Simon had reported, fairly settled in his new job and was bubbling with excitement. It was on a Friday where he had just enjoyed a sumptuous meal with his new colleagues, as they had taken him to one of the restaurants they frequented for lunch. As the Production Manager of a prestigious food manufacturing company, he filled in the enviable position of tracking the processing of confectionaries from raw materials to their finished form, ready for placement at their various client shopping malls and supermarket chains. With his 20 years experience in the food sector, he was well poised to help his employer reclaim his market niche, after a 2-year period of battling insolvency and stiff competition from rival multinationals that had also pitched tent in Kenya. His tasks ranged from quality assurance, work flow management and working/managing various teams along the production process to ensure the daily, weekly and monthly targets were reached and exceeded. To the say the least, the Simon was on a high-pressured job.
On this Friday, a few hours into his busy schedule, he got a text from his neighbor Jane (who was famously known as Mama Mboga thanks to her fresh grocery shop) with whom he had struck instant friendship after moving into that neighborhood two months back. The text was capitalized and read, ‘PLEASE COME TO YOUR HOUSE AND DO NOT DELAY’. Jane wasn’t the kind that sent texts like the y-generation of today. Most times she would call Simon if she needed to communicate, on issues ranging from school where his three children and her two children studied, or social issues like weddings, funds drives or the frequent cases of funerals, attributed to ravaging cancer epidemic. Simon was in the middle of a verification process in the Production unit. He only managed to reach out to his phone after the beep, checked the flash message and resumed to conduct his quality control tasks. The content of text message remained edged in his mind, though he intended to call back as soon as he exited the unit.
Before he could pen down his remarks on the daily register for the staff-in-charge, the office messenger came to him in a rush, whispered into his ear and left in the same way he had arrived. Simon was being called urgently by the HR Manager and was asked to leave all else that he was handling and report to the HR Manager’s office immediately. It had only been two months since Simon joined the company and he couldn’t find any performance, disciplinary or insubordination issue that would warrant his quick summon (or dismissal) by the HR Manager. His mind ran wild with imaginations of why and how two people (who definitely didn’t know each other as far as he knew) would ask him to leave what he was doing… and not delay. The HR Manager was a trained counselor and a key asset in the company in attending to staff performance, motivation and social issues with a gold touch. He clearly expected Simon to be in panic mode on arriving at his office and his first role was to calm him down.
‘So, Simon how’s your day so far’? ‘How’s your family’? ‘How are the kids and your wife’? These were the introductory questions that Simon was subjected to. But he was too smart not to realize that the HR Manager was only buying time and trying to find an emotional entry point wherewith to un-glove his fist, whether of iron or velvet. He was sure it would be the former. That morning, the HR Manager had received a call from Simon’s neighbor informing him that the neighbors were enraged with Simon’s wife for setting ablaze his house, which had spread into the neighborhood considering they were 16 one-bedroom houses constructed with prefab technology, in two rows of 8 units each. The hard truth was, 8 units caught were ablaze and no amount of jerry-can or hose-pipe water could drench the fury of the flames.
Simon’s heart sank low, not because of the 8 housing units in his neighborhood that were up in flames or the enraged neighbors who would either sue him or stigmatize the rest of his stay in that neighborhood, but more so because this was the fourth time his wife had set their house ablaze, in such a grand scale. After going through his fuss about Simon’s well being and that of his family, the HR Manager narrated the conversation he had had on the phone with the caller, as he watched the radiant Production Manager shrink into a torso as though life had just been snuffed out of him. Simon had kept his family and social affairs away from his professional life and exuded the grit of a middle level and upwardly mobile career professional that was exceptional in quality assurance standards. His impressive academic credentials from a prestigious higher education institution in India, coupled with 20 years hands-on experience in managing production of a wide range of food and drink products from raw materials of wheat, maize, fruits and nuts, masked the pain and struggles of a man who was married to a wife suffering from severe mental disorder.
