I was in deep thought, completely absorbed in planning the second issue of the magazine we would soon be launching, when the sound startled me back to the present.
A siren. Really loud. A minute later I saw it. An ambulance. Exactly the same model as the matatu I was sitting in but without the yellow stripe across the middle. Cream in colour, strobe lights flashing, siren blaring.
The bus stop at the back gate of Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) was busy with lunch time traffic moving slowly, hampered by a line of matatus parked at the stage waiting to fill up with passengers. A second line of matatus was forming alongside, touts shouting for passengers and in the process taking up the second lane meant for traffic and creating a backlog that stretched a few hundred metres to where I sat in a Langata matatu.
I had ignored the one at the head of the queue and opted to enter the empty one behind it. “Why go to an empty vehicle when this one needs just one more person?” the tout asked with a smile.
“I need to sit next to the window. It’s too hot.”
I’ve never understood why so many people immediately close the window on entering a vehicle, even when the sun is blazing hot. Rather than fight about it; I long ago decided to always sit next to a window, preferably away from the sun.
I tried to fan my face with an envelope to cool off as I waited for the vehicle to fill up. One of the advantages of not having a personal car is that you walk everywhere and can thus build exercise into your daily routine as vehicle owners spend thousands in the gym. When stuck in traffic, many times I simply alight and walk to my destination and I never have to worry about looking for parking.
I had been cooped up in the house the whole week working and felt really unfit, so I decided to walk to Yaya Centre from KNH. The weather was perfect for walking. Cloudy with a stiff breeze and even a hint of rain. After my meeting I decided to walk back but the sun came out and it was blazing hot by the time I reached the bus stop at KNH.
Many Kenyan drivers often refuse to give way to an ambulance but I was gratified to note that cars heading to the Mbagathi Road/Ngong Road roundabout stopped to let the ambulance coming from the opposite direction turn into the KNH gate. Surprisingly, the driver stopped and parked on the curb a couple of metres from where I sat. It wasn’t completely off the road; the back wheels were still on the tarmac.
The driver half turned in his seat and gestured behind him. A second later, the side door opened and two men alighted from the vehicle. Both entered the front seat next to the driver and shut the door. The vehicle didn’t move.
With the ambulance so close, the siren was an ear splitting sound and I began to get irritated. Motorists behind the ambulance navigated around it awkwardly, after stopping to let it pass only to realise the vehicle was stationery, with the driver in no seeming hurry to drive off.
“Why doesn’t he just shut the damn thing off?” I said in annoyance, putting a finger to each ear to try and muffle the sound. The heat and noise combined was clearly getting to me.
“It’s probably an emergency,” the lady next to me said, leaning forward to get a better look at the ambulance.
“The hospital is right there. What is he waiting for?” In my mind, I had already decided that the driver was ferrying a couple of joyriders. Happens a lot in Nairobi.
“The relatives were told to go to the front. They are probably trying to resuscitate someone and didn’t want them to see.”
That stopped me cold. I glanced at her sharply and realised in a millisecond that she was right. I had been quick to rush to judgement and now felt guilty. I had caught a flash of colour and movement as the door opened to let the two men out. A kanga perhaps, so popular with women for tying around their waists while working or wrapping a baby. Or maybe a headscarf?
In a split second the tableau had changed. It felt like the two of us were suspended in time, waiting anxiously, imagining the life and death struggle playing out inside the ambulance. The siren cut out a second later and the strobe lights went off leaving a void of silence. I’ve used the phrase ‘deafening silence’ in my novels but didn’t really realise what it meant until now.
The irony is; it was anything but silent. Car horns blared as impatient motorists hooted at matatus obstructing the road. Touts shouted for customers. Hawkers continued selling their wares. A glance inside the now half full matatu revealed that passengers had gone back to their phones after being temporarily distracted by the siren. Life around the ambulance continued without missing a beat Only I and my fellow passenger seemed transfixed by whatever was going on inside it.
Whereas a minute ago I wanted nothing more than that infernal racket to stop, now I wished more than anything that the siren would blare again and the vehicle would race towards the gate of the hospital mere metres away, strobe lights flashing, towards hope, towards life.
I looked keenly at the two men in the front seat, trying to gauge from their expressions what was going on behind them. But they sat like zombies, the driver too in his white coat; arm leaning nonchalantly on the open window beside him. Surely if there was a real emergency he would be tense. That thought was immediately negated by another: perhaps he had seen this happen too often and so didn’t react to it like others would.
The vehicle moved and I rejoiced. It moved a few metres in front of our matatu and stopped again. What the hell?
“That’s not good,” my fellow passenger commented.
My heart sank. No no no. Surely whoever was inside wouldn’t die mere metres from a hospital after fighting through traffic all the way from Kamukunji. I had noticed the large lettering on the sides; “Donated by Kamukunji CDF”. The Constituency Development Fund was one of the few good things to come from our MPs who are best known for politicking 24/7 and looting. The universe couldn’t be that unkind could it? But how many stories have we heard of people being declared dead on arrival at casualty?
Human beings are hardwired to hold on to life at all costs and denial kicked in. Perhaps there was no one dying in that ambulance. Perhaps my earlier instincts were correct and the passengers had been given a lift into the city. But then why just sit there doing nothing with no conversation as one would expect between friends?
As if sensing my train of thought the woman beside me spoke again, more softly this time, her voice a mere whisper as if afraid to voice her thoughts: “The next stop will be the morgue.”
I felt a chill. I knew the KNH morgue intimately, though not for the reasons one might think. The topic of my MBA dissertation was the funeral industry which at the time was in its infancy. For the fieldwork, I visited all the morgues in the city and talked to the managers or superintendents as they were known in KNH and City Mortuary.
My dad worked as a physiotherapist at KNH for three decades before he retired and he offered to take me to the KNH morgue partly because I had never visited one before and had heard terrible stories about the conditions in government owned facilities, and also to introduce me and cut out the bureaucratic red tape. That was the only time I wished I had chosen a different topic for my dissertation. Some things one can never unsee.
It occurred to me then how weird it was that the ambulance had chosen this entrance and not the main one where the casualty department was located. The morgue was closest to this entrance.
We continued staring at the ambulance, in what seemed like a moment frozen in time, even as my mind absently processed the hustle and bustle of the bus stage. A policeman came into view a few metres ahead, gesturing impatiently to matatus obstructing traffic to move. Our tout banged on the door, shouting for one last passenger. Pedestrians dodged oncoming traffic as they crossed the road instead of using the zebra crossing up ahead.
In the midst of utter chaos, the ambulance stood still. Silent. Frozen. Like a sentinel at the crossroads between this world and the next, with the battle poised to go either way.
I remembered how a friend had said after her father died, that the most painful thing was the way the world didn’t stop for her grief and yet for her, the world had just ended. This is what is so incongruent about life; how the wheel doesn’t stop turning no matter what happens, even if it’s terrible. Perhaps it’s just as well, for if it did, we would all be paralysed by grief and no one would ever move on after the death of a loved one or enjoy life.
The last passenger boarded the matatu. The driver hopped in, started the engine and drove out of the stage. I looked behind me.
The ambulance was still in the same spot.
Image credits: EastAfrican, Nation
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