The sight of two women clinging to each other on a hospital bed might not be uncommon, especially when one looks emaciated and the other healthy.
One would be forgiven for thinking one of the women is on a routine hospital visit to see a relative or friend. While this is true in this case, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
It all began somewhere in Tanzania, in a village called Mpapati in Manyara district, 20 years ago.
One of the two women, Halima Shabani, then aged 16, met a man who promised her a job in a hotel in Narok, across the border. The offer was irresistible, and the teenager quietly packed her bag and sneaked out of home and eloped with the stranger.
When her family woke up, she was gone.
For 20 years, the family of 10 searched in vain for Halima. Her father, Shabani Msuri, gave up looking and eventually died. As far as he was concerned, his daughter had preceded him to heaven.
Meanwhile, Halima put up with her ‘benefactor’ in Narok. The hotel where she had been promised work turned out to be one of the numerous food kiosks in Narok town.
Then her health started failing and the man fled. Halima found herself on the dusty streets of Narok, sick and far away from home.
She would have died on the streets had fate not intervened.
Two months ago, Leah Montoi, a Kenya Red Cross Society worker, was heading to work when she saw a crowd milling around something lying on the street.
Curious, she walked over and found an emaciated woman on the ground. She immediately called an emergency team and the woman was rushed to Narok County Hospital.
The woman was Halima.
“She was in a bad state and very dehydrated,” said Ms Montoi.
When she regained some strength, Halima told her story to her rescuer. She confessed to running away from home 20 years ago, and how she had given up on reuniting with her family.
The story stirred Montoi, who just happens to work with the Reuniting Families section of the Red Cross. She took to social media and posted Halima’s photo on the Nairobi Chit Chat page.
Three days later, a call came through from a woman who said she knew Halima, and that she was her sister.
“I was elated,” said Montoi.
Back in Tanzania, Mbuva Shabani first saw the pictures last week as she surfed the net on her mobile phone. She looked at them for hours before finally calling her sister.
“I think I have found Halima,” she said.
The two then shared the pictures with the rest of the family, including their mother, Mwanahamisi Ali. They were all unanimous in confirming it was their long-lost sister.
“I told my mother: ‘I am going to see her, I am going to bring her home,” said Mbuva.
On Tuesday, Mbuva took a bus to the Kenya-Uganda border and onward to Narok, where Montoi was waiting to take her to Narok County Hospital.
When the two sisters’ eyes met, Mbuva froze for a few seconds, wordless, before bursting into tears and hugging the sickly Halima on the hospital bed, all the time sobbing and mumbling: “Thank you God! Thank you God!”
“I do know know how to describe how I feel,” she said later. “She has changed so much and lost so much weight.”
According to Mbuva, her sister’s disappearance shook the family.
“The last time I saw her was 1998. It has been agonising for the family not knowing what happened to her. Our father died in 2015 after giving up on her. I am happy that she has been found alive,” she said, adding that Halima was a healthy teenager and full of life when she disappeared.
“I am going to take her back home where we shall make sure she has medical care. Our mother and the whole family will be very happy to see her,” she said. “I really thank the good Samaritan who helped us to find her.”
Halima told journalists she fled their home as a teenager for reasons she was not willing to explain.
“When I left home I never told anyone where I was heading or what I was going to do. All I knew was that I was going to get a job. As for the reasons why I ran away, that will remain my secret,” she said amid tears.
She however said she was ready to travel back home and seek forgiveness from her family for the pain she caused them.
Halima is expected to leave the hospital today and begin her journey back to the home she left 20 years ago.