Jomo Kenyatta's nurse recalls good times with high and mighty
By Njonjo Kihuria | March 17th 2019
She lives in Old Muthaiga, opposite the Hungarian and Danish embassy residencies, a stone’s throw away from the home of former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, shares a fence with Udi Gecaga, one of the youngest super executives in Jomo Kenyatta’s era and she is barely a hundred metres from the home of the US ambassador. But the address is all she has in common with the big shots.
She has had a few firsts in her life, including being among the first African nurses in Kenya, nursing the elder President Kenyatta when he suffered the first attack. She also married one of Kenya’s richest men. However her current condition tells a different story.
Though living in a stately house in one of Nairobi’s swankiest residential areas, Margaret Gacigi Gecaga proverbially lives from hand to mouth due to a legal tussle over the property. She is starved of cash and has been asked to pay rent arrears running into millions of shillings for the house her husband left her in. Worse, following a freak accident early last year, she uses a Zimmer frame and can only cover short distances.
Outside her house is a second generation Toyota Surf in a state of disrepair. Next to it is a BMW 730 with its fog light lenses missing. The once luxurious sedan appears to be on its last legs.
“Because of the legal battle, I am financially wanting. The money I used to get when Mzee (the late BM Gecaga) was alive was blocked. I don’t even have money to cover basic needs and I only survive by the grace of God,” she says.
BM Gecaga, the long serving chairman of BAT Kenya Limited, died in 2016.
Gacigi solemnised her relationship with the business mogul on August 31, 2007, after a long relationship running from the 1980s. Gecaga’s first wife Jemaima died in 1979.
“We used to meet and interact in official functions during the reign of President Jomo Kenyatta. Our relationship grew with time,” Gacigi says.
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She remembers BM as an impeccably dressed gentleman who was passionate about punctuality.
“He was a friend and we got on very well, he remembered all the important dates, but he kept time to the minute. If he told me he was coming to Nyeri at 5pm, it had to be 5pm and the tea had to be on the table. In fact, one day I was called to the hospital to attend to an emergency, so when he came I was not in the house. He commented that next time I should ensure that I was not called elsewhere,” recalls Gacigi. At one time, she had to change her church to ensure they were at their lunch table at Muthaiga Club at exactly 12.30pm.
In 1956, young Gacigi had gone to Pumwani Maternity Hospital to train in midwifery, but she did not complete the course. Her father then applied for a nursing course for her in London without her knowledge. She was accepted in two nursing schools; St Thomas and West Middlesex. The course in West Middlesex was to commence earlier than the one at St Thomas, so she chose the former. She started her training in 1958.
Gacigi’s father Ismael Ithong’o was a court interpreter in the colonial era. As a young man, Ithong’o had gone to Britain to train as an interpreter in 1910. When he returned, he was employed at the Nairobi law courts.
“Initially I did not like British food because it had a lot of salad, but fortunately my table manners were good. Before I flew out, my father had taken me to a restaurant in Nairobi to teach me how to use the knife and fork,” Gacigi says of her stay in England.
After her three-year training, Gacigi continued to work at West Middlesex and in 1961, she went to Cornwall for the first part of the midwifery course. She did the final part (domiciliary midwifery) at Bristol Hospital where she qualified as a State-certified midwife. Then she came home and, through the Director of Medical Services (Dr Likimani), got a job as a nursing sister at the King George Hospital, now Kenyatta National Hospital. “At that time, there were African staff nurses, but I was the first African nursing sister,” she says. The Ministry of Health was then situated at Agriculture House on Harambee Avenue.
After six months, she flew back to England, a day after the country’s first Madaraka Day in June 1963, for a theatre course. When she came back in 1964, she found two other African nursing sisters, Muringo and one Joyce John. The three of them were now working at the KNH and she remembers an incident one evening when they joined the White sisters for supper at the mess.
“We sat at the table and started talking in Kikuyu, which the White sisters found very offending. One of them actually banged the table and shouted that speaking a language they did not understand was bad manners. But I told her that I spoke English for all the time I’d been training in England and that she had been in Kenya long enough to have learnt the local language.”
Fight own battle
The infuriated White sister reported the matter to the Matron-in-Chief that Friday, but over the weekend, the African sisters informed Dr Njoroge Mungai who was the Minister for Health about the matter.
“Dr Mungai told us to relay the decision of the matron to him. The top matron did not take the matter very kindly, especially after I told her I was surprised that the White sisters could not fight their own battles. But eventually with the backing of the minister, the issue died quietly,” Gacigi says.
But she recalls how the minister’s White secretary tried to deny them entry into Mungai’s office, claiming her boss was too busy. They however forced their way in and when “the minister asked the secretary to give us a cup of tea, she was furious. But she had no choice.”
Gacigi, who served as a provincial matron in all the regions of the country except North Eastern, was the head nurse in the Coast Province in 1968 when Mzee Kenyatta suffered the first known attack while in the swimming pool of his Bamburi home.
“I had just taken over from a Ms Mountain as the provincial matron when Mzee fell sick one evening. Two nurses and I were rushed to the north Coast presidential residence by a doctor to take care of Mzee. We stayed in Bamburi for three weeks,” she says. Before any injection and even drugs were administered, Gacigi ensured she discussed it with the doctor first.
This is the time the matron got to know Mama Ngina Kenyatta closely and that friendship has lasted to date. There she also re-established contact with Dr Mungai who was Mzee’s personal doctor and got to meet the likes of Mbiyu Koinange and Charles Njonjo. She got close to Elizabeth Karungari (later Mrs Githunguri) who was part of Mzee Kenyatta’s personal security detail. She remembers how Karungari taught her to swim so that she could follow Kenyatta in the pool when he got better.
“Mzee loved to swim. He also woke up very early to go for walk on the beach,” Gacigi recalls.
Following this scare, it was decided that Mzee should have personal nursing detail on standby, 24/7.
She remembers Koinange as a friendly man who joked a lot. She would regularly meet him at State functions and as a patient in Nakuru when she served as the provincial matron in the Rift Valley. She also happened to have been with him when chaos broke out in Kisumu during the opening of the ‘Russia’ hospital. “Mzee had addressed a public baraza in Western Province where I was the matron, before proceeding to Kisumu. After lunch at the PC’s (Paul Boit) house, Mama Ngina asked me to accompany them to Kisumu.”
When the chaos broke out, she remembers sheltering behind a hospital pillar with Koinange to avoid the flying chairs. When calm was restored and Mzee officially opened the facility, many senior Health ministry officials were nowhere to be seen. Though she had no official role there, Gacigi took Mzee on a tour of the children’s ward.
Later, when she was posted to Nakuru, Koinange usually came to the provincial hospital for treatment and he would be attended to in her office. “At one time, Mzee ordered that we establish a clinic at State House Nakuru for the staff and visitors. When it was established, I dispatched a lorry that had been provided by Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge to collect drugs and equipment from the central medical stores, Nairobi.”
The lorry came back empty and when she called an officer at the stores, he said they had been too busy to honour the State House order. He told her the delivery would be made by rail. Koinange happened to be in her office during this conversation and he took the phone from her and directed the officer: “I want the equipment and drugs to be here by 12 this afternoon.” Gacigi does not know how they managed, but quality items were in Nakuru the same day.
Her relationship with the First Family continued and whenever Mzee was in Nakuru, she would attend the nightly cultural dancers display. After serving in the Rift Valley, she went to Scotland for an advanced nursing course.
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