Mama Njeri was a fighter. She had survived when her husband, Baba Njeri, left her for another woman. She had survived after a fierce fire razed down all that she owned a few years ago. When her eldest son, Njoro, decided to cave into the muck around her and become a mobster, she took it in her stride and prayed fervently for his soul. On the day she was told her son was lying in a pool of his own blood near Mama Pima’s chang’aa den, she put on a stoic face and went to pick him up in Otieno’s rickety taxi. She did not shed a tear as Good Samaritans helped her carry her half dead son into the taxi. She weathered looks from the curious neighbours and took him to St. John Paul’s Mission Hospital which was located near Kiberitini slums. She waited patiently in line even as the nurses struggled to cope with the high number patients at the hospital on that day.
“Those who have no one to wipe their tears do not cry,” she would often say during the tough times.
She held on to her rosary the whole time. She prayed that he would turn over a new leaf after this. She prayed he would live to see his grandchildren. She prayed the bad boys would get confused and get lost in the dark alleys of Kiberitini if they ever thought of sharing any of their nefarious plots with her son again. She prayed her son would be rooted to the ground if he ever thought of venturing into anyone’s home in the nearby Kilimani estate uninvited. She prayed till she run out of breath. Njoro lived against all the odds stacked against him. He had four broken ribs; two on each side. He had lost a lot of blood. For days, he could not sit up or eat by himself. His mother diligently fed him pureed pumpkins and creamy, rich soup from the Twaf Boulevard, a local food joint that took pride in spicing everything with soot. After his recovery, Njoro became a diligent worker, selling fruits during the day and hawking coffee in the evening. Mama Njeri was equally industrious. She cleaned homes and clothes in the nearby Kilimani Estate during the day and sold vegetables in the evening in a makeshift kiosk by the roadside.
A giant sewer pipe that ferried sewage into River Micegweni passed right underneath her kiosk. She was the first to discover that a quarter kilo of sugar was beyond the reach of the residents of Kiberitini. She packed sugar in packs that cost between two shillings and twenty shillings. She made a killing until other kiosks decided to copy her idea. She soldiered on and decided to sell fermented porridge to Kiberitini residents at dawn. Her meager earnings kept her children in school and paid rent for the tin roofed structure she called home. She had three other children in addition to Njoro. Njeri was a beautiful, bright girl in Form Three at Kiberitini Secondary School. Kanji was the smart rascal whose cunning ways had earned him the name kasungura among his peers. Wangari, her last born, loved wires more than she loved food. She was always fidgeting with old radios, discarded television sets and iron boxes. Her love for wires enabled her to fix a discarded television and add it to the valuable possessions they owned as a family. They enjoyed English Premier League matches, courtesy of Wangari. Life was good until one fine morning when Mama Njeri went to hospital.
She had noticed a hard, orange-ish lump on her right breast while showering some months back. She ignored it until she started feeling pain that would spread to her armpits. On that fine morning, she went to St. John Paul’s Mission hospital. She was the first patient so she was ushered into the examination room. Sr. Nafula, a happy, burly doctor, examined her then bowed her head to scribble some notes on her file.
“You need further tests,” she said as furrows formed on her forehead.
“I will write you a letter so that you can undergo further testing at Kenyatta National Hospital.” She went on.
“I will go there once I get the money, “replied Mama Njeri.
“It would be good to go as soon as you can.” Sr. Nafula advised.
Mama Njeri could feel the air in her lungs run out. A bead of sweat began dripping down her face. She could feel the tangy taste of anxiety and fear in her tongue.
“It is okay,” she said, choking on the wave of emotions from her belly.
Mama Njeri walked slowly out of the hospital and headed home. That night, she lay awake on her thin mattress, wondering how she would raise funds for the much needed medical exam. She had school fees to pay, three mouths to feed, house rent and a fragile business to run. She got round to sleeping in the wee hours of the morning after reciting the rosary. The next morning, she woke up at dawn to do what she always did; hawk porridge at the bus stop. By 7 am, she was done. She headed back to the house and began her trek to Kilimani estate which was a few kilometers away from her home. She got there in good time and began cleaning in earnest. For the next two months, Mama Njeri worked harder than a bee. By then, Njoro had acquired a habit of helping out with the bills. She was able to raise the money she needed sooner than she expected.
