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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.


This man, Najib Balala

This Man, Najib Balala

From those early days as a young man, he stood to be conspicuous wherever he went; even as a person he has a very pleasant personality. He is handsome (what the local community called a “natural attractiveness”). From the very beginning he has never been a fundamentalist – he is seen as a moderate, educated and westernised person. Even when other Arabs were being sent to local schools his family took him to Kakamega High School. He later went to Harvard University.

At Kakamega High School, Balala related well with the institution members that were not Muslim. This is not to say that he has not been loyal to his faith. He drives his inspiration from his beads. Balala speaks fluent Luhya and loves chicken. Although his favourite food is Biriani, he has had to go slow on the dish since it is quite fattening. The former Ag. Labour Minister has special praise, almost awe when he speaks about his old school. One cannot mistake his nostalgia. “Kakamega High School taught me to be an independent thinker. To appreciate different cultures and understand that there is no difference in humanity, in diversity.”

Najib Balala is a Monday child. He was born on an early Monday morning at Kikowani in Mombasa at the Mosque.  This explains why he loves Mondays. His father died before he was born having suffered from Leukemia. He has always referred to his mother as a strong woman. “She was only 30 years and never remarried. She protected us (we were six siblings, four boys and two girls). She was a very poor woman. I am very proud of her. Her upbringing is very well cultured. Her honesty is the key to our upbringing,” he  told the writer in a past interview. Balala is the last born of his mother. Being poor and fatherless always inspired him to work hard and change society. He is a down to earth person who drives himself around even though he has access to a driver.

Balala, 45 is a family man and rather proud of his family. “After work, I sit with my children. If I don’t give them time, they will lose personal touch. My timing is unpredictable due to the nature of my political work so I spend quality time with my family,” he said.

He first cut his teeth is politics as Mombasa mayor and later as Mvita Member of Parliament and Minister for Tourism. From the start, his family was against his joining politics and he struggled alone.

His mantra is the need to start developing leadership that is honest and trustworthy and to have a mechanism to block leaders who take advantage of communities because they are more vulnerable and who think they can buy people. His greatest achievement is in the tourism sector where he introduced tourism as part of Corporate Responsibility and turned the economic sector around. He has never ceased to be a darling of the media since he always gives interviews without a fuss and always picks his calls even in the middle of a meeting.

He is highly respected within the Muslim community and never misses a function at the Mosque. Balala is accepted among Muslims who are rich, poor and middle class and by non-Muslims who are also of the same status. He is also said to be a darling with women who are the majority voters at the Coast. Before his sacking a few days ago, he was a bossom buddy of Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga until recently when they started following different political paths. He once described Raila as the only person who seemed to fight for the rights of Muslims.

Excerpt from a past interview.  Copyright Omwa Ombara.