At nearly 80 years, the frailties of old age are finally catching up with Mama Mary Ngina. Her eyesight is failing and her back hurts constantly from a recurrent lumbar infection. Her feet are swollen and can barely support her weight for long. At that age, she ought to be resting at home in Birikani village in Voi sub-county; probably rocking gently on a chair and occasionally arbitrating over petty squabbles amongst her doting grandchildren.
However, the octogenarian is having none of that. In what, at first glance, might appear like a rash decision, she has even defied her doctor’s advice cautioning her against engaging in strenuous activities that might further place her delicate health at peril. Her explanation to this defiance and seemingly disregard for personal safety for someone so old is brunt.
“As a retired nurse, it is immoral to sit idle as medics in hospitals across Kenya get overwhelmed by the surging cases of Covid-19,” she says.
“I must support my fellow nurses to battle the corona pandemic. This is everyone’s war,” she declares before hobbling painfully across a busy street in Voi to distribute facemasks to a group of rowdy boda boda riders outside the Equity Bank building.
Mama Ngina says despite her frail condition, her oath of duty to help save and preserve lives still burns strong and cannot allow her to ignore the nightmarish possibility of a country risking being overrun by this deadly pathogen.
At the young age of 25, Ngina worked as an ancillary nurse at MP Shah Hospital from 1966 to 1973 before moving to Starehe Boys Center as a House Mother. The handling of patients at the hospital and ailing learners at the learning institution inculcated in her a deep passion for humanity. It also bred a profound sense of selflessness when caring for the sick.
Under normal circumstances, medics and nurses in health facilities should handle any medical challenge. However, Mama Ngina says these are far from normal times. The terrifying rate at which the highly contagious coronavirus is spreading at the community level has forced her out of retirement to offer her nursing skills in support of the Ministry of Health’s fight against Covid-19.
“It feels wrong to enjoy my comfort at home while my nursing training is needed out here. My skills can help to fight this disease,” she says.
In the last one month, she has distributed hundreds of masks, sanitizers, soaps and water jerry cans to boda boda riders, traders in market places and in churches. She states that though inadequate due to the high demand of such items, she is doing her small bit to bolster war against the raging pandemic.
Mama Ngina can barely walk for long without support. She has hired a driver who takes her around Voi town and its environs looking for crowds to educate. She offers detailed lessons on personal hygiene including dangers of disregarding Ministry of Health directives on social distancing, wearing of masks and frequent washing of hands.
To aid in her awareness campaign, she has printed hundreds of coloured pamphlets with Covid-19 messaging urging people to wash their hands and support any effort towards eradication of coronavirus from the villages. Kenya has recorded more than 14,805 cases of Covid-19 with more than 6,760 recoveries. Tragically, 263 patients have succumbed. Mama Ngina says though the infections could be reduced by observing simple hygiene, most people were too casual with health directives and needed constant reminding of what was at stake.
While the spectacle of a grey-haired geriatric, hobbling with a walking stick and dodging cars in streets to preach the anti-Corona gospel might be amusing, Mama Ngina’s solo crusade is gradually taking hold. Most boda boda riders who initially found her activities humorous are now admitting they are painfully conscious of their role to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Mr. Emmanuel Nabanda, a rider in the town, says it is a sobering experience to get ruthless hygiene lessons from a ‘grandmother’.
“It’s very disconcerting to get someone this old talking to you about coronavirus and how to keep safe. She is telling us to wear masks and sanitize to protect the elderly people who are at a higher risk. We are listening,” he said.
One of the major reasons that prompted her to start public lessons on how to fight corona is the galloping number of medics being diagnosed with Covid-19. According to the Ministry of Health, over 430 healthcare workers are infected. A fortnight ago, the country lost Dr. Doreen Lugaliki, a medic, to Covid-19; a terrible reminder of how vulnerable the medics are from this deadly pathogen.
Mama Ngina says she was distraught over nurses who contracted coronavirus in line of duty. Her contribution towards keeping them safe is to educate the public on how to avoid getting the virus.
“Nurses are contracting coronavirus because we are falling sick and taking the virus to them at hospitals. If we wear masks and sanitize as required, we will not need to go to hospitals and we will be protecting my colleagues,” she said.
Apart from her concerns for nurses, the granny has another more personal reason. She says people like her are at a greater risk from Covid-19. She therefore needs to remind young people to be considerate of their aging relatives and parents whose immune systems are weak or compromised. She says she is keeping herself safe even as she goes to take coronavirus messages to the public.
“These young people are strong and fit and might not take directives on facemasks and sanitizers seriously. I come as a reminder to them so they can obey those directives to keep their kin who are like me safe,” she explains.
She says that she does not intend to slow down until the pandemic is declared defeated.
By Wagema Mwangi