, NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 14 – Where does one begin? How does someone who has never lived through the experience of losing a child begin to tell the story; even imagine what it’s like to lose a prize child.
How to begin to describe what it’s like to stare down at a mass grave because your child was so badly burnt they couldn’t be told one from another; the option of signing them out of school and taking them home forever taken away from you. There they will remain for all eternity.
How to describe what it’s like to live in the knowledge that they didn’t pass away peacefully in their sleep, in their twilight years, but trapped like an animal, their flesh seared by the flames, their final breaths agonising as their lungs closed against the smoke; their dreams, your hopes for them left as a pile of ash among the rubble.
How can one who hasn’t lived through it begin to understand what it’s like to carry that knowledge with you for 15 years if you’re lucky, or unlucky, as one may see it…
What it’s like to carry a child for nine months – the apple of your eye, your only child – be separated from them so you can provide by raising other people’s children, living in other people’s homes, cleaning up after them, breaking your back and cracking your fingers washing their dirty laundry; sink everything you make into your child’s education only to have them burn to death where you enrolled them so you didn’t have to worry about them – in their final year of high school.
That is the story of Joyce Wayua and tens of other parents who lost their children on March 26, 2001 in the worst school fire in Kenya’s history, a tragedy of Westgate proportions: the Kyanguli Mixed Secondary School fire in which 63 boys died in an arson attack on their dorm.
“…The details of how the deceaseds (sic) met their death was horrific. They all tried to escape from the dormitory but were unable to do so since they were crowded with only one exit door. They fell over each other as the inferno consumed them. The evidence presented to this court indicates that they all screamed for help but none came to their rescue. They silently perished in the fire. Their suffering was painful and slow… The parents’ hopes, dreams and aspirations that their children would one day reach for their stars and support them at old age were dashed and went in flames…”
That is how Justice Joseph Sergon described it when he awarded Wayua and her fellow parents Sh650,000 each for their pain and suffering on March 3, just three weeks before they would again converge at their children’s mass grave in a memorial – at least those of them still alive.
“Between 10 and 15 of the parents have died over the years,” David Wambua says as we wait outside the Kyanguli head teacher’s office for keys to the memorial.
And he should know. He has been the Kyanguli Bereaved Parents Disaster Self-Help Group Secretary for the last 15 years. “Isn’t it funny the kinds of things that can bring people together?” he says without a hint of laughter in his voice.