Woman defies all odds and voluntarily bathes the mentally challenged

Judith Tanui at work on the streets of Eldoret. She ensures as many mentally ill persons as possible have a bath at least twice a week. [Photo: Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Scores of mentally ill men and women roam the streets of Eldoret town, begging and and scavenging for food.

Due to stigma, they are often left to fate in open and hostile streets across the county.

But in Eldoret, one woman is determined to draw the attention of the world to this group of men and women that nobody seems to notice.

For Judith Tanui, these people that the world quickly dismisses as "mad" and a public nuisance are an opportunity to make a difference in a fellow human being's life and create a more dignified society.

The 45-year-old woman has become the talk of town as she selflessly reaches out to mentally ill persons, helping them to bathe and generally ensuring that they stay clean.

Every Tuesday and Friday, Ms Tanui walks around the streets reaching out to them.

Bathes them

Armed with a pair of scissors, a bar of soap and other ablution essentials, she patiently bathes them and ensures that their hair and nails are trimmed.

They may be "mad" to society but to Tanui, they are fellow human beings.

“They need love and care. Most of them can get well if they are supported rather than neglected. They too have potential, just like us,” she told The Standard.

Tanui has identified two public bathrooms near Nandi Park in Eldoret town, where she pays Sh30 to bathe each of her 'patients.'

A number have developed a keen sense of personal hygiene and look forward to her twice weekly baths.

“Currently, there are six mentally challenged people who consistently turn up on their own for a bath in the weekly schedule," she said.

Tanui works hard to keep up with the somewhat erratic nature of some of her newest foster family members.  

"We go around the streets reaching out to them in the town centre, estates and outskirts because they are so mobile. We bathe up to 36 of them every week,” she said.

Speaking to The Standard in Eldoret, Tanui said she sensed a calling to help the less fortunate when she quit her first job as a social worker in Nandi County in 2010 and when she herself drifted close to a mental breakdown.

“There was a time when I was stressed and almost became depressed. After medication, I recovered fully only to realise that some people were talking ill of my experience. I felt isolated and this ignited a realisation that the mentally challenged were going through similar experiences,” she said.

Her initial mission was to reach out to mentally ill persons and give them hope. Then she started cleaning them up.

Associated stigma

One bath at a time, she is slowly bathing away layers of stigma associated with mental illness.

Her husband, Collins, was one of her earliest converts. He did not realise what his wife was doing until he saw some mentally ill persons wearing some of his old clothes in the streets.

“I realised then that she was bathing them and giving them some of my old clothes. I think this is a blessing,” he said, adding that the family is in support of his wife's initiative and hope she can expand the gesture to  neighbouring counties.

Thanks to Tanui's resilient spirit, a number of mentally ill persons are now able to communicate their needs. More would, she said, if only society stopped shunning them.

“Being close to them has helped them open up and talk about their challenges. I identify those with ailments and support their access to medication,” she said.

Edward Wanda, a resident, said it was encouraging to see the mentally ill clean.

"What Tanui is doing should be emulated,” he said.