did not have a school uniform. He had no bed sheets, no mattress, no sweater. No soap, no socks, no slippers, no shoes, no underwear. Absolutely nothing.
However, he carried a lot more than nothing. His demeanor was covered under a heavy thick, dark and ugly cloud. A sad homeless cloud that refused to go anywhere else, to live with somebody else, to befriend another. That cloud had kept him company for years. That cloud that carried with it a promise; that death was not done with him. Not yet. He also carried something else right under his trousers, on his left leg. He had an oversized and still growing lump. A tumor. It was a deposit from that ugly cloud. That it intended to do it’s bit. That tumor was still growing, years on. It was cancerous.
His father’s step sister, Aunt Milka, who was very close to his now long dead parents, pleaded with and convinced her husband to help the boy. His uncle unlike his other relatives, had a human heart, and so he made several calls until one of his friends agreed to take the boy into his school.
His name is Vitalis Rariwi, now retired. Mr. Rariwi received a son who had given up all, except his final breathe. But that too, he was willing to give up.
School was not a dream, not even an ambition for the brilliant young man who always scored way above the 300 marks out of a possible 500 marks for a better part of his schooling life. It was his last resort, a shot at a good life, not for himself, but his 11-year-old brother, Preston. Because according to his doctors, John Kevin, or JK as he is fondly known, had just about one more year to live before he died. And he did not care.
Mr. Rariwi knew JK had problems, but he did not know how deep nor how far back his issues went. He would soon find out. He watched as the young man was brought into his school, not knowing the load he carried on. Visibly, he walked with a small limp; the wobbly tumor made walking very painful, a pain that registered at every rising and landing of very step. It had a wound, one that had started as a pimple, and it broke, showing pinkish red flesh as it gaped, a mature and painful wound, oozing thick stinky pus, that looked like vomited mucus, that he’d have to drain every few hours.
He is trying his best not to talk about the tumor, and the wound, as if he would feel the pain anew.
‘I don’t think I would ever feel that much pain in this life. It was absolutely unbearable. It was so bad, I only attempted suicide just to go and get away from it all. It was bad.’
His eyes gaze straight to a wall, as if he is seeing the magnitude of that pain on that specific wall. His eye twitches and he shakes his head really slowly. I met JK through his sister, a good friend of mine. JK is their adopted brother.
He is tall, walks with a straight back and wears glasses. He is as neat as the Seventh Day adherents, wearing a light blue shirt and grey trousers with shoes that look like moccasins. We are at Jamia Café, next to the Jamia Mosque in the Nairobi City Centre. He is drinking coffee without sugar. I am drinking tea. He works as a financial project manager, for a contracting IT firm in Nairobi.
‘I first saw a lump on my leg sometime late 2003 or early 2004.’
He did not think much of it until he felt it was growing. A small wound developed on it. He showed it to his mother, who did not also think much of it. She went on to treat it the nyaluo way wounds are treated in most of rural Kenya. She plucked ojuok, and applied it on the wound, day in and day out, expecting it to go away. But instead, it went the way no one ever wants a malignant tumor to go. It kept growing and growing, with it the pain he would feel for long. It became his ball and chain, restraining him from the soccer he loved so much to play. It quickly took away the soccer, his confidence, his walks, his entire life.
And then in May 2004, when he was 13 years old, and his brother 9, his mother died. His mother was part of that tumor story, and she too was taken away.
His father had died in December 2000 when he was 9 years old, his brother 6.
‘He fell sick, and never recovered. He just died. The one thing I remember about my father is that he was very protective of my mother. He fought everyone, including his mother, my grandmother, if anyone so much as spoke rudely or said mean things to her, let alone if they dared touch his wife.’
JK doesn’t know how his parents met. No one does. He has no one to ask. He has chosen to remember little about his life before the death of his parents. He remembers only the things that matter. First, he knows that he had another sibling, who came after him, and they too died. He can’t remember seeing any other child in their house before his brother Preston. He remembers that his surviving brother was among his best friends growing up. He also remembers that his father was a building contractor, or project manager. He supervised construction of houses and structures. He instilled discipline and direction to his family.
‘We had to go to church, even when he did not. There was no question about it.’
