A Tragedy and a Blessing

Ohanya K'Otengo

Copyright 2022 by Ohaya K'Otengo

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I was dead. That is the best way to describe the experience or non-experience, now that I am writing after death or better, when back to life.

When I came to, and that's for lack of a better word, the best I could remember was that I went somewhere but not on earth. I am sure that for quite some time I was not around. Certainly not here. 

My head was drab - heavy. I looked around and noticed that I was in bed. My usual bed.

I tried to turn my head but I couldn't, my neck was stiff; tried moving one hand, still I couldn't. Then my leg; it was heavy, not painful, just heavy. I could hardly feel it but I knew it was there.

I remained still - thinking, trying to remember what happened when I was last here but even that failed. The thought of where I was coming from was stronger. I decided to deal with that first.

Somebody was singing. It was a sweet song, not quite a hymn, just a sweet plaintive song I was hearing, as I walked alone to nowhere. Some people, not one person, were singing ahead of me. There was a sharp turn on this lonely road and I could not see them.

I increased my pace walking faster towards the bend. It was becoming louder and clearer. I leaped forward, running a bit to gain distance. Yes, people were singing not far from where I was. I reached the bend. I could now see them. I looked behind to see if anybody was following but there was no one behind me. The road was just as lonely as it was when I found myself here. I moved faster, determined to catch up with the singers. Then they turned right leaving the main road and I realized that they had reached some building and were going up some steep and long stairs that seemed to be climbing into this storied building. 

I leeped again a few steps forward avoiding a possibility of them disappearing into the building before I caught up with them. I joined them and thought I knew some people in the group. I felt like I had seen some of them before but I couldn't remember exactly who they were nor where exactly I could have met them. 

Yet because of this song and the grace and ease with which they moved up these steep stairs; I decided to be part of them. As we continued climbing, I found myself also singing. We climbed as we sang and it was a unique and very pleasant experience singing with them.

The fact that I didn't know where they were going did not seem to bother me. Neither did my presence disturb them. It was all very peaceful - very pleasant. Somehow I had this feeling that these were very good people - better people than the ones I ever met before,  

We continued singing as we climbed higher and higher. The song was so vividly clear in my mind even as I lay here still - if not stiff. I could sing it.

We reached up and at the last landing, we started going down, now to the opposite side of the building. We arrived and joined a large mass of people in worship - a kind of mass in progress. It was outside in the open between two buildings. 

Apparently we were the choir. It was like mass had started and the choir was yet to join it, perhaps from a practice session.  And now I was part of that choir. Probably a new or just another member of it. 

 As we moved in, the congregation led by a priest that looked familiar, joined us in singing. Now, it was truly a mass conducted by, not just a priest but a cardinal, telling from the red cap on his head and a battery of priests around him. 

We kept singing. The hymn was in Latin - some song l loved most before I came here. The plaintive song was surely a hymn and one I knew. 

One of the priests celebrating the mass seemed to have just noticed me. He looked at me as if he knew me but was not expecting me to be part of this congregation. I also thought was somebody I knew. 

He beckoned me to move forward. I left the choir and moved over but continued singing as I walked towards him.  

The bell that is usually used by the lead mass server to conduct the solemn sessions of the mass -  The Offertory, was on the altar. He took it and handed it over to me. 

Being given this bell that was otherwise only used by expert mass servers to conduct the most solemn sessions of mass celebration, meant that you are now the lead server of this mass, He indicated that I  join the two mass servers that were already in their positions. 

I very well knew the use of this small bell having used it before so I obliged. I also knew when and how to use it. 
I was now, not just one of the mass servers but the lead one amongst the three of us. 

I have played this role severally, being one of the responsibilities I loved most in my youth growing up and now being in the lead here conducting the critical sessions of this mass, I felt quite at home. It was something I really cherished, serving the creator along with His very senior servants. 

I had admired the young people that played  this role in our church before I was old enough to join them and because of it, I spent quite some impatient time as I grew up. I was always wondering when I would be old enough to join this holy team; wear those long robes and understand the mass process well enough to be able to accurately guide the congregation through The Offertory.

The mass ended and the three of us joined the priests and the   Cardinal I knew pretty well even by name, to a makeshift sacristy. I was delighted, being privy to the fact that this was the first time I was serving a mass led by a whole cardinal.  It was surely the first time and I was so happy. Life seemed to have suddenly changed and very much for the better. I remained calm as we folded the awesome mass robes as the priests changed into their usual daily white ones. I couldn't wait to see what was coming next.

Against my will, I there was this pressing feeling that I had to come back here to this bed and find out exactly what's happening with me. I came back and was awake and lying here and not even sure that I am not paralysed. The urge to know what was happening to me here had to remove me from this kind of a deep trance of specially sweet memory, I fought hard to shift my mind from this line of thinking. 

I managed to force myself out of this sweet memory lane and shifted back to myself. I am now in this bed again, not dead but having come from the dead. I am now lying here, unable to move. I am determined to know why am in this state.

