Roy Lumbe @lumbe_roy
Forty years since the demise of Kenya’s founding father, Isabella Wangui Waweru, now retired, still sheds tears recounting Jomo’s last moments.
Born in Nyeri in 1947, Wangui embraces Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. Her dream was to serve her community as a nurse. But it never once occurred to her she would be in the service of the most powerful man in the country.
After graduating from the nursing school in 1970, Wangui worked at the Kenyatta National Hospital before being posted to Kakamega General Hospital for one year and later Machakos where she served y until 1973.
The budding nurse went back to school the following year to study midwifery, but as fate would have it, Wangui would not be midwifing babies into the world but rather, she would be in service of the man occupying the highest office in the country.
She recalls being called to the Ministry of Health offices told she would be the president’s personal nurse. It was not an easy decision to make and offer to take. The choice between serving the community and serving the president was a daunting one.
“I was first reluctant but realised that the president is a part of community. He is the umbrella that shields society from all manner of evils. Serving him would be an honour,” she says. Wangui packed her bags and left for State House where she was interviewed by the president himself. She got the job.
He nursed the president for four years, accompanying him wherever he went. His office was no exception. Her job was to ensure that the doctors instructions were followed to the letter.
In his sunset years and much to Wangui’s agony, Jomo’s health began deteriorating. The medical team upped their efforts. They were on alert 24/7, everywhere he went.“When we left for Mombasa, his health took a turn for the worse.”
On the fateful day, she narrates, the president had his usual meetings at State House Mombasa before traditional dancers paid him homage and entertained him for a while. According to her, the president looked active.
Wangui said they traveled with the president to Msambweni, Kwale to meet the locals before heading back to State House. At that point, the president look weak and exhausted. He did not make it back to the entertainment session which was to end at midnight.
Needed to rest
“On that fateful day, he seemed okay and very active but when we left for Msambweni he became frail and only managed to greet locals before we decided to go back to State House. In the evening he said he needed to rest and never made it to entertainment,” says Wangui
After checking on the president, who was at the time resting, Wangui recorded improvement and decided to retire to bed.
Hours later, Wangui says the First Lady, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, sent for her. The president, she was told, was having diffiuculty breathing.
“Only hours earlier, the president had been on his bed resting and had significantly improved and here I was being woken up by Mama Ngina who said that the president was having problems breathing.”
With a group of nurses and doctors, they flocked to the president’s room where he lay on his bed fighting for his life. Jomo was pale and breathless and all interventions, including use of an oxygen mask, failed. At 3am Jomo Kenyatta breathed his last.
“The medical team tried all we could and when he stopped breathing I was so terrified and could not move. At 3am Dr David Mngola declared him dead,” she recalls. “A dark cloud enveloped state house as the family plunged into mourning.”
Top security officials immediately converged after reports of the death reached them, recalls Wangui. They held lengthy deliberations before making calls to the then vice president Daniel Moi.
The officials, including the provincial commissioner Eliud Mahihu, decided that the family and personnel must travel back to Nairobi. Like the African saying, when a great tree falls, rocks on distant hills shudder, everyone was scared wondering what would follow next.
“There were murmurs everywhere. People had all sorts of theories about what would happen next.” Wangui travelled to Nairobi and mourned with the family she had spent the better part of the past four years with. “I stayed with them for a year before leaving for Nakuru,” she says.
Wangui has nothing but glowing words for the fallen statesman, describing him as a legend who lived a life of dedication to the service of mankind in general and his country in particular. She says Jomo was a hardworking man devoted to serving the nation even as his health was failing.
According to her, Kenyatta was a loving father and husband who made sure he spent time with his children every morning before they set out and every evening when they came back.
“He was a loving father and husband who despite his busy schedule made time for them,” she says.
“I spent a lot of time with the children before I left State House in 1979. My age made it easy to interact with them, I was like their big sister. But I lost contact when I left. My greatest wish would be to reunite with them, including President Uhuru Kenyatta whom I met only once.”