At home with the dead: How the death of my mother in my arms inspired me to work in the mortuary

To some people, the mere thought of encountering or being alone with the dead just for a moment is enough to make their hair stand on end.
But more dreadful and chilling to most people is the prospect of working among the dead.
That is, however, not so with Ms Evah Ngima, a plucky mother and the only female morgue attendant at Nyeri County Referral Hospital who maintains she will never trade her job for another.
Ngima says her fiery compassion for the dead began when her late mother, Nancy Wanjiku, passed on in 2010 while in her arms.
"I was feeding her by then and she looked quite alright. Suddenly, she slumped and then gradually turned cold and stiff as I watched. It was the most horrible and traumatic experience I have ever had," Ngima recalls, with a poignant voice.
Ngima, who at that time worked as a casual at the then Nyeri Provincial General Hospital where her mother had been admitted, would frequent the morgue to view her body.
It was during her incessant visits to the cold chamber unit that Ngima, a 32-year-old single mother of two accepted death as an inevitable reality.
Gingered by the resolve to move on with life after burying her mother, Ngima applied for a job as a mortuary attendant.
However, she did not land her desired job until last year when she received a call informing her she had passed the interview.
"I was elated. That notwithstanding, my first day at work was extremely disturbing as I got to admit and work on a six-year-old girl whose body had been severely mangled in a grisly road accident. I still remember her name and how she looked like up to date," Ngima told The Standard.
During the next few weeks, she quickly became inured to staying with the dead after handling more ghastly cases including decomposing and maggot-eaten bodies sometimes brought in by the police.
Her initial reaction to such sights is often to whisper a prayer and thereafter fetch a cup of instant coffee.
She reveals that what keeps her going is her absolute faith and total dependence on God.
"Although morgue work is not the dead end job many believe it to be, one needs to have insurmountable stamina to do it effectively. We always engage in fervent prayers every morning before starting the day," says Ngima, who is much admired by her male colleagues due to her cool, amiable character and personality.
She dispels the popular notion that morgue attendants invariably use stimulants in order to function properly, terming that a gross misconception.
Besides relying on earnest prayer, Ngima has another touchstone she falls back on in moments of angst - a public health officer at the hospital by the name Irene Ndigirigi in whom she confides.
Ms Ndigirigi, who has known Ngima for the last five years, describes her as a responsible and focused individual who requires no supervision to perform her duties.
She states that Ngima's indomitable spirit, soberness and steely determination is what endeared her to the hospital administration.
"Unfortunately, few ladies would wish to be in her shoes. On more than one occasion, people have instantly pulled away from her on learning she is an undertaker. I normally encourage her to concentrate on her work and disregard the negative perception some people have about her," says Ms Ndigirigi.
Ngima's father, Tirus Tumuti, confessed to have harbored reservations when her daughter, the fourth-born in a family of five siblings, called him with news that she had clinched a morgue job.
His initial concern was that Ngima had hastily chosen to tread a path unsuitable for her.
But when he remembered the final moments of his late wife and how close she and Ngima had been, he decided to fully support rather than discourage her.
"After all, what is wrong with what she does? I am very proud of her because she is comfortably earning a decent living unlike majority of contemporary jobless youths who seek only white collar jobs and are always whingeing about how unfair everything is," quipped Tumuti.
Whenever a corpse arrives at the morgue, the first thing Ngima does upon receipt is label it with a tag containing the deceased's three names, the village in which he or she was born, and the date of admission.
Afterward, the body is routinely undressed, cleaned, and embalmed before being preserved in the refrigerated storage unit until the family and relatives of the deceased come to take it.
On a few occasions, Ngima reveals, there have been cases of families picking up the wrong body for burial prompting exhumation and subsequent return to the mortuary.
"The mix up, though rare, occurs mostly in cases where the deceased persons died as a result of committing suicide through hanging. Sometimes, it becomes relatively difficult for the next of kin to correctly identify their loved one," explains Ngima.
Though she loves her job, Ngima admits it presents unique challenges which she tackles progressively and with discretion.
One such challenge is juggling between her work and performing motherly role to a 13-year-old girl and a boy aged 7.
She says her demanding family life requires her to sleep at 9pm and wake up at 4am to prepare her kids for school.
She also has to leave work early in order to pick them from school on time.
In addition, she finds it a grueling feat handling corpses of children with the age of her two progenies, saying it constantly reminds her of the latter.
Surprisingly though, Ngima seldom needs counseling.
In fact, she is usually among persons who spearhead counseling sessions in the facility.
She claims to have gotten so used to being with the dead that she has either become hardened or developed a thick skin so to speak.
"I neither experience nightmares during sleep as some people probably think, nor do I have any fears whatsoever of being haunted by the dead. I totally believe the Bible when it says that the dead are harmless and know nothing," says Ngima, alluding to Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 and Job 7:9-10.
Her views are shared by Kelvin Omondi, her born again colleague and a former Deejay who, in a witty riposte, quotes Job 14:11-12 and proceeds to explain that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked when Jesus Christ returns to earth the second time.
Among the things Ngima wishes the hospital administration could do for her and her colleagues is progressively sponsor them to further their studies on human anatomy and mortuary science in institutions of higher learning, including the University of Nairobi.
In response, Nyeri County Referral Hospital Medical superintendent Dr Silas Njoroge, said plans to sponsor the morticians are in the pipeline and will be implemented in the next financial year once funds are available.
"We would also appreciate it if our broken down music system, which previously kept our minds occupied, would be repaired or better still we be furnished with a new one," adds Ngima.

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