Empty promises as locals drown in river of death

Families, relatives and friends at the Mwingi Level Five Hospital's morgue to identify their departed ones who died at River Enziu in Mwingi Central. [Paul Mutua, Standard]

On the day morticians in Mwingi were working round the clock to embalm bodies of the victims of Enziu River tragedy, a sordid picture was emerging of residents left to drown year in year out by combined lethargy of both county and national governments.

As the national government slept on its promise to put up a bridge across the river of death, the county government ignored fixing, albeit on a temporary basis, a collapsed end of the makeshift bridge, which facilitated the deadly plunge.

On December 14, 2019, Infrastructure Principal Secretary Paul Maringa visited the bridge, urged residents to calm down and promised an emergency intervention to save them from near-ritualistic drownings across the bridge.

Between April 2018 and December 2019 when the PS came visiting, the river had swallowed 10 people attempting to cross it. Maringa said as a short-term measure, the government would first improve the drift, which was almost being swept by the water, for residents to use as the tendering process went on.

“We are already factoring this particular bridge within our emergency funding and other development funding. I cannot project and say we are going to do it tomorrow, but obviously it's a priority… at the turn of the year (2019), end of January (2020), we should have a solution, and then we can start the work," Maringa told the residents.

Area MP Gideon Mulyungi, who accompanied him at the inspection, acknowledged a historical mistake of the national government, which had in 2017 agreed to tarmac the Nguni-Nuu road without factoring in the bridge.

“President came here in July 2017, gave us a tarmac from Nguni to Nuu, but there was a mistake… the bridge was not factored in. We have lost many people here,” Mulyungi said at the time.

From the video footage aired on KTN on that visit, the collapsed end of the make-shift bridge can be seen. This is the same section from where the bus toppled over into the raging waters on Saturday.

Yesterday, after the waters subsided, it was easy to see why the driver and his passengers were doomed. The gaping hole eerily lay in wait to sway man and machine, before the force of water took over to complete the tragedy.

On July 1, 2017, President Kenyatta commissioned the upgrading to bitumen standard the Nguni-Nuu road. With the elections fast approaching, he tweeted: "I ask Kenyans to make their choice on Aug 8th based on policies intended to transform lives and not on empty rhetoric that will divide us."

On Sunday, as the victims' numbers surged beyond 30, President Kenyatta condoled with the families, warned against crossing swollen rivers, and made more promises: "More information on the unfortunate incident and measures the government is taking to prevent similar mishaps from recurring will be shared in due course."

In November last year, while celebrating the ongoing construction of the road, Presidential Delivery Unit (PDU) said the road was a game-changer: "Access to Mwingi Level 4 Hospital, other health institutions will be easier in an area prone to snake bites."

But yesterday at Mwingi Level 4 Hospital mortuary, several morticians were busy embalming tens of bodies retrieved from the river, because the small mortuary could not accommodate all the 34 of them in its freezers.

The meticulous yet emotionally draining process for the affected families also involves postmortem on all the bodies, which is being done by a number of government pathologists.

Forensic experts have also been camping at the mortuary to process fingerprints and for DNA sampling to ease the identification of the victims.

Mid-morning yesterday, tempers flared at the hospital as affected families engaged county Health Executive Winnie Kitetu in a bitter exchange over the release of the bodies. Some of the families could not understand why the bodies, which they had correctly identified, could not be released to them.

They said they preferred to transfer their departed relatives to better-equipped private funeral homes, awaiting burial.  

Families, relatives and friends at the Mwingi Level Five Hospital's morgue. [Paul Mutua, Standard]

The hospital's Medical Superintendent, Dr Evans Mumo, said they had received support from Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital as well as Kitui General Hospital, which had dispatched several morticians to help with the preservation process.

“Our morticians are working round the clock to embalm the bodies. Once embalmed the bodies can now be kept in the mortuary because they do not need any refrigeration,” he explained.

Dr Mumo acknowledged that there was a lot of pressure from the affected families to release the bodies. He however urged the families to be patient to enable the forensic experts conclude the critical process.

By yesterday evening, the postmortem, fingerprint taking, and DNA sampling had been performed on 22 bodies that were received on Sunday.

The officer said the rest of the exercise is expected to be completed today, after which the bodies could be released to their respective families.

“We understand what the families are going through but this is a very important exercise that must be carried out. The identification process should be thorough to avoid mix-ups where some families might bury wrong bodies as it happens sometimes in disasters of this magnitude,” the hospital head explained. He said for the convenience of the process, the bodies needed to be kept at a central place.

Boniface Musili, who lost his wife, said he was still shocked by the incident.

“I lost my wife, and my cousin lost a son. We are calling on the relevant authorities to conclude the search operation so that we can have closure,” Musili said.

The Catholic church also lost two religious brothers who were dedicated members of St Joseph’s Mwingi Seminary. During a service at Mwingi Catholic Church on Sunday, the two brothers, Ken Wanjala and Francis Kang’ethe, were hailed as religious leaders who had dedicated their lives to serving God. Kang’ethe is believed to be the one who was driving the ill-fated bus.

By yesterday evening, the search and recovery operation was still ongoing at River Enziu where two more bodies were pulled from the water at around mid-day by divers from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) working in conjunction with locals. This brought the total number to 34. Among these are three children.

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