‘I had never seen so many bodies piled in a morgue’

Phoebe Asiyo’s new book: It is Possible, An African Woman Speaks, published by Kenya Literature Bureau.

The mental anguish had started two days earlier as the mother dutifully reported to Nairobi’s Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) to monitor the progress of her two-year daughter, the first born who was quarantined there.

On the third day, baby Lilian Atieno’s bed was empty. Her mother Phoebe Muga Asiyo captures these terrifying moments in her memoirs, Phoebe Asiyo: It is Possible, An African Woman Speaks, published by Kenya Literature Bureau.

When she stormed into the ward to inquire what had happened, she was rudely brushed off by a white medic who told her to look for the girl at the mortuary.

And for hours, the distraught mother turned heaps of cold, lifeless bodies of babies as she desperately looked for her child.

“I combed through dead bodies of children looking for my child. I had never seen so many dead bodies piled together. I felt deep sadness for mothers who found their babies among the dead,” she added.

Empty handed, red eyed and emotionally drained, the young mother returned to confront her tormentors, demanding to know why they had buried her daughter secretly without informing her.

After this, a nurse callously told her that he baby was in the Intensive Care Unit, where in her mind she had been put to die.

“I quickly hatched a plan to save my little girl. I waited until nurses trooped out for lunch, then I grabbed my baby and took off. I figured if she was going to die, then she had to die next to me not lying alone in that torture camp they called hospital,” Asiyo recalls.

The gut wrenching accounts of a mother's nightmare at the hands of sadistic medics somehow capture the hurdles the trail blazing teacher, prison officer, social worker, politician and human rights activist had to overcome in her pursuit of serving humanity.

In her memoirs, she explains that she had been forced to be a teacher by her church, Seventh Day Adventist, and her parents, and even after she transited to social work and later became a prison officer, fate hurled nasty experiences.

One of her most horrifying experiences was when she went to the Prisons department in 1962 at the height of Africanisation, where she encountered a Kenyan who had applied to be a hangman, to replace a white one.

The new recruit had to check himself into a mental hospital after executing only two prisoners, for he realised that there was more to hanging than the hefty pay. The white hangman had to be recalled to take his job back after his spineless successor literally chickened out.

Asiyo too was to encounter hell when in the course of her duties she came face to face with a woman who had been sentenced to hang for hacking her husband to death.

What touched the former Karachuonyo MP was the woman's last word to her son when he came to see her; : "In her last words to the son, she asked him to take good care of the family as was dying in his place."

She was later to learn that the woman had stoically chosen to die in place of her 15-year-old son who had hacked his father to death in defence of her mother who was being battered.

After consulting the file and realising that as a minor the son could not be hanged for the crime: She approached the secretary general of National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), Rev John Kamau, and Rev Andrew Hake of Anglican Church and together they met the Attorney General who at first ruled out any reprieve as the state had spent Sh80,000 to convict the mother.

After roping in Margaret Kenyatta, Asiyo’s delegation went to President Jomo Kenyatta who commuted the mother’s sentence to life in prison and was later pardoned.

Ironically, she had to fight for her life in 1979 when she plunged into the murky waters of politics and decided to challenge a Kanu supremo, David Okiki Amayo, who had been the MP for Karachunyo for 10 years.

Her husband, Bezellel Richard Asiyo Genga, was at first opposed to her candidature especially when the Luo Council of Elders directed that she had to start taking instruction from them and not consult her husband on political issues. When the husband retorted that this was unacceptable, the council offered to find him another wife as Phoebe was their choice. He declined.

All manner of obstacles were planted in the way by Kanu bigwigs who were uncomfortable because she had been given the blessing to join politics by Jaramogi Odinga, who had been banished by the ruling party.

At one point during the 1979 by-election, Asiyo recounts how she was denied a Kanu nomination certificate and hours to the deadline had to fly to Mombasa to seek Justus ole Tipis' signature, return to Nairobi by air and then drive to Homa Bay where she arrived 10 minutes to the nomination deadline, to the consternation of her opponents who had already circulated rumours that she had opted out.

Her win, in a campaign where the top Kanu leadership openly campaigned for Amayo whose loyalty was unquestionable, was overturned by court and subjected to a subsequent by-election, which saw violence unleashed on her and her supporters by Kanu regime.

On one occasion, she had to wear a man's clothes to safely pass under cover of darkness, some barriers which had been erected by the provincial administration who were fully behind Amayo. 

After all this failed, Phoebe was  given poisoned fish which sent her to hospital for days and even after recovering and winning in  by election some of her development projects were vandalised by criminals who had been allegedly recruited by her political rivals.

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Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH)Industrial AreaPhoebe AsiyoKenya Literature BureauPhoebe Muga Asiyo