John Kevin remembers that he once had a Luo name after John Kevin. Once. But it reminded him of his past, especially the parts he wants to forget. So he dropped it. And now he has none. He just goes by John, John Kevin, or just JK. He remembers being born, as if, and finding his mother as she was. Frail. Crippled, on crutches or seated somewhere. He remembers her being broken because her shield and walls were taken down when her husband died. He remembers guests and relatives visiting their home becoming much fewer and fewer after his father died. He remembers for the first time, his mother struggling to put food on the table, and juggling the role of father and mother. He remembers the mockery meted out on his disabled mother, who worked as a tailor and designer. He remembers the discipline, and beatings he would receive for mistakes he made.
‘I think she disciplined me out of fear. Fear that with my father not around, I was at a higher risk of being taken advantage of, or becoming a bad person. She would always insist on me being at my best behavior, being respectful and especially not stealing or touching anyone’s things. That, would amount to stealing.’
JK remembers the late nights that Aunt Milka would come, and sit with his mother and talk all night until it was almost morning. He remembers his mother walking, using those ugly and embarrassing sticks, to the market, and getting whatever she could for them. He remembers his mother consulting different people, receiving different traditional herbs for the lump with a wound. He remembers finally being taken to the hospital, and the doctor saying, if nothing is done in the next two to three years, it might be too late. He interpreted it as death. He remembers it was the first time he ever heard the term, ‘Tumor.’ He did not know what tumor or cancer was then, but he understood he was dying. He remembers the worry, and the cold fear that overtook him. He remembers that one day, soon after, his mother fell sick, and got worse over time, breathe escaping her until, soon, she too lay on her back. Lifeless. Dead.
The memories do not end there. His closest relatives took to organising her burial, but before they got to the actual business of funeral arrangements, they raided their home and took away everything that seemed valuable for themselves.
‘I thought they were keeping them for us, because I thought we were going to live with them. They took everything we had, swept the house sparkling clean. Our house had never been cleaner. After they were done, then they organised to bury her.’
He remembers being told clearly, after the burial, ‘Stay here, at your house, and when everything has calmed down, you can come live with us.’ As if not to bring the death omen, that ugly cloud that had just formed over his head, to them.
Things calmed down in one day, but after two weeks, it was clear that they were unwanted. ‘Not a single person visited us. No one ever asked if we had eaten well, or slept cold and hungry.’
One month after the death of his mother, it dawned on him that they were actual orphans; they had no food and no clothes, no parents. Just an old house their father built. Nothing else. They were ostracised alienated. Living in a dead people’s home.
The lump on his feet that had a wound was still growing.
He accepted that he had no choice but to start living for his brother. He became his father. He was 13 years old, and he had begotten a 9-year-old son.
‘I had to protect him. One day he visited a relative, sibling to my father, and they served him food. He went out to clean his hands. When he came back, the cat was chocking. It had eaten a piece of meat. In a matter of minutes, the cat was dead. And something told him not to eat that food.’ He left and never visited again.
Turns out his brother was almost poisoned. He forbade him from eating anything or anywhere else, unless they cooked it themselves, or they were together. For the next two years, they did life together. He would wake up, do some manual labor for pay, prepare a meal for his brother and himself, and then he would go to Kosele Primary School. In the afternoon, he would leave early for more work, and then go home to his waiting brother. The school reprimanded him a lot for it, but he explained it to them over and over, that if he did not work, they would not eat. And then he left. With the lump and wound on his leg. Despite the struggle, he maintained a good mean score.
The tumor grew rapidly in class 7. This was in 2005. The wound began to smell.
‘I remember I was seated in the middle row; right at the front, but there was no one behind me. My best friend, Evans, sat next to me. He did not care that I smelled, but he too was an outcast, for being my friend. So I guess he knew we were stuck together. People kept an obvious distance.’
JK struggled on, working to provide for his brother, and at the same time dealing with physical, psychological and emotional pain. He was slipping into depression.
He did his time, sat his KCPE exams in 2006, and passed with flying colors. He got called to Kanga High School in Kamagambo, in Migori County. He also got called to Rapogi High School, also in Migori County and Wangapala Secondary School in Homabay County. But that meant nothing to him. He had no desire for education. Besides, who was going to pay for it? He remembered nothing had been done about his tumor as the doctor has said, and he expected to die in the next one year.
