What you need to know:
- A cook at the school says on March 15, he reported that the ugali had a weird smell and was difficult to eat, but was called an inciter.
When Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu parachuted into Mukumu Girls’ School on April 15 and ejected the principal as well as the board of governors, he must have hoped that the ghost of the mysterious illness at the school was completely dead and buried.
But this past week, after a month-long hiatus during which the school remained closed, the situation at the school has worsened and kept 82 girls out of school.
It stinks like a bad odour that refuses to go away. The casualties of the strange sickness keep piling up. The truth remains a mystery or, maybe, is tucked in a secured file marked ‘confidential’ and is gathering dust on the shelves of some State bureaucrats’ office, apathetic to the suffering and death of several learners and a teacher.
If pathogens could speak, all curious minds would waylay them and force them to plead guilty to causing misery in a school that is the pride of the people of Kakamega and many others.
Slightly more than a month ago, students of Mukumu Girls checked into hospitals after presenting with symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain.
When the fire of the story began to die down, the Nation team hit the ground in western Kenya to try and answer the questions that linger in the minds of many.
There, we met Douglas Muchela, a cook who has worked in the Mukumu school’s kitchen for more than 10 years now. He first joined the Mukumu family in the year 2003, left for another job but later returned ‘home.’ He hopes to retire soon.
We meet him just a day after he was discharged from the hospital after exhibiting symptoms similar to those that the students had. He is sitting with his friends in a local hotel, catching up after days of being bedridden.
“I have worked as a cook for a long time and whenever I notice any mistake or anything wrong with the food, I always speak out,” he says.
His straight-talking nature of promptly pointing out any faults in the kitchen saw him frequently get on the wrong side of the Mukumu Girls’ principal as well as the board.
“Sometimes, we could get beef that was not palatable. When I saw such, I would reject it and say that I won’t cook it. The cateress could then report me to the principal who would summon me and order me to cook. When that happened, teachers opted not to eat it but students had no option,” he narrated.
Douglas takes us back to the year the immediate former principal of Mukumu Girls’ joined the school.
“We never had a formal meeting. I have interacted with her only because of the many cases reported to her office,” he says.
His visits to the principal sometimes ended up in disciplinary cases to the board.
“The board told me to follow the principal’s word and do the work as she pleased and not what I know. How can I do that? I am the cook, the principal is not one, so I have to do what I know best,” he says.
On March 15, before the mysterious infections overwhelmed the school, Douglas tells Nation that he went to the principal’s office out of his own volition to give a status report of the kitchen.
“I told her that the kitchen was in a bad state. The ugali had a weird smell and was difficult to eat. She called the head cook and cateress and one other cook to her office, but they all said I was an inciter and should be transferred to the bakery,” he recalls.
“I am a pastor, and I say the truth. I knelt in the principal’s office and told her the kitchen was flawed. No action was taken, even the bursar was there and he told me that since I am a serial complainer I should write a letter to be paid my dues and retire,” he adds.
Douglas remained adamant and said he would only leave the school when his time came. The transfer to the bakery did not happen. He remained in the kitchen.
After half-term, he resumed work on a Tuesday evening. The next day, he took some githeri home from the school kitchen and shared the meal with his family.
That is when he started feeling unwell, but ignored it. His wife and children were also affected but their suffering wasn’t as severe as his. They all suffered diarrhoea and stomach pains.
“I felt as though my stomach was being cut into tiny pieces. My stool had blood in it but, as a man, I endured the pain,” he tells Nation.
Some alumnae of the school paid for his hospital expenses, apparently telling him that, ‘we hear you are a truthful man, we hope you get well so that you can take care of the girls’.
Douglas tells us that he suspects the problem with the maize was the excessive use of preservatives. Even with that, the cooks skipped the requisite process of cleaning, sun drying, and sieving the maize before milling.
“What used to happen before, once the maize was brought in, they could add the preservative and enclose it and then open it three months before use. So when you want to use it, you were to take the maize sieve and dry it in the sun. But, in recent times, the preservatives were added just four days before and then the maize would be taken straight to the mill,” he explains.
Apart from the food, he also points out that the drinking water also had its problems.
“In the kitchen, we use the water that is brought to us. It could sometimes be so discoloured that you couldn’t even use it, but we had no option. That is the same case for the students,” he says.