I then promised myself to revisit the memory I have just suspended and only for a short while. I would revisit the whole episode if only to get some proper understanding of this place I had just come from. As of now I wanted to know how I ended up there and it was like my state here was responsible.

My heavy head was a bit lighter now and slowly I was remembering what actually happened. 

We had just arrived in our rural home for a short holiday from the capital city of our country - the town where we lived. It was evening and dusk was creeping in when we arrived. Some of our luggages was still being transported from the center where we had alighted. Some of our relatives were helping my older brother to transport them home.

My mother opened the door to the main house and then the kitchen which was situated just a short distance from the main house and was busy putting in some of the kitchen related items we had come with, when she asked me to get into the main house and collect the lamp for cleaning. 

It was now becoming and soon we would need light to be able to put some of these items into the main house which was bigger with more rooms than the kitchen. The lamp we always used when at home needed some cleaning after staying for more than a year unused.

This lamp was always hanging in a particular part of the wall and since no one stayed in the house when we were away, I knew that nobody could have shifted it from its usual place. 

I went into the dark house moving carefully towards the wall. I reached the wall but since only the main door was open and with the windows still closed, the house was fairly dark and I couldn't see the lamp.  I put my left hand on the wall to guide myself. Slowly and very carefully I now raised my right hand to get hold of the lamp and remove it off the hook without knocking it down. 

But just as I touched the lamp, something heavily and painfully hit my hand. I left the lump and ran out. 

Sharp pain was running up my hand as I shouted running towards the kitchen where  my mother was. She had also heard me cry and had come out of the kitchen to find out what was happening. 

Seeing me holding my hand, she didn't ask a question, it was like she had already guessed what happened. She ran past me and into the house with a spotlight she was using to put things in the kitchen in her hand. I ran after her holding my paining hand. She lit the location of the lamp and there it was, a huge cobra was coiled around the chimney lamp. She ran out quickly, closing the door behind her. 

My brother had just arrived on a bicycle with the final luggage he collected. She cut a bladder from the bicycle and tied the upper part of my arm; just below the armpit with it. She took a razer blade and cut the back of my hand across two snake fung wounds that were profusely bleeding. Blood gushed out as she squeezed my arm forcing more blood out. She took charcoal from the bag we had just bought on our way home, crushed it into a fine powder and placed a handful over the bleeding wounds. She gave me a cupful of this charcoal powder suspended in water to drink. She then tore a piece of cloth from the leso she was wearing and used it to tie the charcoal powder onto my hand. She left running into the bushes behind the house with a spotlight in hand. 

Shortly she came back with some plants she had uprooted. They had some white tubers. She crashed the tubers on a grinding stone that was used to grind corn by the side of the kitchen. Now she removed the cloth and charcoal dust that were now blood soaked from my hand; applied the herbs and tied back the hand. 

She then armed herself with a long stick and told me to move a little away and gave the spotlight to my brother. She opened the door of the main house slowly, as my brother followed her in with the spotlight. Together they carefully moved into the house. A short scuffle and they were coming out with the serpent on the long stick. A huge cobra snake. It was dead.

My mother had some kind of strange quasi magical courage about the snakes. I had watched her a number of times easily killing snakes in our shamba when we joined her digging. There was some very special hatred she had for snakes. She would never let a snake escape once seen. 

The second last time we were here at home for Christmas holidays, she spotted a giant python entering a hole next to a termite mound.  She stopped shamba work and took up the task of digging out the snake. We watched from a little distance terrified. But she dug through after the snake.  When she reached it, the serpent did not have the time to wriggle out. It was given three blows on the head with the back of the hoe.  The serpent was already dying as she easily removed it from that hole.

That's the day our mother told us why she never ate mudfish Which was otherwise the most preferred choice of fish in our house. She ate other types but never mudfish. And she has a good reason for not eating it. And it was the resemblance between this serpent and our favorite fish. And indeed it was close.

My elder brother seemed to have taken after her in this hatred for and courage against snakes.
One big cobra entered their classroom in the school where we were studying. Their mathematics teacher who was in class at that time was the first person to run out as other students scrambled for the door after him. 

George remained alone watching the movement of the snake until it settled. When he was sure that the snake had quietly settled under one of the desks in the corner, he slowly moved out making sure that the serpent was least disturbed. 

As we came out of our classes in response to the call from my brother's classmates, he ran to the store, took a panga and cut a sizable pole. He went back to the classroom as other students cleared away from the door and dared the snake inside the classroom alone. 

The school watched unbelievably as he struggled with the snake in between the benches dodging its deadly spit until he killed it.

Some of the students stil could not avoid running away from the site of the dead snake as he walked out of the classroom drugging it with the pole. 

Mother left this dead cobra  there in front of the house and  went into the kitchen. She came out with a cup, prepared some cold concoction of this same herb she had applied on my hand and gave me to drink. I swallowed a mouthful and it's like I vomited everything from my gut. It was the worst thing I ever drank.

