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Walk the Talk; Lock the Doc




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The weather that night was in a bad mood. Evelyn sat at the back of a saloon car. She felt a chill in her bones freezing her from the inside. Her eyes pierced through the darkness as she watched the two men in uniform exchange words. There was a problem. She could tell from their faces. The driver, who had been left in the car with her, shifted in his seat and kept clearing his throat as if he had something to say.


"You are a doctor right? I have this problem with my knee."


'Was he really going to do this now,' she thought. She was in no mood for a medical consult. She didn't want anything to tip her over after she had managed to keep herself together all day. She pressed open the window for some fresh air - and to eavesdrop on the conversation. The men were speaking in hushed tones.


"We can't accept prisoners at this time. The number of people after lockdown, must be the same number when we open. You know that."


"I do. But we received instructions to transfer her. And we cannot go back. You have to book her in."


Numb. She was numb. In a matter of hours, her name had changed. To the last thing she ever expected - Prisoner.


"Anyone can go to prison." She told me. But she wasn't anyone. She was a child of privilege. A city girl who had drank soda from a can before canned soda was a thing. She was decisive and despite being a middle child, she rarely faltered. Like when she changed schools at the drop of a hat because she felt she was not thriving in the 8–4–4 system of education. And when she did, her grades cleared a path for her to medical school. After graduation, she was posted to a small hospital in Nyeri County for her internship. A place she had never been. In fact, she was more familiar with the world map than the local map. She did the mandatory one year and stayed on as a Medical Officer but soon became discontented with the work and decided to move back to the city. In the midst of her plans however, she was posted to a smaller hospital in Nyeri as The Medical Superintendent. She didn't know it then, but this was the first step of her long trek to prison.


She worked there for close to four years. Longer than she had anticipated. Who knew an administrative post would be so exciting! She had a great team and together they placed the hospital on the map; increasing the revenue from 800k to 4 million kshs per quarter. She had found her niche; health systems and patient rights. A well oiled health system needs all the six building blocks to function and the status of the health system at that time was in jeopardy. The seed of dissatisfaction was sown in her and an activist was born. Why were there no reagents in the lab? Why were there no drugs in the pharmacy or why were the staff so demotivated? Why didn't the patients have faith in them? It is these questions, and the desire to answer them that got her elected; first as a branch treasurer and eventually as The National Assistant Treasurer in The Doctor's Union.


Her experience as a Med. Sup in a small rural hospital was no match to being a Union Official. "There is nothing as hard as leading leaders. Whatever you do, someone can do better and they will let you know it." She said. The previous office holders had signed a recognition agreement with the then government and consequently negotiated a Collective Bargaining Agreement.(CBA). Then the government changed and the country was sliced into 47 parts. When Evelyn and the other officials got into office, their vision was to have this CBA signed and implemented. A herculean task. Because unlike before, they were not dealing with one, but 47 heads. Health had been devolved and any chance at having a meeting to discuss the CBA was a cat and mouse game. Their questions were answered with closed doors, empty corridors and false promises. The union officials were frustrated and agitated. A feeling that flowed from the head to the body. The disquiet grew and spread amongst health workers. There was a restlessness and a desire for change. Enough with the poor systems, lack of equipment, delayed salaries and false promises of postgraduate training.


On 5th December 2016, as a last resort, health workers went on strike. Led by who we have come to know as the 'CBA 7.' The period of the industrial action was like a fast moving vehicle going downhill with no brakes. Shortly after it was called, it was declared illegal by the government. A judgement that was appealed by the union. What followed were active days and sleepless nights. If they weren't in a tense negotiating room, they were on the streets; or in a rally or in court. They were charged with contempt and ordered to end the strike or face prison. "We would look at the suffering of doctors and the suffering of Kenyans and the derelict state of the health system and feel that we still had a dog in the fight." Cycles exist because they are excruciating to break. It takes an astronomical amount of pain and courage to disrupt a familiar pattern. So they did not call off the strike and were painted as greedy, entitled doctors who wanted nothing more but coins to line their pockets.


"We would go for meetings and the other side would throw solutions at us that had nothing to do with what we were fighting for." It was the equivalent of treating skin cancer by putting make-up over a lesion. 


On the 13th of February, Evelyn woke up on the right side of bed. Where previously she had been attending court in casual wear because of the possibility of incarceration, this day was not that day. She was clad in brown trousers, a white blouse, a blazer, three inch heels and a handbag to boot. Previously, she would never eat on the mornings of her court dates but that morning she ate well and then drove herself to court. When she arrived, there was heavy police presence and she remembers thinking, 'There must be a high profile prisoner being tried today.' It never crossed her mind that she could be the 'high profile' prisoner. She walked into the courtroom and immediately had a light bulb moment when she saw female police. On all the other days, there had never been female officers in the court. Her mind froze. Scenes began to play before her eyes. She could see the Judge's lips moving but the sound of her voice did not reach her ears until she heard, "They can now proceed." She turned around wondering who 'they' was when the gleam of metal caught her eye. Handcuffs!