He tells us that during the rainy season, most children would fall sick, a pointer that the source of water, a stream near the school, could have been affected by upstream waste contamination.
A report seen by the Nation confirms that the water that the students consumed at the school was contaminated.
The report mentions that one of the sources of the water was from a spring across the road. The allegations in the report show that pigs and other livestock are reared upstream and their waste could be released downstream where the spring water is located.
“The water pigmentation was brown, which suggested the presence of iron,” shows the report commissioned in the aftermath of the infections.
A sewerage piping near the spring, the report indicates, is suspected to have overflowed, resulting in pollution of the water.
The report also indicates that the food may have had excess preservatives, and was unfit for human consumption.
At the time of our visit, some parents had expressed hesitance in returning their children to the school, indicating some were still unwell and had indications of stomach ulcers, a condition they didn’t have before.
While the Health ministry shared results of what could be ailing Mukumu Girls, scientists that the Nation spoke to say that a particular pathogen could have caused the illness.
Speaking to Saturday Nation, Dr Joseph Wahome, a toxicologist, said that samples of the water and the food should give results of the exact cause and not a blanket pathogen.
“It is more likely to be a foodborne or a waterborne illness. It could be E Coli as the results put it, but we need to know what type based on the symptoms that the patients presented with. We know that they have diarrhoea and that excessive diarrhoea causes someone to lose water which ends up affecting the kidney to a point that it shuts down and they may eventually die,” he says.
“They need to verify for the sake of informing the prevention measures that need to be taken. We wish to know what the exact origin of transmission was and then we can discuss food and water safety,” he adds.
He advises that regulating pesticides, especially those that are used in food preservation, is something that all schools should be doing.
He avers that when dosage goes beyond the minimum amount, it becomes toxic to human beings.
“There are levels to which the preservatives should be added in the cereals, but most unscrupulous traders will add any amount. An overdose or excessive use of some of the pesticides can lead to diarrhoea and stomach pain,” he says.
Prof Gunturu Revathi, a microbiologist, says that the Mukumu outbreak could have been salvaged if the first two, or three reports were taken seriously and relevant authorities alerted.
“We shouldn’t have waited. We saw in the news that some students presented with blood in their stool. That is serious because it means that they could go into sepsis, which is life-threatening,” she says.
“The report showed that E Coli was one of the organisms responsible but it is quite difficult to interpret because it is normal. If you just pick any swab from the floor, you are likely to get it. So how do we know the exact E Coli that is causing the infections? It needs a specialised test whose results have not been shared yet,” she adds.
She says that as much as some autopsies were done, there needs to be a culture test to isolate specific pathogens.
“Unless we know the exact pathogen, then we won’t even know what to do in future.”
She advises that the common precautions for pathogens that produce diarrhoea remain the same.
“Sanitation of the water, hygiene in the kitchen and control of the workforce to ensure they have certification is a must. Food and water checks should be done routinely, ideally every three months,” she says.
She acknowledges that despite the gaps in the hygiene situation highlighted so far, there needs to be an investigation to ascertain whether any of the students may have carried a harmful pathogen from home.
“It needs complete investigation, and facts, to even understand the route of transmission,” she says.
“E Coli, is most unlikely to have produced that effect – bloody stools, collapsing and death. Yes, there are types of E Coli which can cause that, but, how did it happen?” she pauses.
Saturday Nation reached out to the former principal Fridah Ndolo who responded she wasn’t surprised that Douglas, the cook, could say such vile things against her.
“I have worked with Douglas, and I think he needs help. Some sort of counselling maybe. He was not able to work with other people. I think he is not well because he used to behave strangely,” she says.
“The kitchen had about 12 cooks. I am not mad to pick him up alone and present his case to the board. I leave him to God. He used to say he is a pastor, but he wishes other people bad things,” adds Fridah.
Fridah says that in case of anything wrong happened in the kitchen, the cateress should have been the one to report to her or the head cook. On the allegation that they once gave the students poisoned meat, she says that in the first term, the students didn’t take meat for a long time.
“We are a catholic school, and during the Lent season, we didn’t even take meat. I just wonder where all this information comes from. It makes me wonder if I can be that stupid,” she says.
Fridah admits that public health officers had not visited the school before the tragedy happened.
“I invited them to the school when the outbreak started. They came and advised the students to take care of basic sanitation such as handwashing,” she says.