At the Nakuru County Hospital mortuary, amidst wailing mourners, 42-year-old Titus Kiio watches a corpse arrive, wrapped in white clothes and covered with flowers.
Kiio, fondly referred to as Tito, tends to another body in the freezer, creating space for the new arrival.
Just as the corpse is placed on the slab, Tito arrives at the scene and takes over the rest of the process of cleaning, preservation and storage.
For many, a mortician is someone with a bizarre lifestyle -- high on drugs so they can handle the dead.
But that is not Tito, who perfectly fitted into his late father’s huge shoes as a mortuary attendant within a short time.
Tito got a job at the mortuary in 1997, two years after the death of his father Jackson Kiio, who served at the facility for 33 years.
Tito and his siblings were born and raised in the mortuary quarters where their parents lived. Even before he was formally employed by the now-defunct municipal council, Tito had already acquired the necessary skills, as he frequently gave his father a helping hand in his daily chores at the mortuary.
And now, for close to 21 years, Tito has never looked back, never once thinking of changing his job.
Tito is the second born son of the late Kiio and his wife Joyce Kanini, who was also employed by the council until 2002 when she retired.
For close to five decades now, the residents of Nakuru town have been referring to the county mortuary as “Kwa Jack”, popularly named after Mr Kiio.
Kiio joined the Nakuru mortuary in 1962 from Kenyatta National Hospital morgue where he began his career. Over time, he became the face of the mortuary.
Tito says the job was first offered to his elder brother after their father’s death. But his brother declined.
Kanini says the council had a policy that a close relative of an employee, who died while in active employment and had rendered distinguished service, would be considered for employment. “It is in this regard that the council asked me to forward the name of any of my children who would be offered employment. I asked my first born son, Anthony Mutiso, whether he was willing to work at the mortuary but he declined. When I asked Tito, he readily accepted and settled into the job with gusto,” she says.
Passion for the job
Tito says his mother was initially hesitant to allow him work as a mortuary attendant but later gave him her blessings when she realised he had passion for the job.
Kanini says her husband was the first African to work at the municipal mortuary where he was supervised by two white men.
“I married him in 1972 and joined him at the mortuary quarters, which was to remain our home for the next three decades. This gave Tito an opportunity to work alongside his father who he frequently accompanied to the mortuary,” she says.
She says Tito would in many occasions assist police officers to store bodies in the mortuary at night when her husband was not around.
But the job soon made Tito lose some of his friends. He says many people sympathised with him when they found him working in the mortuary at his tender age.
“Former councillor Lilian Arigi, whose son later became my friend, on several occasions offered to have me transferred to another department within the council, but I declined,” Tito says.
He, however, says he has been stigmatised by many people whenever he mentions where he works in social gatherings. “The fact that I have known no other place of work and home has helped me to cope with the stigma. While in school, some pupils would mock us that we resided in the mortuary but I never took offence,” he says.
The mortuary handles over 1,700 bodies annually.
Tito says the facility, which was recently refurbished, can hold at least 30 bodies in its storage chambers.
It used to hold only 12 bodies a few years ago. The mortuary has five other staff members, including the superintendent.
He is glad that he and other mortuary staff were awarded a certificate of recognition by former Governor Kinuthia Mbugua during a staff party last year.
“The recognition gave me the impetus to work hard,” he says.
And just like any other work, Tito says he experiences low moments while working in the mortuary, such as during the 2008 post-election violence when badly decomposed bodies were taken to the facility by the police.
He says during the violence, the mortuary held up to 100 bodies at a time.
“Bodies were strewn all over the floor as they could not fit in the storage chambers,” he recalls.
Tito says part of his duties includes assisting pathologists during postmortems and issuing burial permits.
He says sometimes he is forced to play an arbiter between family members who are in dispute over who should bury the bodies. He has also assisted many people who seek copies of burial permits for their relatives who died for as long as 40 years ago.