Each and every of those events sent Simon into a trance as he reflected on the turbulent journey that his marriage to his high school sweet heart had turned out to be. His wife, Meg had lived through teenage hood without any slight indication of difficulty in concentration, burdensome anxiety, unusual thoughts and beliefs or anything that would typically characterize the early stages of psychosis. She was social, charming, radiant, exuberant and extremely intelligent. Her performance in school was sterling and no cases of truancy or indiscipline were ever raised by any of her teachers and learners. Her parents prided themselves in a girl who shone bright at every competition, including debates at her high school, zonal and division levels. Meg was flawless. She was posited to be the best, the greatest and the queen of her world with every area of her talent and interest. She would stand in the hall of fame, someday.
Dating Simon was the perfect match, or so it appeared. Living in the same neighborhood since they were kids provided the right environment to attend the same school, play the same games and share childhood friends. It was while she was in her second year in campus that Simon asked for her hand in marriage since he felt threatened by the insecurity of distance and that she would hobnob with the middle class from the up market suburbs. They had plenty of fun in jointly attending numerous social, family and church functions during college holidays. By the time they were announcing their plans for a wedding, it was not news, even to the birds at the Nairobi Arboretum. Immediately, after the wedding Meg asked if she could be a stay-at-home wife. It first appeared strange to Simon but caught up in the excitement and naivety of pleasing his young bride he saw no harm in being the Man who provides for the family. In any case, in the patriarchal society that the Jews, Greeks, Hebrews and Pastoralists lived in, men were the hunters while women were gatherers.
A year waned off and nothing spectacular caught the attention of this newlywed couple or even their close friends or family members. However, Meg was slowly withdrawing from both family and friends, and was being overly reactive to Simon. With increased tenacity, she formed a cocoon around herself and began to lose every emotional bond she had with her immediate family. She stayed indoors most of the time. In the highly competitive and pressurized work environment, Simon was equally soaked into his career and by the time he got home in the evenings, he was too dilapidated to have any meaningful conversation with his wife or notice the his wife’s thought patterns were getting impaired and dysfunctional. She was slowly but actively losing contact with external reality. Sometimes she would sleep in the living room, afraid that the roof in the bedroom would collapse in the night.
In the middle of this disconnection, the couple conceived their first child and that pregnancy is not anything that Simon would like to remember. The unborn infant seemed to be the double barrel trigger for all the wrong hormones, thoughts and a host of other risk-taking behavior that Simon had never imagined. He would at times find Meg locked up in the wardrobe. On being queried she would turn violent and threaten with abortion. This was only in the second year of their marriage and Simon thought she had been bewitched but was too afraid to share with anyone, lest they both get ostracized. After reading many books on pregnancy and preparing for parenting, he thought the constellation of weird traits would be dumped into the bottomless pit once the new born arrived. Shock on him, his wife declined to attend the antenatal clinics and ate all the wrong foods that would jeopardize her health and that of the fetus.
So, what does one do when their spouse stops functioning well? Who do you talk to, especially given the stigma around mental disorders? Like the father of Jesus, Simon hatched a plan to leave his wife secretly, not once but many times. But his conscience would not allow him. He had consciously taken the marriage vows, ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death shall do us part’. A man under siege surely needs an emotional vent. Perchance, he should be allowed to get another wife or a side relationship, but would that really help? When they could no longer hide her irrational, impulsive and antisocial behavior, friends and family started talking in whispers. Their silence, voices and otherworldly looks haunted him all the while. Meg was quickly becoming physically aggressive. She would raise her voice in the middle of low-toned conversations and embody the character of isolation and frustration. She broke all the glassware and chinaware that were given as wedding gifts. Every morning at 4am, she woke up to sing songs of nostalgia, death and destruction.
