'Poisoned' then neglected: Tragic story of Mukumu girls

Parents collect their children at Mukumu Girls High School in Kakamega on April 3, 2023, after it was closed indefinitely by Ministry of Education officials following the deaths of two students and hospitalisation of dozens of others due to a disease outbreak.

Photo credit: Isaac Wale I Nation Media Group

I wish I could have given my own life to save my daughter because even if we know the cause of her death, that will not bring her back to life,” these were the painful words of Joyce Oyugi as she addressed mourners at the burial of her daughter on Wednesday last week.

Wendy Abetti Oyugi, 14, a Form One student at the Sacred Heart Mukumu Girls High School in Kakamega County, had her life cut short by a bacterial infection that has killed two other students and a teacher at the school. Hundreds of others have also been taken ill as a result of what appears to be negligence and failure to adhere to public health regulations.

The other students who died are Miriam Namajanja, 14, who was in Form Two and Diana Mambili, 18, (Form Four) while Juliana Mujema was the boarding mistress and taught English and literature.

The first case of the illness was reported on March 1, 2023, but the school administration appears to have downplayed its severity. When it transformed into an outbreak affecting hundreds of students, Western Regional Director of Education Jared Obiero ordered the closure of the school.

Even after the students started exhibiting symptoms associated with a serious infection, the management of the school is reported to have kept them in the sick bay for monitoring for days before they were finally taken to the hospital after the number kept rising.

On Saturday, the government transferred the principal, Ms Fridah Ndolo, and disbanded the board of management at the school.  Sr Jane Mmbone was introduced as the new principal by Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu. He announced that a new board will be appointed on Monday.

Wendy Abetti,

The late Wendy Abetti,14. The Form One student from Mukumu Girls High School died following a suspected food poisoning at the school.   

Photo credit: Pool

“My daughter had a lot of issues... There was blood in her intestines and her oesophagus had been inflamed. The doctor said the food she ingested could have been contaminated... probably with a chemical. This is what caused her death,” Ms Oyugi said.


A post-mortem revealed Wendy died of gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). The examination of the body, conducted on April 4 at Umash Funeral Home in Nakuru County by government pathologist Titus Ngulungu revealed the girl had bled in the stomach as a result of the inflammation.

“I have formed the opinion that the deceased died because of gastritis. However, l have collected more samples for toxicology tests at the Government Chemist to ascertain what caused the stomach inflammation,” stated Dr Ngulungu. “She was highly dehydrated at the time of her death.”

On Friday, the Ministry of Health said the infection that claimed the lives of Wendy, Miriam, Diana and Mujema was linked to Enterotoxigeic E. coli and Salmonella typhi. This was after tests on samples conducted by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Enterotoxigeic E. coli is transmitted by food or water contaminated with animal or human faeces. Salmonella typhi is the bacteria that causes typhoid fever and is spread through sewage contamination of food or water and through person-to-person contact.

On Saturday, Dr Francis Kuria, the director of Public Health in the Ministry of Health, said traces of human faecal matter had been found in samples of water collected from the school storage tanks for analysis.

The suspected source of contamination is a stream that is next to houses for workers across the Kakamega-Kisumu road. Water at the school is stored in an underground reservoir before it’s pumped to the main storage tank at school.

Mukumu Girls' closed indefinitely after disease outbreak kills 2 students

The construction of sewage manholes on higher ground, a short distance from the stream, has exposed the water to contamination. Raw sewage spills from the manholes.

Mr Machogu announced his ministry had released Sh6 million for drilling a new borehole and construction of a water purifier at the school.

Medical records for Diana and Miriam show they had similar symptoms, including fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. A doctor at the Kakamega County General Hospital, who attended to the students, said they were taken to the hospital at advanced stages of the illness, leading to complications, including multiple organ failure.

“Some of the students were being brought to hospital two weeks after they first developed the symptoms, which included fever and general body malaise which progressed to diarrhoea and bleeding, making it difficult to manage the cases,” said the doctor who sought anonymity.

Lower abdominal pain

Samples from one of the students who was admitted to the Kisumu Specialists Hospital tested positive for cholera. She was put on treatment for a week and discharged after her condition improved. Her parents said she is recuperating at home. Another student from the school is receiving treatment at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Memorial Wing, in Eldoret. The Form Two student was admitted to the facility last Tuesday with pain in the lower abdomen, high fever and joint pains.

Mujema, a mother of two, died on Thursday at 5.45pm while undergoing treatment at LifeCare Specialty Hospital in Eldoret where she was admitted last Wednesday in critical condition.

She was referred to the hospital and placed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), suffering from what doctors said were liver and kidney complications caused by toxins from food and water.

Mukumu Girls boarding mistress Juliana Mujema dead disease outbreak

The entrance of Mukumu Girls High School in Kakamega County. The school's boarding mistress, Ms Juliana Mujema (inset), is the fourth person to die from the outbreak of a bacterial illness at the institution.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group.

“The patient had to undergo dialysis to clear toxins from her body. She had to undergo massive blood transfusion since she had lost a lot of blood,” said Dr Raul Kaushik, who is in charge of critical care at the facility. Dr Kaushik said the Mujema was put on third-generation antibiotics and that more tests were being carried out to determine the nature of the disease when she died.

Mujema had been admitted to Oasis Hospital on April 2, days after three students had died and several others were hospitalised with vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness.

“My sister was in good health until April 2, when she developed sweating and fever and was rushed to Bliss hospital,” said Mr Amos Ngira, the brother.

“The situation kept on deteriorating and she was referred to Oasis hospital in Kakamega where diagnosis indicated that she suffered from kidney and liver failure and was placed in ICU,” he said.

Teachers and workers who spoke to the Nation said it was difficult to challenge decisions made by the management at the school, including issues of proper hygiene and procurement of cereals.

The school’s kitchen, dining hall and dormitories are also in a state of disrepair.  Mr Machogu on Saturday directed that all the cereals in the stores should be destroyed and fresh supplies procured before the school reopens.

Sought treatment

Diana was preparing to sit the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination later this year. Her father Paul Mambili and mother Rasoa said when she went home for the half-term break, she complained of pains and looked weak and ate very little.

“She reported back to school and two days later, I was called to go and pick her up. We took her to the St Elizabeth Mukumu Mission Hospital but her condition did not improve,” said Mr Mambili.

“She had grown frail and each time she ate a meal, she threw up everything,” said her mother.

Her parents took her home and sought treatment at the Manyatta Hospital in Ileho where she was put on antibiotics for a bacterial infection but her condition did not improve. “The doctor said we should transfer her to the County General Hospital since her condition was getting worse,” said Ms Mambili.

On April 9, Diana was rushed to the Kakamega County General Hospital after her condition deteriorated. She was admitted to the ICU for doctors to monitor her condition since her kidneys and liver had failed. She died the next day.