Early in January 2006, in the middle of the night, he tied a rope on a wooden beam of his late parents’ house, where he slept on the floor with his brother; they had no mattress.Depression kicked in, suicidal thoughts clouding his head. He thought about it long enough and ways to do it. He put a noose around his neck and was ready to jump.
‘The pain was unbearable, and I honestly had no reason to live. I just wanted to be free of all this pain.’ He now has a sad face. ‘My brother used to speak in his sleep. And on this day, with a noose around my neck just when I was about to jump, I heard him as I clearly as I hear you now, he said, ‘No. Please Don’t.’ And then he went back to sleep.’
When JK thinks about how he wanted to kill himself, he calls it a very sorry attempt at ending a miserable life. Utmost, it would have been a tiny fall. With how he had tied that rope, he would have just stood on the ground with my feet. He would not have died, he laughs about it.
‘I immediately stopped thinking about death, and besides, I had one more year, so I chose to wait for it. And with the pain I felt it didn’t look like it was far.’
JK went back to working and saving. Then their Aunt Milka visited towards the end of February. He felt everyone had abandoned them. But he decided to ask for help, anyway. He had learnt to be bold and expect the worst. In March, he was seated outside the office of Mr. Vitalis Rariwi in St. Terrycam High School, where his uncle was explaining himself and the boy he had brought.
‘The school was full. There was no extra bed, no extra desk, no extra seat. I did not even have a uniform. Still, Mr. Rariwi allowed me in and asked me to stay with him at his staff quarters’ house. He had an extra bed. Another needy student lived in his house too. We went to class, and ate in school, did our preps and only came to the house in the evening to sleep.’
‘I had left my brother alone, and I had given him some money, about 1,500.00 that I had saved. Imagine an 11-year-old boy living alone in a deserted home and having to go to school, and do his homework and cook for himself and pray the whole night that nothing happens to him? I could not stop worrying about him. Especially because of the attempted poisoning.’
On weekends when Mr. Rariwi went home to his family, someone would come to clean the house, wash his clothes and take them to the market to be ironed. One day, JK asked for soap. And when Mr. Rariwi was gone for the weekend, he cleaned the house, all his clothes and pressed them.
‘When he came back, he wondered who cleaned the clothes since the cleaning lady was not meant to come that weekend. I explained that I did it and he was overly impressed. He could not stop talking about it. Soon, the whole school soon knew. That earned him like points.’
Within a week of joining, the end of term exams began and JK failed every test miserably with absolutely fantastic flying colors. And it was fine. He was a few days into the school, and he did not know anything.
Mr. Rariwi’s new son was very reserved. He didn’t speak. He never spoke much since after his mother had died. He had no one to talk to, and the ones who were around him, he did not want to talk to. Mr. Rariwi, though, could read JK’s soul. He hadn’t been told much, but he knew there was something deeper. And so, the counseling began.
JK had something St. Terrycam needed so much at the moment. Brains. Book smart, hard worker, and all round well behaved teenager. JK had failed his exams, but showed great promise in class. However, JK needed something that the school could not offer. His brother.
When Mr. Rariwi finally got to it after several counseling sessions, the school offered JK an opportunity.
Father Kevin Shallom, who was the Director of the School said to him after hearing his story, ‘The school driver will take you, and you can go and bring your brother here, right now. He can stay with us.’
He did not believe his ears. He asked several times until he was sure he heard right. So he got into the car. And off they went, to find Preston.
‘He was out playing soccer in some open field when we got there. It was a walking distance from our house. He had not seen me, so he continued playing. A boy noticed me and signaled him. When he saw me, he came running so fast. He was so happy to see me.’
They hugged tightly. They had never hugged before. Preston begged him to take with him away. ‘Even now!’ Preston made it clear he had no intention of staying away from his brother. He looked tired from being scared and afraid. So they picked all his belongings, which was a paper bag at most, locked the door to their father’s house and left. They gave up everything; inheritance, a home and a house, and the strangers who had once been their relatives. His brother got admitted into the primary section of the school, one victory.