Simon lived in fear, not only for the 9-month pregnancy but for his own life. One night, she woke him up and was holding the kitchen knife demanding that he swears in God’s name that he will never leave her. It was too much for Simon. He moved houses and neighborhoods countless times to avoid the everyday explanation of why his wife had done this or that. The worst was when she was accused of throwing a dead cat into the community water tank and Simon was summoned by the area chief and mercilessly reprimanded. He was instructed to restrain his wife or undisclosed measures would be meted against him. It was after this humiliating incidence that Meg lit up their house and stood at distance to watch their property go up in flames. It was a strange, very strange sight to behold.
So, on this day when the HR Manager summoned him to his office, Simon went into a trance and couldn’t hear any word after he mentioned the ordeal of another fire at his house. He remembered how he had lost every important document during those repetitive events, including his national ID, wedding certificate, academic certificates, job awards for best performance and the only land title he had managed to purchase. This was besides the all-too-expensive electronic gadgets that he had bought over time. He knew too well, the cycle of events that follow such losses, including getting police abstracts, moving houses, taking Meg for a stab of rehabilitation at a mental health facility and the emotional agony of handling their three children.
It had been close to 30 minutes of unabated speech by the HR Manager. Although his intent was to calm Simon’s nerves, his own nerves were frayed as he imagined the reception awaiting Simon at home. Despite the comfort and hopeful words from his HR Manager, the small print of the company’s home insurance policy clustered ‘works of arsonists’ together with ‘works of God/nature’. Both men knew that company support would be limited.
Simon excused himself and asked to leave work for the day to attend to the emergency. On his way home, he was assigned one of the company security guards in the event he would need some form of protection. Rather than driving home, he opted to ride in a matatu as the former would put him at the risk of losing his remaining asset. It was a quiet mid-morning as he alighted at the matatu-stage though he could spot one or two queer looks, from the corner of his eyes. From a distance, he could see the smoke bellowing and masses of humanity (mostly his neighbors) ferrying jerry cans of water and doing the best firefighting they could muster within the circumstances. Everything looked disorganised. Paper and burnt clothes were scattered everywhere. Some were probably his notebooks, work related literature or recently acquired outfits. He dreaded to spot any familiar items among the clutter, so he avoided gazing at anything for too long.
Jane was at hand to ‘receive’ him and ran him through a quick update of the events. Simon zoned out as he cast his eyes across the ruins in search of his wife and children. His heart craved for the company of his nuclear family. Jane was still blubbering despite Simon’s attention being elsewhere. They walked past the smoldering clothes and iron sheets that were half salvaged. The smell and stench of burning wood, plastic and fabric rented the air. Jane finally caught his attention as she cautiously turned to him and broke the news, ‘your wife and children can’t be traced and we’ve been trying to remove everything from the house, all in futility’. Simon paused and so did his accompanying security personnel whose bloodshot eyes hid his own confusion. Before he could turn his eyes and ears to Jane, sirens blasted the air. The police had been called by one of the neighbors whose house had been brought down to ashes by the inferno.
As if on cue, a loud female scream was heard from inside Simon’s smoldering house. Two other women joined the screaming, and in that moment Simon’s fears were confirmed. The screaming women had found one of his children, Muruga, a six-month-old child lying on a half-burnt mattress which had been doused in paraffin. There was no time to think of reconstructing the story backwards. Muruga had sustained fourth degree burns that had pervaded the full skin thickness and touched the deeper body tissues. Simon didn’t cry as his child was rushed into the waiting police car. Though his heart shredded into pieces, he watched on silently as Jane jumped into the police car and sped away.
Muruga’s discovery had raised fears as everyone was afraid of stumbling across another child or their mother in the burning debris. As soon as the police sirens were no longer audible, everything appeared to come to a standstill. People began whispering among themselves, watching Simon’s reaction to the whole ordeal. Attempting to ignore them, he headed for the room where he once relaxed with his family over a meal or light conversation. There was no more life in the charred structures and water-soaked floors and walls. He noticed that opportunistic pickets had helped themselves to salvageable goods but left an artistic impression of his wedding portrait. He momentarily admired its resilience as it stubbornly hung on the wall despite being partially darkened by the smoke. Hours passed as Simon looked around the room that was once a refuge from the chaotic world outside.
