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Fare Thee Well Mary Ted,Your Battle Against Cancer Was Not In Vain

Mary Ted Onyango at her wake in her house in Jambo Estate, Lang’ata.

Story and pictures by Omwa Ombara
I hid my face from friends and family when you died. It took me time to attend your wake at your house in Lang’ata. Our friendship was such that you had to call me on Wednesday and prepare me for your departure. You asked whether we could meet and have a quick cup of coffee, but I was too busy at Sheria House chasing my registration certificate.
“Omwa, I don’t have long to live,” you chuckled. “I am travelling to Simenya for a  Board meeting then I will pass by to see my mother. In case I do not make it back to Nairobi, just remind my family that I want a beautiful funeral. Make sure they dress me well and put red lipstick on my lips.” We laughed and made jokes over that. I did not believe she would be dead by Saturday morning.
Veronica had asked for red lipstick too. I preferred purple while Veronica loved pink. But in one of our regular dinners at Yaya Centre, Mary, being the most adventurous of us trio had often told us off and insisted that red was the professional colour. So after arguing over our Pizzas, we agreed to turn to red nails and toes and of course, red lipstick. I remember we buried Veronica in red lipstick too.
I saw you lying in your beautiful coffin at the Don Bosco Shrine during your requiem Mass and said I would not cry. You, Veronica Mburu and I had promised each other that we would not cry if any of us died first. But we cried when Veronica died and yesterday I cried as if my heart would break. I cried when all I wanted to do was smile. I tried to smile through my tears but forgive me my dear friend. I could not let you go without a tear, knowing what you had gone through, knowing the deep secrets we shared.

Caren Ochele, our dear friend ushers the Congregation at the Don Bosco Shrine during Mary Ted’s Requiem Mass,
It took our friend Caren Ochele, who was an usher to calm me down. “It is well!” She repeated as she hugged me and wiped my tears. “It is well with our friend!”
Mary Ted wanted me to be an accountant. I remember Mary Ted mentoring me at the Agricultural Finance Corporation where I did my attachment after my ‘A’ Levels. She was the Financial Controller. Caren was our Secretary. After patiently trying me out with figures, balancing sheets with Shakila and Mrs Mwangoda, and with some goading from Mumo Matemu, the lawyer, Mary and Caren finally gave up on me. “Omwa has too many stories to tell, she does not have a Mathematical mind, so we declare you a Journalist,” she said. We were another trio, Mary Ted, Caren and I. So when I joined University, I opted for Literature and Linguistics, with Mary pushing me to master my Language ahead of my Journalism career…
When Mary Ted started her Kenya Breast Health Programme in Lang’ata, she picked me from Nation Centre where I debuted as a Freelance Correspondent. The Breast Health office was still bare. It lacked curtains, the wiring was not yet done and there were cables all over the floor. There was no electricity yet and one computer. Two young ladies, volunteers poured for us two cups of home-made tea from a white flask. The proud smile on Mary Ted’s face was infectious. “This is just a start. I want to reach as many women with cancer as possible. I want to stop as many women from getting cancer by encouraging them to go for the test early.”She said. The dream made her eyes glitter with hope. It was an exciting evening and we toasted Champaign to a Cancer-less future. Mary was diagnosed with Cancer on January 5, 1999. True to her dreams, Mary Ted spearheaded and championed a nationwide campaign on breast cancer awareness. She was a counsellor and a great support system to Cancer survivors, allowing them to stay in her house when they lacked accomodation. Mary Ted was indeed instrumental in pushing the Government to install Cancer support equipment in Provincial Hospital. Her mobile clinic on cancer screening became the face of hope in Kenya.

Breast Cancer survivors show up in style at the Requiem Mass. Their powerful message was,”what is your purpose in life?”
Mary Ted wanted a Breast Cancer Journalist who could break Cancer stories and break the stigma that enshrouded Cancer then. The media would not touch it and there was a general contempt by society for women with one breast. Mary Ted’s first assignment was that I go for a Mammography. After much reluctant persuasion, Mary Ted, Vero and I went to Nairobi Hospital. My tests were fine and of course we celebrated the results.
My first Cancer story was Veronica Mburu. I did the interview as Mary Ted and Vero tried on the latest prosthesis (artificial breast) in town down at Kijabe Street. I had not seen prosthesis before and I did not know women wore it after they lost their breasts to Cancer surgery. Despite my ignorance and shock, Mary Ted and Vero cat- walked up and down the shop making the salesman and I burst into hysterical laughter. And so I got into the Breast Cancer family as a Journalist and not as a survivor.
When I did Vero’s story, the challenge was whether we should show the Prosthesis to the public or not. My then editor, Rhoda Orengo took the bull by the horn and published the picture that shocked Kenyans to the reality of Cancer. The response was overwhelming and Vero had a rough time directing women to Kijabe Street.
At the fundraising dinner for the Breast Health Programme, I played both roles of Musician and Journalist as I performed with my Kalamindi band at the Panafric Hotel, Nairobi, backed up by Kenge Kenge Orutu System and Osogo Winyo.

