Memories and Musings from a Nairobi Hospital Bed

‘Is this a hospital or a hotel?’ my seven-year old son, Andreas, said, as his eyes opened wide as he took in the room in the Nairobi Hospital, where I was being treated for the first time. Last week there was a similar but unspoken reaction by our young intern, Mercy, when she came to bring me some papers to sign. I could see her eyeing the TV on the wall, the fridge, the wardrobe, and all the switches, electrical sockets, swivel light, oxygen access point…

Some years back, a group of Kenyan journalists invited me to give them a talk. I went along, but I was puzzled.

‘Why have you asked me to talk with you?’ I asked. ‘My Going Places column is a hobby and not a job!’

‘Well, for me,’ said one of the journalists, ‘I would like to know how you get your stories.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘For example, the other week you went to a sports bar, and you made a story out of it. If I go to a sports bar, I have a drink with my friends and a watch a football match – that’s all.’

‘But wherever you are, and whatever you are doing,’ I suggested, ‘there has to be a story there.’

I gave them a couple of examples of questions that have led to stories in the column.

‘Why is this Thika hotel called ‘Blue Post?’ I asked the then Manager. And in our conversation, it became clear that he didn’t know that Winston Churchill once shot a lion in the hotel grounds on his visit to Kenya in 1907. (Come to think of it, I still don’t know why the hotel was called Blue Post. I guess it was because the post where patrons tethered their horses was painted blue.)

Then there was the question asked by my taxi-driver as she picked me up one early morning to go to the airport.

‘Where are you going to this time, Mr John?’

‘Vietnam.’

‘Oh, then you are going to the war!’

When I picked up the English language newspaper while I was there, and it had an article on the front page with the headline, ‘Vietnam: The Safest Country for Tourists’ – then I knew I had my story.

So what was the trigger for this story? From the window in my room at the Nairobi Hospital I could see the imposing square building of the Kenyatta National Hospital. And that brought back a memory.

It was 1967, and I was on my way out to Kenya for the first time, aboard the SS Uganda. Among the passengers there was a tall, grey haired, Professor of Medicine from the University of Edinburgh. He was so enthusiastic about the job he was about to be doing in Kenya.

‘I am going to help establish a national hospital in Nairobi,’ he said’ ‘It will be the best equipped and staffed of all the state hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa.’

I wonder whether he could have possibly imagined the pressures the KNH would have to face – in a country where the population was only about 12 million when he came in 1967 and has grown to over 40 million now. Could he have anticipated the funding and staffing problems that the hospital has encountered? And how would his ghost feel now if it could pay the hospital a visit?

A few years back I had a hip replacement done at the Nairobi Hospital. Twice, on his post-operation visits, the surgeon thanked me. I was silent the first time, but on the second occasion I asked, ‘Why are you thanking me? Surely I should be the one thanking you!’

‘Well, for showing your trust,’ he said, ‘Many mzungus like you would choose to go back to the UK – or even fly down to South Africa – rather than have the treatment here.’

I told the surgeon about the one ‘procedure’ I have had done in a UK hospital in recent years. The doctor performed it efficiently, I am sure. But, poor fellow, it was the same one procedure he was doing day-in and day-out. I tried to chat with him, but he wasn’t into chat. It was all so mechanical, so cold.

Here, in Nairobi Hospital – and I feel sure it would be the same in the Aga Khan Hospital – I reckon I am in the hands of experts. And with them there is an interaction, a conversation, a relationship.

But when I look through the window at the KNH, and when I remember the many visits I have made to health centres and outreach clinics across the country – and in other countries across the continent on my consultancy assignments – I can’t help but recognise how lucky I am to have the means to pay the insurance to have such quality of health care. This is an unequal and unfair world, isn’t it?

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation