The rings on Mr and Mrs David Mutua Mbuvi’s fingers have been there since December 4, 2021.
While they symbolise their commitment to be beside each other till the end of time, they also serve another purpose — they remind the couple of the day their lives were shattered into pieces.
It was their wedding day, when they would affirm their vows. Now, that part of history also reminds them of the deadly accident that claimed 10 of their family members in an accident at River Enziu.
Ten other members, who were part of those to join the wedding from Mwingi, survived.
And now, the memories of that day are always clouded with reminders of love gained and love affirmed. But also love lost.
They do not know whether to celebrate a wedding anniversary or a memorial.
Mr David Mutua is 76 while his wife, Veronica Mutua, is 71. The Mutuas say they are only waiting for their deaths.
It was after a long silence that the two opened up to the Sunday Nation on the events of that fateful day.
“We are waiting for our deaths…so we can join our other family members that went ahead of us,” a teary Mr Mutua said after a long silence.
“Since their death, I have talked neither about them nor the tragedy that took their lives. I don’t even like remembering it. This is the first time I am speaking about it,” he added amid pauses of reflection.
Before the accident, he fully depended on his children for upkeep. Because of his advanced age, he frequently falls sick.
“When they were alive, I would rely on them to pay for my hospital bills. But since their death, I cannot even meet medication costs,” said the septuagenarian.
“My remaining children had to take in my granddaughters and grandsons whose parents died in the tragedy, and that is why I find it difficult to burden them with my problems. The biggest challenge I am facing right now is hunger. I have no food,” he added.
In the last conversation he had with his eldest daughter, one of those who perished, he warned them against crossing over if the waters had not subsided. He recalls his wife also speaking to them about the situation.
“Indeed, they heeded to the warning and waited for a long time,” he said.
“I cannot tell exactly how long they waited but I am estimating the time from when we talked over the phone at 9am to the period we got the news that they had drowned at around 1pm,” he narrated.
One year later, the pain and the wounds are as painful as they were when the incident happened.
“I have, over time, learnt to accept that their death was God’s plan and there’s nothing I could do to save them,” he said after another long silence. “I have had to be strong, together with my wife who is my closest aide. And I am glad that none of us got any stroke from the news, despite our age.”
Something else pains Mr Mutua: “Until today, the government has not repaired the bridge, and it still continues to claim lives whenever the river floods. This year, two people have drowned and died at the same scene.”
Sometimes, in the silences of the night, they remember their departed children and grandchildren.
Mr Mutua’s home is deserted and seems lonely. He was having an afternoon siesta when the Sunday Nation team arrived. But this is not always how Decembers would be, he says. His children and their children would be visiting. And, he would be priming to host them. This is their first lonely festive season.
He now spends most of his days sleeping to drown his thoughts.
The sleepy village of Mitavo in Waaani sub-location in Nuu location is over 100 kilometres from Mwingi, which is the closest town.
It is the place where Mr Mutua grew up, where he raised his children and where most of his extended family lives. But it is also a place that – for as long as he can remember – has always been cut from the rest of the Mwingi when it rains.
Everything comes to a standstill when it pours, he says.
The road to Nuu from Mwingi gets worse and worse: from tarmac to patches of tarmac before it is murram that snakes to Mitavo village.
Two worlds apart, Mitavi village is only accessible through River Enziu, a seasonal river that pours into River Tana. When it rains, the river pauses life in Nuu and Mwingi.
A year ago today, grief struck Mitavo village in a magnitude they had never witnessed before. A wedding ceremony quickly turned to a funeral, and the accident in which a bus was washed away by raging waters as some observers filmed the incident shook the whole country.
While the history behind the naming of the river as Enziu is unknown, “nziu” in Kamba means “black”. The residents now know the river as the river of darkness. A river that claims lives.
Rehearsing by the river
Mr Christopher Musili, a choir member from St Cecilia Choir, survived the accident that 32 did not. Sixteen choir members died.
Together with his colleagues, he recalled, they rehearsed by the river bank as they waited for the water to subside. Until they were convinced it was safe to cross over.
They were wrong.
He remembers the driver was hesitant to drive across. He only bowed to the pressure from the passengers, he said. But he knew neither the terrain nor the geography, Mr Musili recalled.