Mary Ted was democratic with her daughters in a very special way. When I got an assignment from my then Editor, Betty Muriuki, to do a story on families with daughters only and boys only, Mary Ted asked me to talk to the girls and get their approval. We went to her sister’s house in Kariakor and found about 50 of her relatives ready to interrogate me.

From Left: Mary Ted’s sisters Margaret Alacoque ‘Koki’ and Dorothy Tsalwa at the Requiem Mass in Nairobi.

We sat in the kitchen where Mary Ted’s sister Margaret Koki made hundreds of Chapatis. Mary Ted sent her daughters one by one to the kitchen, sent Koki out and left me alone with the girls to persuade them on why they should appear in the papers. Such wonderful girls, Anne Marie, Amanda and Adelle allowed me to interview them and take their pictures. After lunch, The girls’ aunties interrogated and playfully teased  me and finally allowed me to carry out the interview.

Catholic Priests, led by Father Emmanuel  perform final rituals at the Don Bosco Shrine as they ask God to grant Mary Ted eternal rest.

The women danced themselves lame and our ever supportive friend George Otieno of Barclays Bank, whom Mary had nicknamed “Our Husband”, made the evening warm and cheerful.
Then Veronica died, creating a gap in our trio company. Vero died when I was out of the country on assignment. When I got back, Mary Ted and “Our Husband” took me to Vero’s grave in Lang’ata. The grave was well kept by Mary Ted and George with lots of lovely flowers. That had been Vero’s death wish.
So now Mary Ted will be buried tomorrow. She died in the arms of her mother Christine. Mary Ted made a difference to the Cancer community. She had passion for her battle against Cancer. So my two close friends are gone; Veronica Mburu and Mary Ted – two friends whose mark of friendship passed the test of time.

Sweet Farewell, Mum. From Right to Left: Ted’s three lovely daughters Adelle, Anne Marie and Amanda sing a Hymn at the Shrine.

Your Eulogy was beautiful yesterday. And the Church was all so pink with brave faces. All your friends were there. The girls were brave. They smiled as you would have wished. For me, you were not the Vice Chairperson of the National Cohesion and Integration Committee or Chairperson, Nyanza Economic Forum. You were just Ted, my friend and bossom buddy. The Godmother to my great niece and friend Monica. Mary Ted, it was indeed a celebration of your life; the celebration of an achiever. Till we meet on the other shore, Mary Ted – Fare Thee well, my friend!

Mrs Ida Odinga, Patron Kenya Breast Health Programme and wife to Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Amolo Odinga at the Requiem Mass. Ida payed glowing tribute to Mary and asked Kenyans to make a difference in their own little ways.


28 responses

  1. anne eboso

    Deep,too deep…..may her soul rest in eternal peace

    April 12, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    • Thanks Anne. May her soul rest in eternal peace.

      April 13, 2012 at 4:36 am

  2. gladys

    Omwa, this is a beautiful tribute. Sorry for losing such a special friend….but she is not lost, you have such beautiful memories of her.

    April 13, 2012 at 5:09 am

    • Thanks Gladys for your kind words and encouragement. Thanks for stopping by.

      April 13, 2012 at 6:19 am

  3. may her soul rest in peace

    April 13, 2012 at 5:32 am

    • Thanks monicahnjeri. May she rest in God’s everlasting arms.

      April 13, 2012 at 6:09 am

  4. steve

    A touching story this is, I as well lost my dear mum to breast cancer after years of pain and struggle. I salute the journalists like Omwa and researchers out there for the very important information that we can now read in the press and other publications about cancer. Atleast – now we know.
    May her soul rest in her godly appointed rest.