For the first time he slept. Peacefully, amidst his pain.
Mr. Rariwi took care of him. He provided for all his needs, gave him pocket money, and organised for him to be seen by doctors. During holidays and midterms, he took him home with him, to his family. He introduced him to his close friends and relatives. He took him to mass where he met priests. He took him for family meet ups where he met his friends.
One of the people he met was Mr. Rariwi’s friend, the late Engineer Maurice Otieno. His children became his friends, and the friendship grew strongly until those children called JK, our brother, in the most affectionate of ways. That is how he was adopted into the Otieno’s family. He would be sent on errands there, and would take on extra duties such as filling water troughs, and feeding the goats and the sheep. He would always find something to do with his hands. And the family loved him back.
In one of those visits, JK was introduced to the late Bishop Emeritus Colin Davis, a bulwark in every way, who for some reason thought JK was an exceptional boy, worthy of helping out. He got him to see doctors. They diagnosed him with advanced Cancer of the Bone. It was also the first time he heard the term cancer spoken to him. He may have heard it somewhere, but no one ever said that term to him. He was urgently scheduled to have his first surgery in August 2007, at the Homabay District Hospital.
While preparing for the surgery, some items that had been paid for crucial for the surgery never arrived. Secondly, there was no bed available for him to be admitted. A second opinion suggested that the Homabay District Hospital might not be ready, or even be in a capacity to handle this kind of surgery. This particular one. Meanwhile, the lump and wound had over grown and he was in deep physical pain. The Bishop consulted and stopped the surgery. It was moved to December 2007. He was admitted to the Surgical ward of Christa Marianne Hospital, in Kisii. It was his home for a whole of four months. The longest, loneliest time he felt. In fact, he can only remember visits from three people only; Bishop Colin Davis, Mr. Shem Kisiara, that is aunt Milka’s husband and one of his in-laws, commonly known as Nyar Kanyada. However, Mr. Rariwi called him everyday for the duration of his hospital visit. He called to encourage him.
While in hospital, the December 2007 Post Election Violence in Kenya happened.
‘I did not see, hear or feel the brunt of it personally, but people came in with bad injuries. People would whisper that Rift Valley was burning, and some tribes were being killed. I would here people ask to see doctors and physicians from specific tribes. Someone would ask, ‘Kuna Daktari Mkisii hapa?’ Or Mjaluo or Mkikuyu. People would only be attended to by their tribesmen.’ That is all he remembers of the time.
Later in 2008, he joined Kandiege Secondary School in Homabay, in Form Two, again. He had been in and out of hospital so much he had to start over. He still carried with him a flickering hope. Flickering, because the pain was very intense. And he was not healed completely. He could not sit for long, and he could not stand or walk for long.
Kandiege had a strict Form Four Only boarding section. He boldly asked for admission into the boarding section, to minimise the boda boda and occasional bicycle rides to school. He had built a good name and an amazing track record of academic excellence and discipline. He was also very cute. They could not deny him.
Jackline Otieno who was now his big sister, and the boss among all the Engineer Otieno’s children. She needs only to speak a word, and it is as good as done. If she said you were buying JK a bicycle, you could pretend to be mad, roll on the floor, run to the market naked, or relocate to Kismayo. It did not matter. You were buying JK a bicycle. She made the Otieno fully embrace him for who he was.
He moves over the next four years in under one sentence. They are like very silent years, like he took a break, or went on holiday. He did neither. He still had four surgeries to go, where they expected one or two. Between 2008 and 2010, he would undergo two more surgeries. During that time, the miracle happened. The little that was left of lump on his leg started shrinking, and the wound began to heal. The pain however, felt the same.
In 2011, he would under go two surgeries in one year. The first surgery, early 2011 was very delicate, they came out sure they had not sorted anything out. His vital vessels were extremely marred, and the doctors believed his leg would not survive another immediate surgery. They moved it further to the end of the year to avoid risking an amputation. By December, the swelling had gone down completely, the wound completely healed and pain had subsided to bearable levels. He walked in a stride. He had his back straight. He was getting over the slight limp he may have had.
He had his most visible dead weight cut off, but he had emotional and psychological wounds to deal with.