“We prayed and decided to cross. It wouldn’t take even a minute to be on the other side. Sadly, not all of us managed,” a teary Mr Musili recalled.
The moments that followed were all a blur: the bus plunging into the river, the wails and cries of desperation, the divers rescuing the victims, then how he swam to safety.
“I didn’t know that we were sinking. It was like something happening in slow motion. Slowly yet surely, we were helplessly sinking. I stayed calm and was convinced that when the bus settled, we would all get out to safety,” he narrated, adding that it was at that moment that he knew that all that could go wrong had gone wrong.
It was a ‘man for himself, God for us all’ moment, he said.
After staying underneath, he so yearned for air above. Thanks to his good swimming skills, he was out of danger with just a few flaps. Then he remembered his colleagues who were still submerged in the water and wanted to swim back and rescue them. He was, however, never given the chance.
The feeling of surviving an accident that took the lives of people he knew is inexplicable. He does not know whether to rejoice or mourn.
“I thought that how I survived, that’s how the rest of the team would. It was unbelievable that they were no more,” he said.
It only hit him when the first victim to be rescued, and even after resuscitation, could not breathe anymore. The second to be rescued was his best friend. He, too, was lifeless. That was the first time in many years that he shed tears.
It broke his heart to see his colleagues, with whom he had been rehearsing few moments earlier, lifeless.
Life is painstakingly checking back to normal. It has, however, not been the same. After the accident, there were sessions of counselling that he says have greatly helped him cope with the loss.
Regardless, there are times the flashbacks hit hard.
“The accident changed my outlook of life. I realised just how fragile life is. I believed the adage that death is just a step away. The Holy Book says: ‘There is only a step between me and death,’” he said, quoting the first book of Samuel in the Bible (20:3).
With the victims’ deaths, he said, part of him left with them. The healing process from the traumatic experience has been difficult.
“Imagine coming to church and realising that it is the same church but the friends you’d meet there are no more. I would shed tears uncontrollably. Their photos, too, reminded me of their absence. It was difficult to believe they were no more. I thank God that I survived and pray that he gives me the fortitude to overcome,” he narrated.
Mr Justus Mwanzia, the chairman of the Mwingi Catholic Church, said that following the accident, the church resorted to holding formal counselling sessions for the remaining choir members.
Of the 27 choir members, only 11 survived.
“The choir was the future of the church because it mostly consisted of the youth who were very committed to God’s work,” Mr Mwanzia said.
One of the choir leaders lost in the tragedy was the matron. She doubled up as “a mother” to the group.
Her absence, Mr Mwanzia said, has hugely affected them.
“The choir feels her absence not only as a member but also for her guidance and support, which many of them really looked up to. The choir is yet to get a matron to replace her,” he said.
Fr Anthony Mutio, and the parish priest, said the church will hold commemorations annually in honour of the departed.
“As a church, we’re remembering them, with this year being the first commemoration,” he said. “Every month of November, we pray for the souls of the departed. We pushed it to December 3 to remember them and pray for them and their families.”
For a year now, Mr Boniface Musili has been a widower. The accident took his wife and their three children — two boys and a girl.
“I lost a companion, a helper, a confidant, a loving wife and the mother of my children,” he said. “I miss her counsel. I miss her company a lot. But I thank God for giving me the fortitude to bear.”
He noted that she was someone he “had wished to grow old with and to journey with for as long as it is humanly possible”.
While all deaths are painful, Mr Musili says death as a result of an accident is more overwhelming.
“On the fateful day, I talked with my wife in the morning and hoped to see her in the evening. But she did not return home alive. Seeing her in the casket one last time was heart-breaking.”
But the bridge that caused immense trauma is yet to be fully constructed. The contractor says the bridge is 40 percent complete.
“Not much is happening at the site,” a resident said. “He delays with payment and many of the locals here now shun working with the contractor.”
Mr Steven Nundu, a foreman at the project site, said the work “is still within the contract period”.
However, Mr Mwangi Maringa, the then Transport and Infrastructure principal secretary, said at the scene of the accident last year, that the government would spend Sh500 million for the construction of the bridge.
He further said that in “10 months or less” the construction of the bridge would be complete.
At the time, the locals were sceptical of the promises.
But 12 months later, the bridge is estimated to be less than 50 per cent complete.
Mr Maringa had in December 2019 promised the residents that building a bridge along the river was a government priority.