By Shirley Genga
Bernice Mugambi, 20, suffered for three years before she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Despite the challenges, she has managed to join university, win beauty contests and give back to society. She spoke to SHIRLEY GENGA
You were crowned Miss University of Nairobi in March this year; did you expect to win?
It was a pleasant surprise. I did not expect it, especially since I had an epileptic attack at some point backstage. I feel really humbled to bring the crown to Upper Kabete Campus for the very first time.
Give us a little history of your condition?
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I had the first attack during my last year at Loreto High School Limuru. It started with dizzy spells and later led to occasional fainting. I would get so weak and would often need support to walk. I was then admitted to Mater Hospital where I was misdiagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. I was put on anti-depressants and was taken back to school. After some time, the situation worsened and I was taken to Nairobi Hospital where many tests — were performed, but nothing was found. Ironically, I was not put through one important test — an electroencephalogram (EFG), which could have detected my condition.
How did you manage your schoolwork?
I was frequently at loggerheads with the school’s administration. They wanted me to transfer to another school because they felt I was pretending and would, therefore, fail.
How did this conflict affect you?
The accusations escalated and I fell into depression. I even contemplated suicide at one point, but my aunt talked me out of it. Fortunately I had great support from most of my peers and one particular teacher, Mrs Mutwiri, who encouraged me and often prayed with me.
Did you sit for the exams?
I was not allowed to do my mocks and only went back to school two weeks to the final exams — Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education — in 2008. I did some papers in bed. Sometimes I would pass out on the desk, but would continue when I woke up. In the end, I am grateful I scored a B+.
Did you get sick afterwards?
In December after exams, I got admitted to hospital again. The convulsions were unbearable, but still no one could diagnose my condition.
What happened next?
I joined the University of Nairobi to pursue a degree in Food Nutrition and Dietetics. During my first year, the attacks recurred, but I decided not to let my condition stop me from living a full life. So I continued to go to class and even signed up for the campus beauty pageant, which I won and was crowned Miss Upper Kabete in June 2010 while I was in first year. Despite being hopeful, the sickness persisted and I was in and out of hospital. I won the Miss University of Nairobi beauty contest this year.
When did you finally find out you had epilepsy?
In January this year, I went to the school doctor and after explaining my symptoms, she sent me for an EEG test Mathari Hospital, where I finally found out I had epilepsy. She then sent me to a neurologist, Dr James Jowi who put me on the correct medication. During the first semester of third year, I was admitted at the Aga Khan Hospital where I was put on a detoxification scheme to flash out all the medicines I had taken for the three years I was misdiagnosed.
Was it hard coming to terms with the condition?
It was very heard to accept the condition, but it was a relief at the same time. Though not easy to live with, I constantly conditioned myself to maintain a positive attitude. Some of the setbacks I have had to contend with include not being able to drive, and always wearing anti-glare glasses to prevent attacks due to too much light.
I take nine tablets at night, whose effects are: Drowsiness, unsteadiness, amnesia and nausea. The attacks have also affected my short-term memory and concentration. When it comes to my studies, I have to work twice as hard because of my memory problems. I take quite long to retrieve information, especially after an attack.
I had to attend counselling sessions and I am also seeing a psychologist. Whenever a seizure occurs, I view it as a bump on the road and I later continue with my daily activities. I, however, avoid overworking myself as it may trigger the attacks, but God has been my strength.
Tell us about the initiative you started...
Before handing over the Miss Kabete crown last year, I felt I should do something to give back to the community. I shared the idea with my friends and that is when Runway Environmentalists was born.
What is Runway Environmentalists?
It is an outreach group that engages in tree planting, clearing dumpsites, empowering girls and providing motivational talks to schools within the campus vicinity. It is an environmental group that deals with conservation of the environment.
What has been your contribution to the society so far?
We have planted trees in Loresho and Vet-Lab primary schools and provided sanitary towels to the girls in those schools. We participate in an annual tree planting exercise at our campus in Upper Kabete; we have partnered with members of the Vet Sports Vlub to plant trees at the golf course; worked with Kenya Tea Development Agency to plant 3,000 trees and planted trees at the Rungiri Quarry Dam in Kikuyu.
We have also cleared a dumpsite at a market near my campus in collaboration with the City Council of Nairobi. Additionally, we partnered with Kenya Model United Nations and Sunup Africa to plan trees and do follow-ups to ensure the trees grow.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as an organisation?
Our main challenge is financial constraintd, but we are working on ways to sustain the group as we seek sponsorship from our partners.
Why are you so passionate about the environment?
It is important for people to know that the environment starts at their doorsteps. Each one of us should take personal responsibility in environmental conservation because it is our future.
How do you manage to do all these with your condition?
Many people with my conditiond tend to withdraw and have low self-esteem, but I feel I have a calling to stand out and let people know that whatever circumstances they face, they can still achieve a lot. Compassion can drive us to do amazing things and give us perspective. If you are feeling down or hopeless, the best remedy is often to serve someone less fortunate than yourself.
Tell us about your childhood?
I am the first born in a family of three children. We have loving parents who raised us up in Chogoria, Meru and Kasarani, Nairobi.
Tell us about your other initiatives and plans...
With the help of some students and friends, we support the Grace Children’s Home in Thika. Additionally, I want to raise awareness about epilepsy and other mental health problems through partnership with the Kenya Association for the Welfare of People with Epilepsy.
Any last words?
Everyone has a particular passion: Purpose to fulfil it. Unfortunately, many of us allow our purpose to be buried, forgotten or labelled as wishful