    April 13, 2012 at 7:48 am

    • Hallo Steve. Very sorry to hear about your mum and her battle with Cancer. We hope and pray that the Cure for Cancer be found. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      April 13, 2012 at 7:42 pm

  5. Madonna Sakwa

    My sincerest condolences Omwa….and to the entire family, May the Good Lord give you all the strength and courage you need to carry on.

    April 13, 2012 at 8:01 am

    • Hi Maddona. Thanks for the moral support and encouragement. Deeply appreciated. Thanks.

      April 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm

  6. kadimane alyce

    She touched many souls in her own way, really touching words Omwa, we are going to miss her. RIP

    April 13, 2012 at 8:11 am

    • Hi Alyce. Thanks for stopping by and for making time to stop by. We shall surely miss her. But she lives on in every heart she touched, in every smile she shared. May she RIP.

      April 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm

  7. Sister Omwa, this is a very beautiful, emotive, inspiring and a very touching tribute..O lit kabisa ….( I just lack the words to summarize but thanks for sharing all). It’s very painful losing a loved one. May the peace of the Lord be with you, the bereaved family and all. RIP Mama Mary.

    April 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    • Hallo Jabondo Wuod Yimbo. Thanks for your kind words. It is indeed painful to lose a loved one. I am grateful that you read the piece and shared too. Some friends are a rare treasure and Mary Ted was one of them. Death is shocking no matter how much one is prepared. I guess it is the finality of it all. Otherwise hope you are all well. Thanks.

      April 13, 2012 at 7:55 pm

  8. shianwrites

    May she RIP. This is a wonderful tribute.

    April 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    • Thanks shianwrites. May she rest in peace.

      April 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm

  9. A beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul. May her spirit resonate for many years to come.
    Peace & grace,

    April 14, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    • Thanks Miro. May her beautiful spirit resonate for many years to come. Thanks for reading the tribute.

      April 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  10. hi Omwa, was it you i met at the mass, you were taking pictures, and i was as well…..

    April 15, 2012 at 11:37 am

    • Yes, that was me. I thought I had seen your face somewhere before. but was not sure. Anyway, I was crying as I took the pictures so my mind was not clear.

      April 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm

  11. Tabbietab

    May God bless you for this deep share. I spoke to Mary once in 2009 and she left me with a lasting impression. I could not afford to avoid going for screening after our chat. I have continued to go. Recently my friend Marceline Nyambala (AMWIK) was diagnosed with breast cancer; her strength reminds me of Mary’s. She does not act sick and her concern is that there are far too many women who need treatment who die because the waiting list is too long. That resonated so well with Mary’s concerns, which I will capture in the following words she told me during that interview: “We the elite women ought to ensure that our sisters, aunts, mothers, etc, in the rural areas are adequately informed about breast cancer…” Thanks Omwa.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:15 am

    • Good Afternoon Tabbietab. Thanks for reading Mary Ted’s tribute and for your very useful response. I think it is actually our role as educated or empowered women to inform our aunts, sisters, mothers in the rural areas to go for screening. We always visit upcountry during funerals, Christmas, Easter and other public holidays. I believe if we spread this message even by word of mouth, it can save many souls. I know Merceline Nyambala, we used to be together in AMWIK. She is a strong lady with a strong personality and drive. I know she is a role model and a source of inspiration to many. I am sure she will survive. Once again thanks for your kind comments. May the Cancer cure be found!

      April 16, 2012 at 11:50 am

  12. http://bitly.com/Hyvdnj

    April 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm

  13. Joyce

    Omwa this is profound. What a special tribute to a loved one!

    April 17, 2012 at 11:38 am

    • Thanks Joyce. For a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

      April 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm

  14. What a beautiful tribute to your friend. It sounds like she was an amazing woman. I am so sorry for your loss.

    April 30, 2012 at 11:27 am

    • Fork in My Eye. Thanks for condoling with me. She was an amazing woman. Will truly miss her. Thanks for stopping by.

      April 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  15. Dorothy Tsalwa

    Thank you Omwa, saw this a while back, only now can I sit down and thank you for this moving tribute . The best birthday present ever. My Birthday is on the 12th of April when you published this. My sister was my other half. Still trying to find myself, lost in her absence. Thank you from me, and from all of us – her family.Yes, we made sure she had on her red lipstick.

    July 3, 2012 at 6:20 am

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