Hope resides on the second floor of the ward section at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). When things are crumbling, and people confronted with the reality of their mortality or possibility of death of loved ones, the two chapels and a mosque provide space to seek a voice they believe is higher than the doctors’.
The prayer spaces are located in a quiet corner, away from the shuffling feet of doctors and nurses rushing to attend to patients. They are tucked away from the undertones of antiseptic smell and loud wails from loved ones grappling with a loss of life.
There is a chapel for Catholics, another for Protestants, and a prayer room for Muslims. Medics say the prayer places have become their “helpers” in providing healing. Dr Zipporah Ali, a palliative care doctor and executive director of Kenya Hospices and Palliative Care Association, says spirituality is very important, particularly for patients who have been diagnosed with chronic diseases. “We work with chaplains and caregivers, whom we train on the importance of spiritual care to complement medical care,” says Dr Ali.
Mercy Kamau, a senior nurse in Nairobi, says she did her thesis on spiritual needs among adult cancer patients and found that spirituality is the most important means of coping for most patients. Christabel Ooko, a nurse in Kisumu, says that when people are faced with situations they cannot control, they tend to look for in a deity whom they believe can turn things around. A visit to the chapels confirms this. It is a Wednesday morning. A patient limps towards the almost empty Catholic chapel. He is recovering from surgery and his steps are pained.
At the altar, he goes on his knees and mutters: “Thank you! Thank you!” over and over. Behind him, a woman sobs, hands covering her face. She has just been informed that her mother is dying. Stage four cancer of the stomach. “They are not giving her more medicine. They say it will make her sicker. We do not know what will happen to her. I want my mother….” she says, her voice fading.
She subconsciously rocks her body back and forth against the wooden benches, tears flowing as she looks straight at the altar. At the back is a bucket marked “Prayer Requests,” and it is brimming with papers, scribbled prayers from patients and their loved ones hoping for healing and miracles.
At the Protestant chapel, a man paces up and down. His hands are stretched out, eyes closed, as he mutters a prayer. One of the nurses explains that even though the chapels are always open for service to the public on Sundays, during weekdays, they become a stopping point for patients and families dealing with the anxiety of illnesses.
Joy Alividza, whose baby was born prematurely at KNH and later died, knows the pain too well. She was at the hospital for 31 days and spent most of her days on her knees in the chapel. “Sometimes I went there to cry to the Virgin Mother Mary. I felt that only a fellow mother could understand my pain. So I asked her to intercede, to beseech her Son to rescue me from my situation,” she says. Joy’s son did not make it. But on her blog posts, where she chronicles her journey, she often mentions the chapel as one of the places where she sought healing. Erick Wafula says when his wife gave birth to twins who eventually died, he went to the chapel because he was angry and needed a place where he could scream without reservation.
“I was lucky because when I got there, it was empty. I started crying as the reality sunk in,” he says. On the notice board is a pictorial journey of the prayer space - from an abandoned space infested with rats, to a place where people rush for hope.