She got to Kenyatta one morning just as the daylight was about to crack the darkness. There was a long line of patients ahead of her. There was a woman with a toddler whose screams could crack a glass. There was a man lying on the floor, grimacing in pain. Next to him, there was a young girl, who was about sixteen by Mama Njeri’s estimates. She was in labour. What has the world come to? Mama Njeri wondered as she stared at her bulging belly. It took four hours to be attended to. By then, she was hungry and tired. She could not afford to get anything to eat as she only had enough money to cover her medical bill and go back home. The rude attendant ordered her to go the first floor where she found a longer queue. The aura in the room made her heart heavy. The cashier was calling out the patients; one by one. She threw receipts at them and asked them to wait on the bench until their turn came. No one protested but you could not crack the desperation that hovered over the patients with a power drill.
“Those who have no one to wipe their tears do not cry,” thought Mama Njeri as she clutched her receipt. By 1 pm, there were signs that she would see a doctor. Those signs vaporized once the doctor and the nurses trooped out and told everyone it was lunch time. The patients grumbled but there were quickly put in their place by one nurse. “If you do not want to be treated, go home. There are many who are begging for this chance,” she barked.
At 2 pm, the anticipation in the room was palpable. The doctor would be back shortly. 2 pm came and went with no doctor or nurse in sight. At 2.30 pm, the doctor and his team showed up with toothpicks in their mouths. It took another 30 minutes before they resumed work. In that period, patients could hear them having an animated conversation in the examination room. One old lady decided she had had enough. She knocked the door and asked for help.
“Who do you think you are?” asked one nurse.
“If you are in a hurry, go to another hospital, you piece of dirt!” She went on.
The old lady crawled back to her seat, her head bowed in shame and pain. The hours quickly passed by. Mama Njeri’s name was called out at quarter to five. She heaved a sigh of relief.
Mama Njeri was asked to wear a long, blue hospital gown before lying down on a table. The doctor took out a long, fine needle while the nurse gave her an injection. Her insides froze as the doctor put the needle into the lump and took out a sample. She breathed a sigh of relief once the procedure was over. The doctor scribbled something and then asked her to come back after two weeks. The two weeks were the longest period of her life. She barely ate or slept. Within a week, her cheek bones had sunk, attracting speculation that she was dying of the ‘bad disease’. She cared not for the rumors. Attempts by Wangari and Njeri to get her to talk about her problem to them bore no fruit. Njoro would not relent. He pestered her for days but she would not say a word. She dragged her feet through the days, doing just enough to stay afloat. Who would she call if she was terminally ill? Her brother who lived in chang’aa dens? Her sister who had disappeared in the city? Where would her children go? Whose shoulder would she lean on?
“Those who have no one to turn to do not cry,” she reminded herself as her eyes moistened.
The weeks zoomed by. On the day she was supposed to pick up her results, she woke up at 3am. She sneaked out of the house at 4am, leaving her children fast asleep. She was careful not to make the door made out rusty tins creak. It was dark outside but human traffic had already started building up. Kiberitini was the village that never slept. You could hear people walking along the dark alleys throughout the night. No one dared to respond to screams for help because danger lurked in the dark. The villagers clutched their blankets and fastened their doors in the hope that no evil would befall them. Mama Njeri was at the hospital by 5.30 am. She found a long queue as always. She was directed to first floor where she presented her card to the receptionist. She fell asleep on the cold bench as she waited for the doctor to show up. She was woken up by a beaming voice calling out for card no. 15. Her card was number 17. She rubbed her eyes and sat up, eagerly awaiting her turn.
Her turn came quickly. She entered the room, holding her breath because she was afraid her breath would betray her emotions. Inside, the doctor was staring at her results pensively, with his spectacles lowered to his nostrils. He looked at her and pursed his lips.
“I am sorry. I have bad news for you.” said the doctor.
“You have breast cancer. We need to do…”
Mama Njeri never heard the rest. Hot, angry tears streamed down her face. She screamed, grabbed the results from the doctor and run all the way to the bus stage while screaming. By standers got out of her way because they thought she was a mad woman. She boarded a bus while still crying. Attempts by the bus conductor to get her to calm down failed miserably. She fought everyone who came anywhere near her. The conductor did not even bother to ask her for bus fare.
She alighted at the stage and stood rooted at one spot for a while. It occurred to her that she was going home to her children; her only treasure in the world. She could not afford to fall apart in front of them. She was their only fortress. They were all she had in this world. She wiped her tears with the back of her hand and then started walking home. As she took each resolute step, she whispered under her breath, “Those who have no one to wipe their tears do not cry”.