A mother's pain: My child died a day after joining school; I need answers

Esther Kanini during an interview at Nation Centre in Nairobi on January 18, 2023

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

When Esther Kanini, now 34 years old, went into labour on March 30, 2015, she thought it was going to be an easy birth. Her labour started on a Monday morning at 6 am, but more than 30 hours later, she was yet to deliver so the doctor recommended a transfer to a different hospital.

The labour went on for another six hours at the second hospital, and still… nothing. At this point, the doctors tending to her recommended an emergency caesarean section, to save the baby’s life. The operation went well.

Finally, after the long wait, she met her bundle of joy, a girl she named Ann Mumbi.

Two days later, Esther was discharged as she and her baby seemed fine. She was excited to go home and begin her motherhood journey alongside the baby’s father.

Three days later, however, baby Ann fell sick. She developed fever, started vomiting and showed signs of diarrhea.

Her parents took her to a hospital within the neighbourhood and she was treated for a couple of hours, before the attendants informed them that her condition was getting serious - her temperature had shot beyond the degrees on the thermometer. They were referred to Kenyatta National Hospital urgently where baby Ann was diagnosed with meningitis.

Over the next few days, she was unable to feed. Her little body was weighed down by the infection to the extent that she couldn’t open her eyes or even pass urine.

Days turned into weeks, and after a month of treatment and care in hospital, her condition stabilised and she was released to go home.

However, as they were being discharged, the doctors informed Esther that the meningitis had disrupted the baby’s brain development and that she would be different from other children. She was also to go back for check-up and physiotherapy every week. It turned out that baby Ann had developed cerebral palsy.

A few months after, Esther began to notice the delayed growth milestones as the doctor had hinted. For instance, baby Ann couldn’t sit and her neck was not firm compared to other babies her age. When she reached the stage of talking, she couldn’t utter a word, even though she understood when someone spoke to her. Despite the challenges, Anne had a noticeably bubbly personality.

“She enjoyed listening to gospel music, and loved being around other children,” recalls Esther.

Raising a child with cerebral palsy was the beginning of a challenging journey that Esther and her husband took gracefully. Being their only child, they poured themselves completely into helping their baby girl enjoy everyday life. She was their little hero, her bravery right from the tough labour during her birth to overcoming meningitis and now navigating through cerebral palsy warmed their hearts. She had amazing zeal for life that grew stronger each day, like a burst of sunshine on a cloudy day. The last thing her parents expected was losing their precious daughter at just the age of six.

Esther recounts how it all unfolded:

“Dealing with the doctor’s diagnosis was not easy. Cerebral palsy is quite costly to manage, for starters. Going for therapy every week and seeing a doctor frequently is not cheap. If we missed therapy, the muscles got stiff. We also needed anti-convulsing medication and diapers all the time. A child with cerebral palsy needs full time care and attention. They want to feel loved, just like any other child, however, besides the child’s parents, very few people can take care of a child with special needs. If I needed to run errands, I would ensure Anne had all she needed then get someone to watch her as I rushed to do the errands. I never stayed away from home longer than was necessary. Caring for the baby was a full-time job, which I was at peace with. But life got tough with time. I was not working and her father was the sole breadwinner. The cost of everything became overwhelming.

Starting school

In 2021, we decided to enrol Anne to a special school. I started looking for a school that could accommodate her needs. I visited different parts of Nairobi and also went to Machakos in search of a good school. Some of the good schools I found were fully booked and could not take in new learners. Others didn’t seem capable of managing my daughter’s special needs. Children with cerebral palsy tend to drool a lot and therefore require proper care, but some of the institutions were unable to keep the children clean. I was also looking for a school that would not only take care of weekly therapy, but also teach her guided by a special needs’ curriculum.

After months of searching, I found a school in Ruai called St. Alphonsa Community Centre, a mission school that was offering free intake for children with special needs. After a discussion with the school’s administration, I learned that the school offered physiotherapy, speech therapy and classes. They had boarding facilities, and if my child was to school there, I would be allowed to visit her every last Thursday of the month. I was also informed that after a school term, the child would come home for a one-week school break before resuming with her learning. They had a doctor within the school and the place was very clean. I had been referred to the school by another parent whose child has cerebral palsy. Everything about the school seemed appealing. Having been to many other institutions, I knew this was the school for my daughter.

When I went back home, I talked to my husband about the school, the admission date and the things that were required for her to be enrolled into the institution. We were asked for a doctor’s letter with details on her diet, medication, blood group and a letter from the church. We got these, plus a special cerebral palsy wheelchair and stand which I got from an NGO.

I packed her clothes, diapers and medication then we reported to school on July 28, 2021. I was in the company of my sister. We got there at around noon. We were received very well and the admission process was smooth. After ensuring Anne was well settled in, we bid her good bye and left the school at around 2pm.

