Trigger Warning: Suicide
You will grow up and leave home but your childhood will never leave you. It’s the strings on the marionette. The long shadow that illuminates your adulthood, a shadow cast without a light. Funny how you work hard, very hard, you acquire degrees, travel the world, determined to put a great distance between yourself and your childhood but it keeps rising around you like brackish water in a well, and eventually, at 39, it catches up with you and you find yourself in Mathare Mental Hospital. Literally the very last place on earth you imagined you would ever end up in your life. And a place of great imagination—literally and figuratively.
The story of how WangaRay ended up in Mathare Mental Hospital in 2011 can’t adequately be put in context until we go back to Buru Buru where she grew up. And to go back to BuruBuru she has to tell the story of her mother and the darkness that stood like a sentry over her life.
Unfortunately, as with most of these stories, it always starts with a father who left.
“My dad left when I was two,” WangaRay says over the phone, “and he was gone until I was 12 years old when he reappeared briefly. He had remarried and unbeknownst to anyone, he was back because his new-ish wife had given him an ultimatum; go back and get the divorce from your first wife or else… My sister and I went to live with him briefly, but that didn’t work out, and my mother felt betrayed that we had left her to live with a man who had abandoned the family when she was the one who had stayed to take care of us. Things pretty much started spiralling from there.”
We are having a phone interview because she had requested that instead of a face-to-face. She had said she wasn’t ready to meet up with people. It’s late afternoon and she’s at home with her cats. I’m at home with a dying potted Lemongrass.
“During that period, we noticed that my mom would not get out of bed,” she says. “She would not come out of her room. We were young but later I learned that she was having some sort of breakdown and I remember being ten years old and very scared. She would say crazy things, stare into space, refuse food. You’d find her seated in the living room, mumbling something, mostly talking to my dad, who wasn’t there. I was very scared. But in retrospect, I think my mother always had mental issues because when she gave birth to my big sister and I—there were only the two of us—I later learnt that she suffered from postpartum depression.”
Her father’s departure is a pivotal moment in her life because it was a pivotal moment in her mother’s life. It made her very unhappy and when your mother carries unhappiness everywhere, everything she touches is tainted by the stain of unhappiness. She enjoyed the community of Buru-Buru in those days when Buru-Buru hadn’t been corrupted by urban greed, the camaraderie of the neighbourhood but when she went back inside their house she felt the sapped energy of her mother, struggling to stay on her feet. “In those days, the 80s, nobody grew up in broken homes—it was a stigma. All of our friends went back to their homes with their fathers. We didn’t.” She says. “I was confused most of my childhood. My mom seemed to think we were the cause of her problems. That we burdened her. I didn’t understand why my mom said we were a burden to her. And she said it often. I never felt her love. Now as adults when I speak with my sister about that moment, it’s funny how differently we viewed that situation because while I used to think I was the reason my dad left us, my sister says she blamed our mom for my dad leaving. If you don’t tell your children the truth they will make up their own truths. They will most likely blame themselves for the sins of adults.”
What she can’t take away from her mother was how hard she worked as a single parent. She bought property. She invested.
At 18 she started smoking.
Before her graduation, she started working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as studying French at Alliance Francaise. The IT degree and French landed her a job at the ICRC Central Tracing Agency [Rwanda programme] where her job was to trace unaccompanied children who had been separated from their families during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide and reunite them.
In 1997 her sister left for the US. She had finally escaped. She was left alone but not for long because when she became a little financially stable, she also moved out of the home of a mother who was gradually showing signs of distress, depression and general apathy. Her mom, having taken her golden handshake and tried her hand at business which didn’t work out, grew increasingly frustrated by the failure and seemed to sink deeper into depression with each passing day. “We had a strained relationship.”
“In 1997 I travelled to Quebec, Canada for a French immersion course and then to the US to visit my sister in Birmingham, Alabama. My plan was to get my SS and disappear there, never to return home to my mother.” But then her mom fell sick and it was decided that she had to come back home and take care of her. She came back reluctantly, grumbling why it was her who had to come back, why not her sister?
