Echoes of silent grief: 'Our wives left to deliver our bundles of joy but returned in coffins'

From left: Kevin Shitiabai, Robert Omondi and Fredrick Were. They lost their wives to poor maternal health services during childbirth.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • These young widowers have had to grapple with a situation they were not ready for in their early years of marriage.
  • It is a price too heavy to bear and justice is all they can now hope for.

When we call Kevin Shitiabai on a warm Thursday morning to inform him that we are approaching his house on Fedha Estate, Nairobi, he sighs audibly before committing to meeting us downstairs.

As we meet him, he extends a frail hand, before offering to help our photographer carry some of his shoot-baggage. This is an interview we had planned for a week.s

Echoes of silent sorrows: Kevin Shitiabai's account on losing his wife

As we take the stairs with Kevin in the lead, there is an evident silence. When we get to his house on the third floor of the apartment, he invites us in and requests his house help to allow us some space “as we will need no distractions”.

He then turns to us and, with a smile that barely reaches his eyes, tells us to feel at home, and we get right into it.

For the 38-year-old, November 13, 2023, is a day he will live to regret.

“I remember sneaking out of bed at around 5am so as not to awaken Lucy Nyambura, my wife of seven years.

"Whenever she would hear me wake up, she would insist on making me breakfast despite being heavily pregnant,” he begins.

He got to work and as the day morphed, they had their usual check-in chats.

“At around 2pm, she texted me that she wanted to tell me something but pleaded that I shouldn’t get worried.

"She went on to tell me that she had checked into Mama Lucy Hospital for induction as she was already tired and past her expected delivery date, at 42 weeks.

"My first reaction was shock, as we had spoken about her delivery multiple times and ruled out Mama Lucy Hospital.

"I wanted to know who took her there, but she insisted that she had checked herself in,” Kevin confides as he swallows hard.

After the wife’s assurance that she was okay, Kevin, who works at EPZ in Athi River, decided to finish his shift, go home and tend their daughter and his young sister-in-law before proceeding to the hospital to see his wife.

“We had a five-year-old daughter, and we were also taking care of and living with Lucy’s younger sister.

"So after work, I went home and ensured they did their homework and were well fed, and I tucked them to bed before leaving for the hospital.

"We did not have a house help then. My wife had requested that I carry a few things for her, including her rosary ring.”

Kevin got to the health facility at around 10pm and because no guests were allowed inside the maternity ward, he spoke to Lucy through the rails for a while.

“She was so full of life and we had our usual banter.”

Kevin once again asked her why she chose Mama Lucy.

“She kept telling me that there’s nothing to worry about because this was her second pregnancy, so she would be just fine.

"Before leaving, I told her that I would see her in the morning, but she told me to go work and come back in the evening.

"She hoped she’d have delivered by then. I wish I knew that was the last time I was seeing her alive,” he mutters.

He left for work the following morning but kept in touch with Lucy until around 3pm when she stopped picking up calls and responding to chats.

“I never read much into this and assumed that she probably got into labour.”

Long wait

He, however, asked for permission from work. On his way, he got a call from the hospital asking him to go there immediately. He responded that he was on his way.

When he finally arrived, it was another long wait before anyone updated him on anything. He sat at the reception as instructed, and kept trying Lucy’s phone; it still went unanswered.

“After what felt like eternity, a team of doctors came to me and got right into the update: ‘We are sorry to inform you that Lucy experienced a convulsion this afternoon and she unfortunately fell and hurt her left side of the head.

"'She was also having breathing difficulties and we had to rush her to the theatre to deliver. She safely brought forth a beautiful baby girl, but, unfortunately, we had to remove her uterus to save the baby.

"'The baby is in the nursery and Lucy is recuperating at the ICU because we performed two different surgeries on her.’”

Kevin said the news was nothing close to what he had anticipated and he was thrown into a state of confusion.

"The doctors left and he went to the corridor, sat and tried to process everything before he could go to the nursery then to the ICU to check on his wife.

“It was then that a heavily pregnant woman approached me and asked me what the doctors had told me. I was, of course, not willing to discuss my troubles with a total stranger until she sat beside me and handed me my wife’s phone.

"‘Hii si ndio simu ya bibi yako? Tulikuwa naye kwa ward moja (Is this not your wife’s phone? I was with her in the same ward).’ I immediately sat upright and told her what the doctors had told me.

