Marcus was vibrant and full of life. He never had a dull moment. He was extremely friendly to everyone. His combined charisma and go-getter personality, found him company among aggressive businessmen, politicians and a host of hangers-on. He was everything to everyone, but pledged allegiance to where his bread was buttered.
At the of age 36 years, he was a father of six children. Not that there should be a relationship between a man’s age and the number of children he has. Marcus was married and lived with one wife, but that didn’t silence the hushed gossip that his six children were not cut from the same rock.
Nosy neighbors found something to see, say or smell about his family when none of it concerned them. Similar to the Kenyans On Twitter community, who are renown for their brigade on anything and everything. On the ground, their idler compatriots and representatives dissect every story that has flesh on it and feast on stories, drawn by a distinctive smell for the rot.
Ask Marcus’ children what their father does for a living, and each will tell you something different.
To his eldest son, Odongo he was a lawyer but to his second born daughter, Achieng’ he was an astute businessman. Was it because they didn’t know their father’s profession or he told each of them something different? No one knows. But the truth is, as a wheeler-dealer, his moves were discreet, to all and sundry, including his immediate family.
His hang-out company included a village mate MCA whom they grew up with on the shores of Lake Victoria and a university dropout, also his village fellow, who was a Director in the five different companies that the trio used to bid for county government jobs.
It was four months after Kenya announced it’s first case of COVID-19, when Marcus started off with a persistent cough. Business opportunities had dwindled due the pandemic, which meant he took advantage of every opportunity that was available to make cash before the economy went into complete recession.
Because of chasing the shilling, contracting COVID was the last thing on his mind as he crisscrossed multiple towns and counties to submit bids or deliver services to the active tenders their five companies held. His cough was simply treated with a handkerchief and over the counter medicine from the roadside chemists.
Most nights he would arrive home pretty late when the kids and their nursing mother were half asleep or with little attention for a drunken father. For two weeks, which appeared like eternity, he struggled with all-night coughs despite the wife, Wangui urging him to get checked.
In between denial and bargaining about his rising fever, he would take off his shirt and be left in a vest. This was such a distraction to the kids, who would be watching their favorite Maria program on Citizen TV.
Men like Marcus who have negative masculinity don’t listen to (their) women. It took the intervention of his MCA friend to convince him to be checked at a nearby clinic. It was Wangui’s last ditch effort to plug that hole. Rushing to the clinic in the middle of the night on a freezing July was too late. Marcus needed emergency help to stabilize his failing lungs and congested wind pipe.
The noxious virus patched on his nasopharynx. It was suffocating him, not physically but physiologically.
It was Wangui’s elder sister’s turn to take food and clothe changes when the nurse-in-charge advised her to call Marcus’ wife. Women are nurturers by nature. Just how does one keep visiting a non responsive patient for two weeks? How does one keep bringing food and clothe changes everyday, all in the hope that their patient might wake up and eat the food or wear the clothes?
Wangui’s sister tried to probe the nurse as what to may have happened to Marcus, but nothing could be said until Wangui was there. Clearly, the nurse was hoarding bad news.
For two weeks, Marcus was transferred across three hospitals, hunting for advanced medical equipment to support his breathing. He slid into a coma and remained comatose for a week. Although his battle-hardened spirit braved the vegetative state, he succumbed to COVID after a bruising battle with the devilish and mutant virus.
That day he joined the gender-, age- and county- disaggregated data broadcasted by the Ministry of Health.
That single death event, turned his beautiful wife into a widow, a term not too distant from its archaic synonym, relict! Before then, Wangui had taken a break from nursing her baby to daily visiting him in the hospital, checking up on her husband who was unresponsive to all medical intervention. Her energy levels and resilience had declined to despair. The barrage of questions from her restless children on when dad will return went unanswered.
On breaking the news of death, Wangui wailed uncontrollably and collapsed outside the ward where Marcus had been admitted. In that instant, daily trips to the hospital came to a halt, as his body was wheeled to the morgue.
On the Uber ride home, Wangui spoke no word. Her gaze was blank and transfixed. Her eyes were semi open as her mind wandered into oblivion. Prior to Marcus’ death, she hadn’t been active in her church or chama, which saldly meant few people would condole with her.
