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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.


Surviving Crisis

Everyone has gone through one crisis or another. It is never easy. It is so difficult to face life when the worst happens, when your worst fears are confirmed.

Crisis comes when least expected. It sneaks into one’s life like a thief in the night. No warning, no preparation, no time to make amends. It could be the loss of a loved one, an accident that leaves one paralysed for life. You could just walk into hospital for a normal check up and there it is right on the screen, you have been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension and God knows what else. You have been trying to get pregnant for the last ten years and when you finally succeed you lose your child in labour. Or you have tried to get a child for the last 20 years and your marriage is about to break up and women are being brought to your bed to give birth on your behalf.  When someone you had really trusted and confided in betrays you or someone just creates a big lie about you and jeopardises your love, family and career. For someone else it could be such a simple thing but when crisis strikes my friends, it is never easy to deal with.

It is a crisis when your partner abandons you because you have been diagnosed with cancer, HIV or a mental illness, when you need a kidney transplant or a dialysis. When that brilliant child you thought would bring the prize home is caught up with a drug cartel and no amount of rehabilitation will change the situation. Then you get a call to go and pick his body.

Crisis, how does one survive? When you lose your job at a time you really need it, when you get retrenched yet it is not your fault, when you commit adultery and the only person you have ever truly loves abandons you or you commit a crime and have to go to to jail.  When you look back at the poor relatives you brought up, educated and gave your best turn their back on you and talk ill of you now that they have made their wealth.

When you fail your exams abroad and you are expected back home and you have to move out of the University and play hide and seek with the police, washing cars, babysitting and then this College girl you fell in love with gets pregnant! When you look around and your love clock ticks but there is nobody to marry you or even ask you out for a drink.

Crisis happens my dear friends. Crisis visited me my friends when I got that call that changed my life forever. Dad and mum and sis involved in a car accident. They fell into the river. Dad died on the spot, mum was in a coma and we could not trace my sis anywhere. She was admitted in a hospital somewhere with broken ribs and legs. It was a crisis,. How could we bury dad without mum, her only love for 54 years?

But we survived the crisis, You can survive. We hang on to hope. Friends supported us. The Church prayed and visited. Relatives and neighbours condoled with us and consoled us. The bill was so high and we sold the property but we survived. You will survive my friends. Just hang in there. Take courage. Do not give up especially when it is too much. Troubles may gang up against you like the Dogs of Winter and maul you into unrecognisable pieces but you will survive. There is no night so long that the day will not break. And one day you will look back and wonder how you did it. You will survive. You will survive.