Suddenly there was a choking smell of safari ants in my breath. She forced me to take another mouthful. I vomited again and, from what I was told later, I passed out.
Apparently, that's  when I met these singers, that I decided to join hence the mass.

Before I could go back to the Sacristy and start again from where I left the memory of my sweet new experiences  now that I knew how I ended in this new world, my mother came in to find out how I was doing. She was in the company of my brother and two aunties of mine. I could see the sadness on their faces and the surprise that I was awake. 

She removed the bladder from my arm. I was lifted up from bed and made to sit with one of my aunties holding to keep me upright. My mother then gave me a big mug of warm water to drink. I did and realized that I was dehydrated. She filled the mug again with water and forced me to take another mugful. I did and heavily vomited.

I was left to rest for a while then one of my aunties came in with porridge in which some herbal medicine was mixed. I took this slowly and listened to them recounting to this aunt who had brought porridge what  actually happened. I rested for a while and was then taken for a herbal birth.

After that birth, I felt a lot better. I could also feel hungry but still I couldn't eat.
The whole day I didn't. My jaws were kind of paralysed, I could not chew. I only drank porridge and some sesame soup in between regular servings of medicine.

My father who had remained in the city waiting for his leave days to start before he would join us home had been informed of what had happened and had taken off earlier. He was just arriving as my brother slowly helped me out of the birth room. He saw us and stopped first at the gate as if trying to confirm that it was me being helped out of the bathroom.

As he explained later, now seated around my bed, he simply could not believe that I was up and could even move up to the bathroom. Like some of the relatives who had come to see me and who were also just as surprised, he wanted to know the treatment I was given that was responsible for the fast recovery.

As I listened to them talking, I came to learn how mother got to know this particular medicine for snake bite. Her mother - my grandmother - had watched two snakes fighting from a hidden view point.

She was out in the nearby forest when she came across two snakes that seemed to be fighting. She stopped and watched to confirm that what she was thinking was actually happening. She confirmed that the two snakes were actually fighting. She decided to remain still and watch. They fought and it was a long fight. Finally one of the snakes seemed to have been overpowered and was dying. It remained sprawled down, hardly moving. Then something strange happened. this other snake was behaving as if it was looking for something. My grandmother watched carefully to see the reaction of this winning snake. It started crawling away. She watched. As it gained distance my grandmother also followed carefully slowly. It stopped at some plant and plucked a leaf. It crawled back to where this snake was lying almost dead and seemed to place this leaf in the mouth of this other snake that was still wriggling on the ground.
My grandmother believed that it ate the leaf because as she waited, the two snakes crawled away in opposite directions.

After the snakes were gone, she went to see this plant from where the snake had taken the leaf. Later she would use this plant to treat villagers of snake bite. 
My grandmother who was a revered herbalist would later pass over this medicine alongside others to my mother. But she didn't get enough time to practice this art. Her life suddenly changed from village to city life and she never got the chance to perfect the traditional medical practice, she however kept the good knowledge of a few medicinal plants that she had been shown which included this one she used to resuscitate me back to life.

That night I slept again dead. I didn't know where I was until l woke up in the morning when my mother came to check on me. To the surprise of everyone, I was a lot better. I could eat a little and could stand on my own and even try to walk. After four days I was up and well again.

This encounter with the deadly serpent and the treatment I was given with medicine collected just from behind our rural house, just within the compound, was a baptism of fire that later reflected my interest in a medical career. 

After that treatment, it dawned on me that we were never taken to the modern hospitals, even when we were in the city. I also, later realized that, instead of familiarity with the names of the hospitals around us, the frequently mentioned name that was, in the rare event of sickness, was Ogejo. This popular name, as we continued growing up, was synonymous to medicine. It was like everybody, all neighbors and family friends knew and had something to do with this name. 

Ogejo turned out to be the name of a revered city herbalist. As a young man I watched keenly the way our parents handled our medical problems. Our Father was a senior military officer and we lived in the army barracks which was part of the Nairobi game reserve, making access to medicinal plants commonplace, even in the city. 

Later as a young man I could not help developing a habit of strolling long distances through the forest admiring plants and flowers and wondering what they carried within themselves that gave them this unique medicinal quality. I also kept wondering how people got to know what the numerous vegetation treated. 

This interest did not diminish and was responsible for many choices I made in life. My choice of high school in the rural setting rich with medicinal plants; choice of a medical career at college level and eventually, my ultimate choice of a career in an international research institute, specializing in medical microbiology with bias in phytotherapy. 

As a Researcher in an International organization of high repute for well over Two decades I have traveled the world of target oriented research and novel discoveries in the field of natural medicine. 

As a result and having Been resuscitated back to life using simple yet highly effective natural medicine, I felt duty bound to give back to society the benefits of this special intellectual knowledge, by opening up and unraveling this mystery of a tragedy and a blessing hence an interest to uncover the hidden science surrounding the  unique medicinal qualities and amazing power of healing vegetal materials. 

Ohanya K'Otengo is a researcher medical microbiologist with
play writing as a hobby.

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