The Death Of An ‘Ordinary Person’

Lucy Hannan by Lucy Hannan
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My friend Dorothy died while we were battling to save her. Her life since 2007 had been all about the trauma and resilience of being a victim of post-election violence — brutally gang-raped in Naivasha, followed by a life of poverty in Kisumu as an unrecognized IDP. She was HIV positive and brave enough to talk publicly about it. But Dorothy didn’t die because of that. Her story is probably familiar to thousands of abandoned post-election violence survivors. It will be told this time from the end, not from the beginning. Dorothy, 32, had been admitted to Kisumu District Hospital with a chest infection in August. When I visited her, her calm and charm had been taken over by a wide-eyed fear. She was almost unrecognizable — thin, prone and barely covered in the crowded female ward. The ward was full of acutely ill women — TB, Aids, malaria. Some were lying on the floor. I didn’t see any nursing done by nurses that day.

Relatives and friends did the best they could–cups of milk next to the beds, bowls for vomit, and half-empty bottles of water for cleaning up. The electrical wall sockets didn’t work; there was no water in any of the taps. We bought Dorothy a nightdress and underwear, towels and a pillow, water and milk, and lotion for her body and cracked lips. The swelling up her arm was stiff and shiny — like a hard liquid cushion. I was shown a few packets of injectable medicine next to her bed. Medication, it turned out, was a touch-and-go affair. No consistency There was no consistency in its monitoring or administration. Relatives seemed in fear of the hospital regime rather than reassured by it. They talked of corruption and neglect, with underpaid and under pressure medical staff taking a harsh and dismissive approach to the patients. Dorothy was sick, but clear-minded — she wanted people around her.

That day, the ICC victims’ lawyer Morris Anyah visited her. Dorothy had supported the ICC option since I first met her in 2009. Mr Anyah explained at her bedside that as a victim she would be represented at The Hague, listed as a number to ensure anonymity and protection. We felt nervous as we watched her watch him — nervous about how much the ICC understood about victim protection in Kenya, where politicians operate as a mafia, not as a government. Was Dorothy safe? Very possibly not, as she had been seen on film by millions. I first met her as an IDP in Kisumu when we were making the film Getting Justice: Kenya’s Deadly Game of Wait and See, which was shown on national television and in international film festivals. Dorothy was one of the key interviews in that film, along with Mary, a badly burnt survivor from the Kiambaa Church fire. While it was fitting now that justice had effectively come to Dorothy’s bedside, there was little to feel pleased about. Now was a time of fear and uncertainty, of vitriol and threats against witnesses and “traitors”. The pre-trial hearings of government kingpins were about to be heard in The Hague. Our fears for her, as it turned out, were not without foundation. When Case 2 kicked off in The Hague, Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo referred to Dorothy’s case. He talked of a woman in Naivasha who was gang-raped by Mungiki and called “dog” — exactly what she had talked about in the film.

The matter was taken up with the ICC victims unit, and there were promises of help. But it quickly became clear Dorothy was not going to get any immediate protection. We sought the advice locally of those well versed in living under threat in Kenya. These were conversations you felt you shouldn’t even be having: is she a witness? Where does she live? Who’s looking after her? We moved Dorothy to a private wing and found an independent doctor whose empathy and efficiency guaranteed Dorothy’s immediate transfer. I sat in the back of a taxi with her, holding tissue to her bleeding hand where a nurse had unceremoniously pulled out the cannula: no dressing allowed. It was pure relief to reach a ward that was clean and orderly. We felt new hope. Over the next few weeks, Dorothy improved in health, comfort and outlook, although her condition remained precarious because of her HIV status. HIV is not, of course, a death sentence now. With retrovirals and good care, Dorothy still had more years, and a chance, surely, of a better life ahead. We saw the Dorothy we knew re-emerging, that amazing spirit of resilience and hope. She began talking again about going home. But although Dorothy’s health was improving, concerns about her security were not. Dorothy was now exposed in more ways than one. There were new worries about the impact of Case 2. Previously, political threats had focused on “traitor” witnesses in the Rift Valley and “traitor” activists in Central Province. But the dominant narrative had effectively “invisiblised” victims in Naivasha and Nakuru, with powerful apologists peddling the fact that the atrocities were necessary “revenge attacks”. The fact was, they were ordinary civilians, like Dorothy, who played no role in the violence at all.

They were raped or killed simply because of their ethnicity. Now, the ICC pre-trial hearing placed these attacks center stage in a case pitched against the most powerful men in Kenya.Perceived risks So it was decided that Dorothy should remain in the hospital for longer — but not too long. Keeping her in hospital exposed her to infections when her immunity was low and her condition weak. It was a balance of perceived risks. Dorothy’s carers and visitors were limited to a few known and trusted people. There was caution with phones, e-mails and personal contacts. Dorothy remained in the hospital during the ICC confirmation hearings and the week that the government suspects returned to Kenya. During this time, Dorothy’s health improved. By October 13, preparations were made to find her a house. I talked to Dorothy that day, and she was eager to go home — but also worried about a sudden onset of weakness and shaking. Then, early morning October 14, I was told she had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. She was indeed very ill. No more phone conversations with Dorothy. She rapidly developed a severe condition with diabetes and convulsions.

Her bedside was taken over then by people speaking in tongues, casting out the devil, and praying for her soul. I spent Monday and Tuesday with her. She asked me if she was going to die. There was a huge pile of pills next to her she had failed to stomach. But despite the seriousness of her condition, nursing care seemed to be receding rather than increasing. During those last few days, keeping up her glucose levels and medication was critical. Yet sometimes her drip was left out for hours at a time. And — even in the private wing — it was up to relatives and friends to nurse, feed, wash and clean her.

The night I spent there, a nurse came to Dorothy’s bedside just once. At 3 a.m. we needed help — but the nurses were locked in their station, sleeping. There were other worries. Like the way medication was treated as a form of currency rather than a necessity. And traditional herbs were given to her without any control or monitoring — traditional medicine can kill, said one doctor. How would you know if a patient had died from external concoctions? You wouldn’t, explained the doctor. Toxicologists can’t identify plants that haven’t been classified. And too risky to complain about poor medical care, otherwise you might not get any at all. “Better not rock the boat,” the doctor advised. Dorothy died late Wednesday night. Why? What did she die of? One of the last people she asked after was the Kiambaa survivor, Mary, who she met in an outdoor screening of Getting Justice in Naivasha 2010. (WATCH: Mary meets Dorothy) Shoulder to shoulder, the two survivors sat together in the cold and talked about their scars – visible and invisible. It reminded me that although Dorothy always referred to herself as “an ordinary person”, she was clearly not.

By her own account, she was illiterate and poorly educated, yet she was articulate and wise about subjects that are taboo for so many — rape, HIV, and forgiveness. It also reminded me that the fate of every — poor — citizen rests in the hands of their government. Dorothy had been failed at every turn in her life: in the 2007 election; in personal security; as an internally displaced person; as a person living with HIV; in restitution; as a victim of sexual violence; in loss of livelihood; in legal justice and human dignity; and finally, in a fatally corrupt and inefficient institution – the health service. But in death, she had taught me one last thing. I finally understood exactly what is meant by a “failing State”. Dorothy died of failure of State. Dorothy was buried on Saturday.

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