“After I was done, she looked away and said I had been lied to. She went ahead to tell me that my wife had intense contractions and tried in vain to get the attention of the medics.

"She just continued writhing in pain and then suddenly fell off the bed, hitting her head badly. The fall was so bad, according to the lady, that some of Lucy’s teeth fell off and that’s when the nurses came and wheeled her away.

“I just felt so numb and told the lady to just leave me alone. I sat there for a while before I amassed enough energy to go to the nursery.

"At the nursery, I found my daughter in the incubator, watched for a while before proceeding to the ICU to check on the mother.

"The sight that I found there was nothing anyone had prepared me for,” he says, graphically describing the situation.

“The ICU doctors asked me what exactly happened to Lucy, but I told them they should be the ones explaining to me.

"They seemed completely clueless. They then said I needed to take my wife to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for a CT scan so that they could know how to treat her.

"They alleged that there was no CT scan at their facility. This later turned into a cat-and-mouse game as no doctor was willing to give me a referral letter to KNH for two days that followed.

"I just kept meeting different doctors, who, each time, said they were not familiar with my wife’s case.

Troubled referral

“On my second day to the facility, I was met with the sad news that my newborn daughter had passed on, though I wasn’t given a detailed report.

"My mind was so preoccupied with getting Lucy to KNH that I just took the loss and moved on.

"On the third day, I succeeded in getting an ambulance and I was so determined to take her to KNH no matter what.

"When I approached the ICU, I found her surrounded by doctors trying to resuscitate her. Then all the machines went silent. She was gone too! My Lucy was gone,” he narrates, fighting back tears.

Going by the hospital’s conflicting versions of his wife’s death, Kevin was not convinced and he requested a postmortem. At press time, the results were not out yet.

“I highly suspect foul play because when I involved the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, not the entire uterus had been removed but just a part of it. I suspect they did this when she was already dead to cover up.

"To this day, I do not know what exactly caused my dear Lucy’s death, but I am determined to pursue justice to the very end,” he concludes.

On Makongeni Estate, also in the capital, we meet Fredrick Were, who lost his wife, Purity Muhonja, to childbirth complications in June 2021.

Echoes of silent sorrows: Fredrick Were's account on losing his wife

“I took my wife to Kenyatta National Hospital after a referral by the private hospital where we had been attending the prenatal clinics.

"We were told the baby was too big, making it a risky delivery. They advised us that KNH was better-equipped to handle her case.

"It was at the height of Covid-19 restrictions, so after her admission, I left her.

“Hospital visits were restricted and our only communication was on the phone. She constantly updated me.

"A day after her admission, in the evening, she told me she had been told that she would go to the theatre after experiencing prolonged labour.

"I wished her well and went to watch a local football match to calm my nerves.

"After the match, I checked my phone, but there was no update and my calls to her went unanswered. I figured she was still in the theatre and opted to go for matanga in the neighbourhood to pass time.

"By 10pm, there was still no word and I got worried. Her sister also reached out to me at almost the same time and we frantically started googling KNH’s official numbers in the hope that they would connect us to the maternity wing.

Double tragedy

“When we finally got a hold of the maternity wing number, it was late in the night and they told us to wait for an update. Later, in the wee hours, I received a call asking me to be at KNH by 7am.

"So many thoughts crossed my mind, but none prepared me for the news of my wife’s passing. At worst, I thought we had lost the baby.

"On getting to the hospital, I was told that when my wife was put on anaesthesia, she convulsed and they were unable to save her, but the baby was okay. That is how I lost my dear wife and unexpectedly became a single dad.

"My baby was later diagnosed with minor cerebral palsy, but I am super grateful for her. She currently stays with my sister-in-law as she has to undergo therapy, but I spend as much time as I can with her.

“To this day, I do not have details of what exactly happened; neither do I even know who signed the consent form for my wife to be operated on,” the 35-year-old says, trying to stay strong.

No closure yet

The doctor he hoped would give him the details died six months after the ordeal, leaving him with so many unanswered questions.

On Tassia Estate, we visit Robert Omondi, who made headlines in September 2022 after he helplessly watched his wife bleed to death at Mama Lucy Hospital. She had delivered their adorable twin boys.