The next day, my sister and I had planned to take our mum to hospital for eye check-up. I was to meet them there so I woke up early to beat traffic. While on my way to town, near Donholm, (estate in the outskirts of the city) I got a call from the school. The person on the other end told me Ann was unwell, that I should go to the school urgently. I tried to probe for more information on what was wrong with her, but she insisted that I should just go.

I called Ann’s father and told him about the call. I alighted from the matatu I was in and started looking for transport means to get to the school. Minutes later, I got another call from the school. This time they asked where I was and insisted that I get there as fast as possible. At this point I was getting really worried and I asked, again, what had happened. They told me to just go. I got a taxi. The plan was to get to the school and take Ann to the hospital in the same taxi.

When I got to the school, one of Sisters at the school started repeating, “Sorry, sorry” almost immediately. I asked her why she kept saying sorry and she said, “Ann is no more”.

My first thought was perhaps there was a language barrier due to her foreign accent. I asked her to call someone else who could speak Kiswahili. The second person told me, “Ann hayuko.”

I asked her where my daughter was, so I could see her. She said Ann was inside the room (where she had slept) and that she was with the doctor. She asked me to wait for the doctor to get out of the room. As I was waiting, I called Ann’s father again and I also called my pastor, who called other close relatives and friends to come to the school. After the calls, I insisted that I had to see my daughter.

When I got into the room, Ann was lying on the bed. She had two scratches, one on the chin and another one near her forehead. Her mouth had turned black and her eyes were reddish and bulging out. It also seemed as if she had bitten her tongue. I closed her eyes and 

asked the doctor what had happened. He too said, “Sorry”, like everyone else, but did not offer an explanation.

I also noticed that the woman who I had interacted with the previous day when we brought Anne was not around. She had introduced herself as the caregiver. I asked them where she was, but they didn’t respond. The doctor, two sisters and some employees were there with me, but none were saying a word or answering my questions.

Frustrated, I stepped out to make calls to some of my family and friends. As I was on the phone, the small group dispersed, including the two sisters who were in charge of the school. I stood there by myself trying to wrap my mind around what was happening. Thankfully, family and friends started arriving. I briefed them as we waited for the school administrators to return. After a while, we decided to go to the nearby police station, Ruai Police Station, to record a statement.

When we got there, we were informed that two sisters from the school had already recorded a statement under OB19/29/07/2021. They had also been given a letter to take the body to Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital mortuary. They had left the police station by the time we got there.”

A copy of the hand-written letter with the above-mentioned OB number, seen by DN2-Parenting, notes:

“The bearer of this SR Mary Thomman, the administrator St. Alphonsa Community Centre, has reported the sudden death one Anne Mumbi Masila, a Kamba juvenile aged 6 years….”

Further down, the letter reads:

“In case the guardian or family members suspect any foul play, they are at liberty to report back to this station for assistance”.

Esther continues with her story.

“We returned to the school with police officers who checked the scene and Ann’s body and wrote details on their book. We requested for a post-mortem and the officers gave us a post-mortem form to take to Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital. The ambulance, which the school had requested after returning from the police station, took her body to the morgue.

The results came out and we were given a form detailing the findings. We also asked the doctor to explain the findings and were told that the results revealed that first, Ann seemed to have lacked oxygen, as if she had slept in a stuffy room. He also said that one of her veins at the back of the neck had split, and that she bled internally. From this information, I concluded that perhaps Ann had fallen, hence the internal bleeding. When I inquired about the scratches, one of the sisters said she must have had them when she got admitted. But Ann had been given a check up by her doctor a day before admission and she was fine.

After the post-mortem results, we were given a permit to bury our daughter. We laid her to rest and returned home to pick up the pieces. Grieving my daughter has not been easy. I have gone through depression as I try to understand what happened. My greatest pain stems from not knowing exactly what happened.

It’s a miracle I can share this story without breaking down now. I have cried for a long time. The sound of an ambulance still disturbs me. Following up on the case has also been a challenge. We’ve not seen progress and we haven’t received any updates on what happened.

Early last year, around March, we found a lawyer who was willing to assist us open the case to investigate what caused Anne’s death. He wrote a letter to Ruai Police Station requesting for Anne’s file. According to the lawyer, the police station asked him to wait for the file to be cleared, there were certain procedures required before handing over the case to him. We are still waiting for the lawyer’s feedback. The biggest challenge in trying to get this matter investigated has been lack of information. We have no one to show us how to go about it. I am simply looking for answers regarding what happened that day my daughter died.”

DN2 Parenting called St Alphonsa Community Centre and spoke to Sister Santola, a contact shared by Esther. Sister Santola asked the writer to text instead. The writer obliged and sent two text messages introducing herself, the story she was working on and requesting for the school’s comment.  The texts were not responded to. At the time of going to press, the writer had made several calls to the school but they all went unanswered.


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