‘My parents dying may have been the biggest blessing of my life.’ He thinks loudly. ‘I don’t have an idea of what or where I would be if they were alive. It taught me hard work and how to live with people. I also learnt not to depend and trust people too much.’
I ask him if he has a girlfriend. He says he is seriously dating.
After high school, his school lost a couple of teacher to transfers, retirement and other personal reasons. The headmaster asked him to hold fort for a while as they sought help from TSC. He became an untrained teacher, as a sense of duty, not passion. He did it, because, in his words, ‘Everyone has a role in making other people’s lives better.’ He taught for about two and a half years before he came to Nairobi.
He taught English, Geography and Physics. There was only one other English teacher in the school. So he taught form one to form four. When they lost a Kiswahili teacher, he took on that task too. And his students excelled. Bishop Collin Davies bought him a bicycle to make his commute easy.
‘I would make 6,000 out of the schools kitty. But I would make up to twenty six thousands, from extra tuition for students from different schools also.
‘I wanted to study Artificial Intelligence at the University of Nairobi. That’s why I came to Nairobi. And then I thought against it. I looked around, and felt I could do business studies. I did not even know what BCom was. But when I went around, I settled on it at Strathmore.’ Bishop Davis was going to pay his school fees.
He came to Nairobi, to go to the university, in 2013.
As a teacher he had reconnected with one of his past paternal relatives, a cousin, but he just wanted to take advantage of him, and his perceived connections. He felt he was sneaky and would gain monetarily by hosting his cousin while he went to school.
‘He thought I was being given money. So he asked me to move in with him at one of the estates in Mbagathi Road, a short walk to Strathmore University. I thought we were making headway.’
To his surprise, his cousin wanted him to get money from his perceived benefactors, for his personal benefit. It broke his heart. In a way only selfish relatives would do. Again. He decided to move out.
He calls his brother Eddy, Jackline’s brother, and explains the frustrations and desperation.
‘You are bold.’ I tell him.
‘I had no choice but to be bold. But the Otienos were really good to me.’
Eddy tells him, give me a minute. I will call you back shorty. Eddy calls Jackline and tells her what their brother is going through. Jackline calls JK and organizes to meet with him. In a meeting that lasts less than 10 minutes, Jackline says, ‘Get your stuff. Your are moving in with me.’ No questions asked, no ultimatum given. Same old embrace he felt from their home in Asumbi.
‘I am a product of many families and people, and I cannot say that only one person helped me. I am a product of desperate last minute saves. So many people have played a big part in making me who I am, and getting me to where I am.’
In the same year, Bishop Davies, who was going to help him with school fees, fell ill and was taken to England. He wanted to return to Kenya but his doctors stopped that. He would not recover, but would later die in 2017 as JK was doing his exams. With him out in England, unable to make his presence felt all hope was gone for JK. Almost. JK went to Strathmore and explained himself. The lady he talked to said she could not help him, and he reminded her, that the person he depended on was not around, and there was no way he was going to give up on this dream, and chance.
She helped him with information that proved critical.
He first of all applied for a student loan from the government’s Higher Education Loans Board quickly. It was approved. While at school, he got to know about a performance based scholarship and work-study program. He applied and received it. His work ethic enabled him to easily acquire more allocation because of better grades. He joined the Strathmore University’s mentorship program Macheo Mtaani, a program that helps young disadvantaged people from Kibera slums make their live better by giving them perspective on life and hard work.
‘I would like to buy or build a home, but I am looking for somewhere to settle first. I am never going back to my father’s home. But first, I need to pay back all these loans.’ He chuckles.
His brother is back at Aunt Milka’s. He has deferred his Petroleum Engineering Course at the university of Nairobi, as he seeks out ways and means to cater for it.
He ends our meeting saying, ‘I want to teach my children that everyone has a part to play in the making of the world a better place for the human race. Play your part, however small, as others do theirs, and we’ll all achieve in making the world great.
PS: This is the first of #FindingCancer, 4 cancer related stories, I am doing for October and November. If you know anyone who has gone through cancer and came out victorious, or a family that has lived with someone with cancer, please send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org , of drop me a message on facebook and I will get back to you.