She resumed her job at ICRC as a Help Desk Service Provider in ICT until 1997 and realising that she couldn’t do much for mom, left for Munich, Germany to look for work. “I got a job with Daimler Benz Aerospace in the IT department,” she says. “The catch was I had to come back home and get my work visa but when I came back they couldn’t give me a visa because I couldn’t prove that no German would do my job. The reunification of Germany had happened not so long ago and there were a lot of unemployed East Germans. I went back to pack up my stuff and came back home broken and dejected.”
Back home she got her mom a home nurse and she gradually got better. She left for Ethiopia for voluntary service with Voluntary Service Overseas [VSO]. “I always say I fell in love with and in Ethiopia.” She fell for a very tall, very sharp Dutch fellow called Pete. “He was brilliant. He taught physics and I taught IT in the same university. He was a mama’s boy. They were only two siblings like us. We had no care in the world in Ethiopia and it was easy to love one another.”
By this time she was smoking and drinking a lot. “I have always been the life of the party. I’m that person that makes the party a party.” She laughs. “My father was a very likeable, very charming man. He was short and stocky and he had that lovely salt and pepper beard and glasses. Very handsome guy. He left a trail of many broken hearts. But my dad doesn’t handle responsibility well, when things get thick, he takes off. I’m exactly like that. I’m my father’s daughter.”
“Where is your dad now?” I ask her.
“I don’t know.” She says. “Last I heard he was divorced. I last saw him at a wedding 22 years ago. We hugged and I said hey stranger. I don’t know whether he is alive or dead but if he is alive I wish him well.”
She Whatsapped me some photos of her dad. And of her mom. And of a family tree. Her mom reminded me of Lucy Kibaki when she was younger. Maybe it’s the dress she’s wearing, or the hat or her regal look. Her father looks like one of those slick black reverends in the southern parts of the US who call people, “brother.” She also sent me pictures of a tree, a Nandi Flame, which she called the matriarch of all trees. And of her cats, Miki Maus and Kiki. Miki Maus looks like she studies German at Goethe Institute. And she won’t graduate, not with that attitude.
In 2005 she packed a big bag and travelled to the Netherlands to visit Pete. It was spring when she got out of the plane. She had on a big scarf that smelled of cigarettes and perfume. Outside the trees looked like fragments of a vague dream. Pete drove her home in a small cute European car with the heat on. They listened to Dutch songs and he held her hand with the hand that wasn’t on the steering wheel as he steered the vehicle over old bridges. She was in NL for three months. When she came back she underwent a double surgery for fibroids and endometriosis at Nairobi Hospital. Pete flew in and brought her a stuffed animal.
When she got better she embarked on a Montessori Early Childhood Teaching Course at the Montessori Centre International. “By this time I was pretty much estranged from my mom. I was living alone. No one knew where I lived.”
One day there was a knock on her door. KK, a very close friend was standing there wearing the look of someone who had missed the last flight home. “Hey WangaRay,” she said. “I have some bad news.”
“I knew it!” WangaRay said.
The previous night she had had a “spiritual encounter.”
“The evening I had a deep encounter with her in my mind or dream. She had passed by my house. I told her, mom, I did my best for you. I was asking for forgiveness because we had walked out on her in a huff, blaming her for stuff we didn’t understand even though now we understood she was just doing her best. My mom really felt bad when we left home and never looked back. She would tell her relatives how we left her, abandoned her. How she wished we had stayed. My mom died very lonely. I’m so sad for her. It’s a sad way to die.”
It was a rubbish time when her mom died. Relatives were talking shit. “They were saying I killed my mom.” She hardly had time to mourn. At the morgue she could see people looking at her and whispering. “My sister couldn’t come back home to bury her because her papers weren’t in order,” she says. “She looked like an angel in the coffin. She looked at peace, something she hadn’t known for many years before her death. I wrote to my sister and told her mom finally got her wings again.” WangaRay never drove with her body in the hearse. “I was happy she could finally rest. I felt guilty, feeling happy that she could now rest. She had struggled with her mental health for so long I was relieved for her.”
She tells me of a story she heard about moments before her mom died in the hospital. “The lady next to her in the hospital says that the night before my mom died she talked the whole night, calling out names, talking to invisible people. I guess my name was mentioned.”
“What do you think she felt towards you in her final moments?” I asked her.