Reaching home and her kids were all over the place, catching the latest Maria love drama episode. They didn’t stop to greet her but were enthralled by Sofia and Brenda characters who were outwitting each other in winning the coveted love of Luwi. Without greeting anyone, Wangui walked straight into her bedroom and let out a piercing cry.
Her sister hadn’t yet mustered the wisdom and words to break the news of death to the children.
So full of innocence were these kids. Unaware that what had broken their mum’s heart would shatter the core of their being and steer their lives towards an uncertain future. Losing a father figure was more than being deprived of a breadwinner.
To them, he wasn’t defined by his job, the way we save people’s phone numbers, ‘Steve Welder‘ or ‘Wangechi Mama Chapo‘. They knew him for who he was; a daddy, a funny playmate, a weekend sponsor who took them out for chips and nyama choma, in a kids’ play park.
Same to President Magufuli’s recent death.
Social media pundits saw another dedicated and focused politician who took a controversial public stunt that would deal him a deadly blow. To the socialites, Magufuli will soon be forgotten as Tanzania goes through national mourning and political transition.
But to the people close to him, his wife, children, parents, siblings and other benefactors, his death will remain etched in their hearts beyond the next Twitter and Facebook status update.
As Brandon Heath sings, ‘we need to pray for the eyes to see, everything we keep missing. To give our love for humanity. To give arms for the broken-hearted. The ones that are far beyond our reach. To give ours heart for the ones forgotten. Jesus to give us his eyes, so we can see.’
Odongo, the eldest of the kids at 16 years of age, on hearing his mum’s cry abruptly switched off the TV. Turning to his aunt who was on phone with another relative, he asked, “Why is mum crying?”, “Is dad ok?” Her aunt was deep in conversation with the person on the other end of the phone, and all that Odongo heard was, “We have moved his body to the morgue.”
Teens don’t just hear words, they see through adult emotions and read in between the lines. He dashed to his room wrapped himself in a duvet, and let out his own screech. The house became chaotic and no one talked to the other.
Death is disruptive and shameful. It will be the last enemy to be destroyed.
A close knit family with little external interaction was now plunged into the ghastly stare and scrutiny of nosy characters. That sad night a few neighbors heard the cry and showed up. Swiftly, burial plans started plus a WhatsApp group created to fundraise the huge medical bill and foot funeral expenses.
Such is the absurdity of life. Men die leaving behind bills.
During the one week of planning the burial a lot happened. Wangui lost weight. Her children were forever frantic and calling out their dad in their sleeping and waking hours. Two women came out of the shadows claiming they had, not just a fling but a child with Marcus. For whatever reason such baby mamas show up at the eleventh hour, no one will ever know.
Whether to disparage the dead or claim a stake in the deceased’s estate. Such are the dark secrets that the living hold up in their closets.
Apparently, the first two children of Marcus and Wangui belonged to these two women. This was fodder to the nosy and ill meaning bystanders. One of the women demanded to take her child, as she couldn’t bear the thought of her child being raised by another woman. The other woman cared less and all she wanted was a piece of Marcus’ estate, some of which were ongoing construction sites that Wangui had no idea about.
Men and their secrets, clench their hands matching forward to the grave!
Wangui didn’t have the luxury of mourning her husband in privacy and dignity. She was confronted by the court-threatening demands of two baby mamas. Two churches declined to bury her dead husband because she wasn’t a regular tither or active home cell group member. This is despite the fact that she had lost a soulmate.
At the funeral, Wangui sat next to the two women, all claiming a stake on the departed. Only Wangui appeared sad. The others were emotionally detached and fidgety, all the time appearing derailed by the long winded speeches on how Marcus was generous and endearing to all. His MCA friend was the MC at the burial.
Burial protocols were observed under a tense cloud. Three portrait photos were placed on Marcus’ casket. Apparently, it was customary that after the burial each woman would take a portrait and hang it at their respective homes. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
Due to COVID there was no ceremonial viewing of the body. Unsolicited rumor had it that his body had been wrapped in layers of body bags, in an effort to isolate the virus from the living.
No jokes, he was buried when COVID was COVID, a dreaded and stigmatized disease!
Returning home from the funeral, was one long trip. Wangui felt more lonely than when she rode on Uber from hospital. She needed to pick up the pieces of their life together and start all over. She was now be a widow. One who was bereft and alone.
Explaining death and burial to her children would be a task she will do repeatedly over the next couple of years, some of whom were too young to understand her emotional pain and burden.