The soft-spoken 29-year-old meets us at the door with one of his twins, a copy of himself, in tow. He shyly invites us in as his little son lifts his tiny hands towards his dad.

Once Robert picks him up, he seemingly rests and you can tell the bond they share. The other twin is sleeping. He wakes up in the middle of the interview and heads straight to where we are, looking at us inquisitively.


The twins are now one-and-a-half years old. Robert walks us through his journey so far and how it has been taking care of the boys.

Echoes of silent sorrows: Robert Omondi's account on losing his wife

“It has not been a walk in the park, but thankfully, my wife’s sisters have been helpful in taking care of the boys,” the water vendor begins.

“We’ve been pursuing justice and a Senate report came out in December 2023, so we are hopeful that justice will be served soon. My lawyer has been of great help.”

Asked if there is anything he would have done differently, Robert says none.

“I took her to a government hospital, made sure she did not deliver at home. It is unfortunate that I did my bit, but the people entrusted with pregnant mothers let her and our boys down,” she painfully states.

While he makes an effort to see his sons daily, their primary caregiver is Rose Achieng’. Rose, a separated mother of two, took up the responsibility immediately after Maureen’s death.

“The last words my sister said to me was that I dress the children for her,” she recounts, tears flowing down her cheeks.

“I sat by the bedside and when I stood up, my black dress was soaked in her blood.

"It is quite unfortunate that the hospital personnel left her unattended all this time while it was evident life was slowly leaving her.”

More than a sister

After that, Rose was referred to KNH with the boys. They stayed there for a week and she was treated for jaundice.

“Maureen was more than a younger sister to me. She was my best friend and I lived with her for 13 years before she met Robert and married him.

"She loved my children as if they were her own and even after she got pregnant, she would spend her evenings here with me before retreating to her house.

"That is why I take care of these boys like my own children,” the fishmonger fondly recalls.

She also takes care of her niece from another late sister.

The three young widowers represent the growing cases of pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths in Kenya. For many families, medical negligence has left an indelibly painful mark.

The leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide is severe bleeding after childbirth, medically known as postpartum haemorrhage (PPH). Each year, about 14 million women experience PPH, resulting in 70,000 deaths, according to a 2021 report by the National Library of Medicine.

Speaking during a high-level dialogue on quality, equity, and dignity in maternal and newborn health by the White Ribbon Alliance-Kenya, Dr Caroline Wangamati, the lead for the Coalition of Blood for Africa made a passionate appeal in this regard.

“I want to see safe blood for transfusion available to any woman who needs it while giving birth. Postpartum haemorrhage remains a leading cause of maternal mortality in this country.

"Let all [maternity] facilities have access to blood for transfusion, or be able to refer a bleeding mother to where she can get lifesaving transfusion,” she said.

According to Angela Nguku, the founder and executive director of White Ribbon Alliance Kenya, the slow progress in reducing maternal mortality is due to a poorly executed strategy.

“The key solution lies in providing all mothers with high-quality healthcare. Despite the widespread acknowledgment of this remedy, there is a reluctance to bridge the gaps swiftly.

"Consequently, discussions and conferences on ending maternal deaths are abundant, but concrete actions are lacking because of insufficient political will in Kenya,” she says.

Human right

“Furthermore, there is a significant lack of understanding among the public that access to high-quality healthcare is their fundamental human right. As a result, people accept maternal healthcare without questioning its quality or adequacy.

"The dependence on external donors to address maternal health issues compounds the problem, as these donors often have their own interests.”

Ms Nguku emphasises the need to shift focus from an expert-driven approach to one that engages with women directly.

“What the so-called experts should realise is that the true experts in health are the women and girls themselves, and they must be listened to for true and real progress to be realised.”

In response to what the government is doing to mitigate such losses, Dr Issak Bashir, the director family health at the Ministry of Health, says they are conducting a country-wide survey to understand how they can better the quality of healthcare.

“We have come a long way, especially in the last two decades. First of all, we managed to make maternal healthcare free and accessible to all, which was a big hurdle.

"Now, even after ensuring that most of our women are delivering in hospitals, we still continue recording significant cases of maternal deaths.

"This then informs us that the quality of our healthcare is wanting and that is why we have rolled out the survey that will help us strengthen the quality of services.

"Once the next census is done, there will be a notable improvement on that,” he says.