“Regret, maybe,” she says. “And love. I think she regrets not having been a better mom.”
By this time things with Pete were on life support. Pete had been supporting her financially but he had a problem also supporting her mom. “He said he couldn’t support three households; his, mine and my mom’s.” She says. “I called him the night before my mom died and I told him about my spiritual moment with my mom and he kept saying that I was talking crazy. This was a red flag for me because if I ever turned out like my mom then he couldn’t or wouldn’t get it. He wouldn’t be supportive. Later, when he was due to come in from Nigeria we gave it another try, he heard I was in hospital, so he Googled Mathare and said, hell no and went straight home. Ha-ha. We broke up.”
Soon after they buried her mom she moved to her childhood home in BuruBuru. She was all alone in the house, her mother’s energy lingered around. The furniture seemed to still radiate with her smell. She opened closets and stared in them. She touched cups. She brought the fabrics to her nose and smelled them. They smelled of memories. It was strange going back to where it all started, to see the mementos from her childhood all which came with their own stark memories. “I completely isolated myself in BuruBuru, phone off, TV off, no contact with the outside world. Initially I kept busy by working on the kitchen garden in the backyard. I immersed myself in my childhood memories. Days rolled by and I ate less and less. I wasn’t drinking, or smoking by this time, I had long stopped but I felt myself sink deep into a world of silence. I felt myself get lost into myself, parts that I didn’t know existed, or even know I could access. Soon I was delving into a spiritual journey, a very chaotic one, a dangerous one that needed supervision. I lost track of time as days went by, lost all sense of reality, I didn’t know if I slept or not, daytime felt like nighttime and time stopped making sense. I had only my cats—Fifi and her three babies—as my reference point to life.“
It’s the watchman who noticed that something was amiss; the gate had been left open for days on end. So was the main door. He ventured inside cautiously, calling out as he walked through the house. He found her in the backyard, nearly naked, very gaunt he could count her ribs and glassy-eyed. She turned her head slowly, like it was too heavy for her neck and stared at him with hollow dead eyes. Her cats that had gathered around her scampered for safety when he approached her.
“I wasn’t fully aware of my situation, of myself during this point. I think I was trying to kill myself but this wasn’t suicide by starvation, it was something called Kundalini Awakening, heard of it? It’s not stuff for the un-initiated or unsupervised yet I fumbled my way through it. It’s stuff that can kill you. I was undergoing a psychotic episode.” She WhatsApped me a strange photo of an emaciated and heavily bearded man seated cross-legged in a yoga pose. “This is the image of Bhagavad-Gita,” she wrote, “it describes what was going through my mind and manifesting in my body during that time.”
It’s from the house that she started seeing a therapist while living with a relative. Her mental health deteriorated sharply until she was finally admitted to Mathare Mental Hospital in 2011.
“First time I was admitted—because I was a guest twice at this institution—I was checked into the general ward which is like rows and rows of beds and mattresses on the floor. It’s not a place I would recommend. What they did was at night they’d give everyone medication that would knock off everybody and close the doors for the night.” She says. “The first night a lady grabbed me and pulled me out of bed and started kicking and punching me. I was screaming for help but nobody came because they probably thought it was some crazy woman screaming. And anyway, there was always someone screaming there. I got a good beating. The head of the dorm eventually rescued me.” Her file, she says, had bold letters on the cover with the words; SUICIDAL.
She was later moved to the Amenity wing—the semi-private wing. “There I got beat up by an Indian girl who was there with her sister. Her sister was friendly towards me, so maybe she was jealous or maybe—as I was to learn later—my very long hair must have reminded her of one of her relatives. These are girls who had been abandoned by their families and forgotten there.”
Food was terrible. The daily routine was; breakfast, out to bask in the sun, lunch, out to busk in the sun, dinner, medication, and sleep. “The night before I was taken to Mathare, I had sprayed Doom in my hair thinking—in my state of psychosis—that it was hairspray. This act saved me because the general ward was very notorious for lice. Everybody had tons of lice in their hair and when they moved you to an amenity which was relatively cleaner, they had to wash you thoroughly with hot water or shave your head altogether. I didn’t catch lice because I sprayed Doom. The place is dehumanising. Animals in zoos live better. ”
However, she found some camaraderie in the amenity wards. “I think I’m a very sharp person. I’m very good at maths and the sciences. The only time I ever felt challenged intellectually was at Mathare because I met some of the most brilliant people there. We would play speed Sudoku and finish in under three minutes. Conversations were extremely intelligent to the point of being intimidating. I recall a man called Zadok who was there for alcoholism. Insanely intelligent. We clicked. He escaped once, went out and got drunk and came back in.”