Odongo looked forlorn and disinterested in anything. In the initial weeks after his dad’s burial, he overslept all he wanted, went to play PS5 with friends and watched countless movies at a neighbor’s house. Wangui was his adoptive mother, something he didn’t know until he met his biological mother at the funeral. They really looked alike.
Achieng’ had just entered teenage hood, a stage that a father figure is vital. She didn’t care much about her biological mother, who looked pretty millennial and disinterested in a mother-daughter relationship with her. Their semblance too betrayed them.
To a ‘normal widow’, perhaps much of the battle is with catching up with the dead husband’s estates and bills. But to Wangui, many curve balls had been tossed at her. She was barely in her thirties and the world seemed to have overturned her life’s prospects. She knew, she couldn’t afford rent and children’s school fees, without getting a job plus a side hustle.
Being a nursing mother wasn’t career enhancing and where would she start, having been out of meaningful employment for a couple of years.
She was angry with God for letting Marcus die, leaving her and the children in perplexity.
She was angry with Marcus for having had multiple affairs, which was throwing her to the battle front with strange women. She was angry with the two churches that refused to bury her husband. She was angry with herself for not having taken Marcus to hospital in time, although Marcus was stubborn.
She piled on herself blame that belonged to others and nursed irrational thoughts that ushered her into depression.
Odongo was beginning to stretch Wangui’s patience too. He was secretly conversing with his biological mother. No one knew what their conversations were all about, but Wangui could tell either from her sixth sense or pure suspicion that his mother was pulling him away.
He openly rebelled against Wangui and never sat in the living room when she was home. When she left the house, around 10am to chase the things of this world, Odongo was busy fomenting a revolution with his younger siblings.
Perhaps when a teenager learns his family is broken, he responds with rebellion.
January 2021 was fast approaching. Schools were about to re-open, as the national government relaxed COVID rules. Odongo wasn’t sure he wanted to go back to school, neither was Wangui ready to pay his school fees considering his recent rebellious streak.
Wangui’s second last born child aged 4 years would sleep all night and all day for two days in a row. On waking up, he would call out his dad and mumble a few words only his toddler agemates would understand. Rebuilding her life was a toll order.
Within November and December 2020, she moved houses and negotiated with the teachers in her children’s school to give her time to sort out her finances.
All the crowd that filled her home during the funeral plans had dissipated.
Wangui’s sisters and brothers dutifully returned to their homes to continue with their lives. Once in a while, a friend or two would call to check on her.
The COVID pandemic had mopped up lives and livelihoods, leaving behind trails of devastated families and individuals. The number of widows, orphaned and semi-orphaned children keeps skyrocketing. Wangui is but a single instance in the numerous bearers of pain and grief.
With statistics being updated and reported everyday, it’s mind-boggling to stay in touch with the infected and affected. Fear is cast abroad as theories, heresies and philosophies are churned out daily on COVID variants, vaccine and treatments.
Could this be the dreaded World War III, triggered by a possible biological warfare?
It’s a wonder what Wangui and those bereaved by COVID think or feel when they hear all the COVID statistics being broadcasted. Will the rumored government procured Structural Adjustment Programs from the World Bank put in place effective social safety nets? Not just Kazi Mtaani for the idling youth, but also for widows and orphans?
Odongo was in a prestigious high school. He will most likely scale down a more affordable extra county school, as the battle of wits rages on between his adoptive and biological mothers. Achieng’s indifferent biological mother seems non threatening at the moment, but who knows if she will chance on a hoax lawyer who will advice her to fight for her piece of the pie on Marcus’ estate!
Death of a husband and father meant a shift in dreams and possible life outcomes. For Wangui, it wasn’t just moving from a three bedroom house to a bed sitter, but the dwindling prospects of single-handedly raising six children.
A handful of family members, friends and community helped Wangui through the loss and grief stages of shock, denial, pain and guilt. But in solace, she now fights anger, bargaining and doesn’t know where to start reconstructing and working through her life and that of her children.
Before she can even reach the coveted phase of acceptance and hope, her father and mother are in a great dispute as to whether she should remarry or not.
If Wangui was a man, would she turn out differently? Maybe not
This is a true story. Names and details have been changed to protect family privacy. Views expressed on this article are my own
Joseph N. Mungai is inspired by people’s life experiences. Do you have an intriguing life story and need a ghost writer? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org