It was getting dark and people started retreating into their homes, leaving Simon and his security man to sort out the rest of the mess. His younger brother, who had been informed of the incident, later joined before taking Simon home for the night. Simon was numb in the absolute sense. His thoughts remained transfixed on the events of that day. His brother assumed responsibility of communicating with Jane, who later informed him that Muruga had succumbed to the burns. No one could break the news to Simon.
The following day’s search for his family began in hospitals and mortuaries. At the hospitals, Simon was subjected to screening the recently admitted patients into the casualty and emergency ward. At the morgues the morticians led him to the cold room where freshly delivered bodies were stacked alongside unidentified corpses. This was Simon’s routine for the next 3 days. His younger brother suggested placing an advert in the newspapers and radio but Simon resisted the idea.
Two nights before Muruga’s burial, Simon was shocked to receive a call from the deplorable mental facility where Meg was a regular outpatient. He refused to believe that she had checked herself in, considering patients were subjected to all manners of clinical trials before being locked away in single units with barbed wire fences and roofed cages. On previous visits Simon often witnessed his wife being treated as though she had leprosy or some other inexplicable, communicable disease. He observed how well meaning but severely under-staffed facilities and under-resourced professionals were left to treat patients, like his wife, who were often outcasts in their own families.
During that phone call, Simon recalled the many times that women had to cover his wife at the market place where she would go to sing; because none of the traders cared to give her attention, she occasionally undressed. His two school-going children had always asked him not to send their mum for parents’ meeting at school, as it always turned out to be an embarrassment among their peers. Meg’s condition was seasonal and fluctuating. At one moment, she was the best mother that her children could ever ask for, yet at another she was the most bizarre and dysfunctional. Taking her to a mental facility wasn’t by choice, but by lack of it. It had become routine during the foregoing years of their marriage, where Meg would check, or be forcefully checked, into the facility every once or twice in a year, depending on the frequency of her ‘abnormal behavior’ escalation levels.
When Simon snapped back into reality, the caller repeated that Meg had checked herself into the facility the night before and had come with two children. During admission, she had been violent and it took more than 5 hours for a team of 2 doctors and 3 nurses to confine and immobilize her using drugs that put her in a comatose-like state. The news was great relief to Simon, but the thought of seeing her in that state wouldn’t be. That day, he and his brother rushed to the mental facility to check on Meg and pick the two children. The sight of his two kids was unbearable. Esther and Dan were traumatic states. Meg was in the bare form of a human being. Simon collapsed. This was one of the rare occasions when emotions took a toll on him. He had seen it all. Four instances of his house going up in flames, a dead child awaiting burial, two highly traumatized children and his wife lying in a vegetative state at the mental hospital. Human beings have a limit of how much pain they can bear.
The following morning he woke up to the news that his wife, his childhood sweetheart, had been diagnosed with a case of advanced psychosis, more commonly known as schizophrenia.
This story is dedicated to my dad, who survived my mum’s mental depression during their 33 years of marriage. To my mum, in ways we will never know, you braved the recurrent bouts of bipolar, psychosis, depression and in the final straw, succumbed to senile dementia, 8 years ago. And finally, to my small brother who didn’t survive the last inferno at our home. You choked with smoke and all rescue efforts were a little too late, for a 6 month old infant. I still wonder what you would have been today, if you lived to your teenage or at adult years. I pause at my writing and realize that all the bits of this jig-saw puzzle haven’t been revealed. It’s all a mystery.
Joseph N. Mungai is inspired to write from people’s life experiences. For him, writing isn’t just a hobby, but a lifestyle.
Related country: Kenya