She would trail one of the doctors doing her rounds in her gown. “In the criminal ward I met a woman who had waited for her husband to come back home and told him, “My dear husband, I decided to slaughter the goat we had for your meal.” The husband said, “But we don’t have a goat!” It turned out she had slaughtered and cooked their toddler. My doctor would turn and tell me, “You still think you are mad?”
“At night you would be knocked out and in the morning as you basked, you didn’t feel the sun on your face. You felt nothing. Nothing registered.” She says. “It’s like your mind was wiped out. I don’t remember much of the period I was there. Nothing meant anything. There was a great disconnect between the body and the mind. It wasn’t treatment, it was maintenance. I don’t remember how many weeks I was there. ”
When she was discharged she went to live with her mum’s sister in her farm in Githiga, Kiambu for close to eight years. She was in the deep end of depression and suicide watch. She slept all the time, so much that her aunt would press her ear against the door and listen for any sort of life and there would be dead silence for days. She added a lot of weight. There was great sadness, the type that you can smell of you. When she was on medication, life lost all meaning. Nobody understood her. “Life was so mundane, I wanted to end it immediately. I told my doctor that I now understood what my mom was going through. I felt how trapped she was. How unhappy she was when she died. I didn’t want to die like her; sad and alone.”
She says. “My psychotic episodes opened me up to spiritual realms that I never knew existed before. The experiences can only be described as ecstatic. But coming down from those highs with the help of dawas led to the most severe depressions. Daktari refused to label my diagnosis but I can say that I’m also bipolar.”
Slowly and painfully she started getting out of the funk. It’s full of setbacks and misfires, misgivings and ebbing hope. Days when the very act of getting out of bed feels Atlassian, like dragging a dead weight up a mountain. Days when your mind feels like it’s devouring your body. After eight years she left her aunties farm and moved into a house in Githurai 44 where she lives now in a bedsitter with her two cats, Miki Maus and Kiki. “I feed my cats when I wake up, I take coffee, I clean up and cook and meditate and sometimes I go to the farm in Gatamaiyu, Lari, in Kiambu.” She says. “I inherited an 11-acre farm from my late mum, with tea and trees on it. I do day trips to the farm called Nanday farm. I have two permanent tea-pickers there. I organise tree planting exercises on the forest side. I started a recent project making vermicompost using red worms. I have sent you a photo on Whatsapp.” I go on Whatsapp. She’s sent a photo of worms. A poster of her tea called Kagwe tea from her factory called the Kagwe Tea Factory that she sells in 50gm 199gm 500gs. There is a picture of her in a floppy next to a water-fall. Another photo of Miki Maus and Kiki looking pensive and unbothered as cats tend to look. She has captioned that picture, “my furbabies. Reason I wake up very early.”
She turned 50 years old in January.
She’s on drugs daily. Every 6pm she takes Sertraline for depression and Olanzapine for psychosis. “I hate them, they make me a zombie but after several relapses when I wasn’t faithful with taking them but now I have made peace with them and we are good friends.” She then adds, “Psychosis is very interesting. It’s losing touch with what’s considered normal.” I can hear her put the quotation marks on that word. “I sometimes miss it, it’s liberating. Why do you think many mental patients walk naked, picking plastic? It’s just another dimension of existence but because we are conditioned from a young age to think of certain things as wrong and right we follow that trail. Psychosis frees you from all that right and wrong thinking.”
It’s 6pm. We have been talking for two hours and it’s 6pm. She had taken her drugs thirty minutes ago and any moment now she will slip into the zone she calls zombie. The cats have been fed. She will power down. We sign off and I go to our Whatsapp and look at her pictures then I go stand over my lemongrass and whisper, “Why do you break my heart so?”
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