Suddenly they were surrounded. In a matter of seconds they had become - 'wafungwa.' The five male union officials were handcuffed. She and the other lady were not. They were led away through some side stairs as the press and doctors followed. Her heart began to smash against the walls of her chest. Pandemonium ensued. There was a lot of shouting, shoving and chanting as they were led away and bundled into the back of a Land Cruiser. It was hooded so they couldn't see; but they heard the loud cries of their colleagues. Cries of anger, shock, distress. Then the cries moved farther and farther away until all they were left with was the sound of their breathing. It was then that Evelyn found out they had been sentenced to 30 days in prison. Numbness set in and out of all the emotions that exist, she picked laughter. She was so highly strung she could only laugh.


First stop - Kilimani Police Station. They stayed less than 30 minutes because word got round that they were there and there was a fear of crowds gathering and causing chaos. In a matter of minutes, they were moved out. Again at the back of a hooded Land Cruiser. The driver was a man on a mission. He drove fast; their bodies swerving to the left and right. Next stop -  Langata police station where they were separated into adjacent cells. The men together, the ladies together. Evelyn remembers their cell was dark, wet and smelt of urine. There was a small window at the top. They had nowhere to sit, so they stood and when they got tired, they squatted. Since they had no phones or watches, time became interminable with the opening and closing of metallic doors. At one point, they were served some lunch which was surprisingly good but she could not eat. Her mind had not thawed and her stomach was in knots. Nothing was going to pass through.


Make no mistake. Even if her body was behind bars, her physiological processes were not. Her bladder filled up and she requested to use the ladies room. Sigh. There was no ladies room. What they took her to was a dark, unisex room with a trench running through the middle. The trench was flooded with human waste. There was no door and no toilet in sight. Evelyn was plus size so squatting did not come easy to her. The heels didn't aid her case either. "I figured it couldn't get worse than this so I relieved myself amidst the sight and smell of horror. But it did get worse. I discovered my period had just started." It felt like a perfect storm. She asked for sanitary pads and was told, "Utapewa mbele." And that was that.


Later came soon. The two ladies were transferred to Langata Women's Prison. When they got out of the vehicle, they were asked to walk into the prison. "They make sure you walk in yourself. Probably to remind you that you got yourself into trouble." They got in and were booked. The wardens and other prison officers were kind to them; going to great lengths to make them comfortable. She asked for toiletries and was given a year supply and even had a chance to talk to her parents. During booking, they were given some privacy and asked to disrobe to change into prison attire. Evelyn tried on several dresses as they patiently waited for one to fit. It seems plus size people don't go to prison so they borrowed one from an inmate promising to have one tailor made for her. Bras are not allowed in prison but they allowed her to keep hers. After changing, they were taken to the Trustees Block. It was a cell block for inmates with good behaviour who had special privileges. There, they found six other women, who warmly welcomed them with warm water for showering. They had double decker beds with thick mattresses and a huge flat screen TV. This wasn't bad.


She washed off her day and was oiling herself as she waited for the 7 o'clock news to come on when she heard a voice, "Evelyn Chege. Come with me and carry all your belongings."


"Why? What is going on?"


No one answered. She was processed out, asked to change into her clothes and get into the vehicle.


"Where are you taking me?"


"You will be told."


"Are you able to call my parents to let them know I am being moved?"


"You are a prisoner. We don't do such favours for prisoners."


Breathe Evelyn, Breathe. She told herself. You will be ok.


In the vehicle she was flanked by two guards and two others were at the front. On they went, pedal to the metal down the Mombasa Road highway. At first she thought they were taking her to the airport. " I wondered why all the secrecy. Was I so bad? I even thought I was being expatriated." But they left the airport behind and kept going. The drive was endless. The silence was thick. It was only broken when the driver stopped to ask for directions.


"Which way To Machakos Women's Prison?" He asked a stranger.


She couldn't believe even they didn't know where they were going. When they finally found their way and arrived it was way past lockdown hours. And so ensued the confusion on whether to book her or take her back…..



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This is part 1 of a two part series narrated to me by Dr Evelyn Chege.

Apologies for the late post. Keep it locked for Tuesday next week at 7 pm for part 2.

Feel free to subscribe for alerts when the post comes up

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9 Comments


Wow! Powerful writing. Painful What Evelyn and CBA 7 had to endure .☹️

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Wambui Kyama
Wambui Kyama
Aug 13, 2020

Weh! Can’t wait for part two...

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Paula Ngala
Paula Ngala
Aug 12, 2020

Very interesting read!Can't wait for part two!Happy to see one my favourite lecturers in this comment section.

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patricia.oketch
patricia.oketch
Aug 12, 2020

Cannot wait for part 2. Thanks Dr Evelyn for sharing your story.

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Natalie Owuor
Natalie Owuor
Aug 12, 2020

This story is so interesting. Poor Dr. Evelyn,I wonder what will happen next!! Excellent writing

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