‘Breast guy’ who loves the pen says kwaheri to Kenya

Dr. Yusuf Dawood and his wife Marie during interview on 1st March 2018 at Karura Gardens.Dawood is relocating to United Kingdom with his wife after staying in Kenya as breast surgeon for 58 years. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Renowned surgeon and author Yusuf Dawood sat in his almost empty living room, overlooking tables in the next room filled with packed items.

In a few weeks, Dr Dawood and his wife Marie Kodwavwala will be gone – they are relocating to England where their two children reside – after staying in Kenya for 57 years. 

“We love Kenya, but we need to be with our children so that they can take care of us. We are getting old,” says Yusuf in a raspy voice, almost a whisper.

He turns 90 this year. He says he is beginning to think of his mortality more than he did in previous years.

“It scares me, how he talks of death. I start weeping because I am very emotional,” says Marie.

Yusuf says having worked as a surgeon, he internalised how fickle life is and his obsession with order makes him want to put everything in place before he is gone.

When the Sunday Standard visited his home, a sense of urgency defined almost everything he did.

From calling his publishers for last minute instructions, to organising little details preluding his departure.

Witty humour

He would occasionally stand to answer his phone, his feet shuffling as he walked across the room. Age has crept in, robbing him of the agility he had when he was a practising surgeon, before he put down his scalpel four years ago.

His enthusiasm remains. Especially when he talks about his ‘four wives’, the ones he will carry with him when he leaves: His love for writing, passion for his profession as a surgeon, involvement in activities of the Rotary Club, and his wife Marie.

“I hate that pecking order. I should be first!” Marie says jokingly.

Most of his colleagues know him as the ‘breast guy’. Most of his procedures were on breast cancer patients, an area he went into after noticing an upsurge of breast cancer patients in Kenya.

Dawood says before retiring, he scheduled that his last operation be on breasts to summarise a career he had done for more than five decades.

While most of his readers saw passion, dedication and ability to multitask in the stories he wrote, Marie saw a husband who needed a break. She recalls the many nights Dawood returned home from the theatre or lecture hall where he taught upcoming surgeons, so fatigued, he would slump into bed without saying a word.

Dawood feels he missed a chunk of his children’s life, especially in days when he was an active surgeon.

He believes when he goes to England, they will create more memories.

He plans to exit Kenya in silence. No side shows. The same way he arrived in 1961 when the fight for independence was peaking.

His highness the Aga Khan was looking for a young surgeon to work at his hospital in Nairobi. Dawood applied and got the job.

He was first hit by work-related stress when he was made administrator at Aga Khan Hospital, so he resorted to writing fiction to release stress.

In 1978, he took his manuscript to editor Henry Chakava of East African Educational Publishers. Mr Chakava was awed. He signed to publish his first book “No strings attached”, marking his entry into authoring.

He was flung further into the world of words by lucky happenstance.

His first column

Dawood had joined the Rotary Club in Nairobi, and among the requirements was for new members to talk about their jobs. By coincidence, one of the people scheduled to speak developed a strangulated hernia and landed on Yusuf’s surgical table.

Before he went under, the patient told Dawood to inform the Rotarian president, the late John Karmali, that he will not be giving the speech.

“When I told Karmali that the speaker was sick, he told me to talk about my job instead,” Dawood says.

He was thrown off. The club back then was a group of old whites who Dawood says loved gin and would get knocked off to sleep as soon as a speaker stepped on the podium.

“I noticed they were listening when I started talking about my experience as a surgeon,” he says.

By the time he was done, they were on their feet, giving a standing ovation.

Later that day, Joe Rodrigues, the then Nation editor who was in the group, approached him.

“He told me to write everything I had said. He published it. He later called and said: you are on – you are getting a column,” says Yusuf, summing up the beginning of his intimate and candid narrations of his life as a surgeon.

Cartoonist speaks

He is uncertain on how long it will continue. Rheumatism is slowly creeping to his knuckles, making writing a chore.

“I will write as long as I can, but I don’t know for how long,” he says.

John Nyaga, the illustrator who has worked with him for 15 years says he has learnt about steadfastness from Dawood.

“When I watched Yusuf multitask between surgery, writing, and travel, I was often amazed at how he does it all with passion and perfection,” Nyaga says.

He however says Yusuf can be particular, almost picky when choosing details of how his images are depicted, especially when his family is in the picture.

“I am not such a careful person, but with Yusuf, I had to,” Nyaga says. Dawood says even though he will be away from Kenya, he has immortalised the memories he made here.

The Standard
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