The man arrives at the health center late into the night. He is helped by a community health volunteer, and between them, they support a wailing pregnant woman. All of them are wet, and bloody. A nurse takes the man’s place and supports the woman to the labor ward while the man gets someone to sign a little book and then leaves into the night. He is back two hours later, in different clothes, equally wet, equally bloody, this time he is holding a baby in one arm, while supporting a tired woman with his other. The nurses rush towards him and relieve him. They know him well. He is here almost every night. He is not staff, he is a perpetual good Samaritan.
We traveled to Bumula sub-county, Bumula village to find out from the 34 year old married father of three Godwin Simiyu Wanyonyi (Gordy) just why he does what he does. Many men would probably rather walk through fire, than be with a woman, for any period of time, who was in labor, especially in the latter stages, even when it is their wife or close relative. But in Bungoma County we met, not just one, but 13 of 23 men with a different perspective. And just in case you are thinking that Bungoma County has hoarded Gynecologists, you are wrong. These are ordinary men, Boda-Boda riders with a calling that leads them to choose to be around pregnant women in labor, to support them by taking them, free of charge, to a health center for medically assisted deliveries.
“I don’t know why, but most women give birth at night,” begins this hero in Kiswahili. “Some nights I get as many as three urgent calls. I respond to all. Many of them are in advanced stages of labor and this for me means that we sit on blood and water all the way to the health center. Sometimes we make it. Sometimes the baby comes on the way to hospital, and I never shy away from the challenge of helping out. Most times the lady is accompanied by a Birth Companion, a Community Health worker, her mother in law or a female relative. Sometimes, like last week, it’s just the two of us.”
Even in the best of times, the rush to hospital when in labour is, to say the least, uncomfortable for most women with the ever present risk of losing the mother or child to the journey. This is even more challenging in the counties outside the capital. In some places, women are ferried on the back of Lorries transporting quarry stones in attempts to save their lives and those of their soon to be born babies. Bernard Mare, a Transport Officer with the Ministry of Health Bungoma explains “Many places in the County are inaccessible to regular ambulances due to climatic and infrastructural challenges. Many homes are at least 5kms from the nearest health centers and can only be accessed through footpaths, sometimes mountainous like in the Mount Elgon areas. When it rains, and it is night, family and community members here either use makeshift stretchers with blankets to carry women either to the centers or to a waiting Bodaboda at more level places. Some are brought in on wheelbarrows. Bodabodas, though considered dangerous by most, is the way most people get anywhere these parts of the country, so it makes sense to encourage their use, with caution of cause.”
“I have been a Boda-Boda man for 9 years, and whenever I see someone sick, I help them – for free. I think this is what built my regard in this area, but I didn’t know just how much until the election. In June last year, the sub-chiefs announced in the markets and in the villages around that they were looking for a Bodaboda man to help the villagers get to hospital, especially in the night. They, the Government, GlaxoSmithKline and Save the Children, had laid out about ten requirements that this man needed to have. He was to be dependable, a man whose phone was never off, with a volunteer spirit, not a drunkard or criminal, someone who would best represent the community. I had a funeral on the day the election was to take place so I went” Says Gordy.
“The requirements were deliberately stringent. With the challenges in the area, including security, we needed mature men, with good reputations, with valid Riders’ licences, Insurance and a log book showing that they owned the bike they were riding.” Explains Felix Makasanda a Community Development Officer with the Boresha Programme that rose up to respond to Gordy’s initiative.
“When we were just about to bury, I got a call from one of the community health volunteers who knew me well. They told me to hurry back to the market and try my luck. There were about 60 riders who had responded to the call. Some had been campaigning and had come with their supporters. When I walked in, their morale dropped, and one or two asked me what I was doing there. The short of it, is that most of my competitors became my supporters. At the end of it, the community shortlisted five of us, and I got the most votes,” smiles Gordy. At least, Gordy could now fuel his bike on his mercy errands and have a something left to care for his family.
“It’s not easy,” his beautiful wife Janet Nafula contributes. “Many of the women get pregnant in the food season and give birth in the drought season. Sometimes these calls come in at night. As a human being of cause there are times I feel bad, but I have learnt to wake him up and release him, with a prayer. The night holds many issues. I am proud of what he does. Sometimes it rains, and in those nights, he could get as many as three calls. Which means I get to wash more clothes, but I do not mind it. I know he is out saving lives, and I trust him totally. He has never been one with a wandering eye, so that does not even worry me,” she says playfully. “He is a responsible father and husband. We have never slept hungry, he has bought and built on this plot, my children are all I school by God’s grace, the last being in a private school. He has helped set me up in a small hotel business where I have 4 employees, and where he comes in to help from time to time. We also farm goats, chicken, maize and beans, which is where we started off.”
How do they get to know his number? “My mobile number is like a hotline around here. The Chiefs announce it during funerals, in churches, at the hospital during clinics and at meetings. Former traditional birth attendants as well as community health volunteers have it.” Gordy explains. One of his beneficiaries Mildred Nanjala Simiyu, not a relative of his, who had her baby in March this year shares how on the day she went into labour, they had no way of getting to the hospital. The young mother of three, had walked to the health centers in the company of her loving mother in law for the first two births. This time though, it was raining, dark, and the path to her home in Bonambobi village in Bumula is full of twists and turns and narrows to barely passable footpaths closer to home. It is about two and a half kilometers from Gordy’s. She had challenges with pregnancy related hypertension. Her mother in law had heard about a BodaBoda Ambulance that transport’s people to hospital for free. “I was surprised by how fast he responded. He rode fast, it was just the two of us that night. My mother in law had to stay back to care for the other children. He saved my life and that of my baby Hilda. If it was not for him, I would have died in the process of trying to have the baby here. She kept presenting her chin first.”
Jessica Wamalwa had a similar experience. She got Gordy’s number from a neighbor at around 11pm in the night. It was a rainy night. “I was overwhelmed. He was gentle and encouraging. He would ride at the pace that was comfortable for me, but would not stop when I asked him to. He said it was important to get me to hospital. Sometimes he would use one arm to hold me steady on my back. We rode also with my mother in law. By God’s grace I had baby Prosper at 3am.”
Gordy confesses that there have been some challenges. The weather, the roads especially on rainy nights, his susceptibility to frequent bouts to malaria and pneumonia. The lack of proper riding and safety gear is also a challenge for him. “I wish also that they would train us in basic first aid so that we could be more useful in cases where the babies come before we get to the health centers. I have so far, in the past years, had four women give birth when I was taking them to hospital.” The other Riders agree with him on these challenges. Pastor Wilfred Otunga who has been doing this work for 20 years due to his love for children says “There is also said to be a ghost rider who terrorizes road users. Many who have seen it describe it as a jacket riding a bodaboda. I have never met it. I believe God has been with me. Many of us have also met with thugs and thankfully none of us has lost their bikes.” Lack of clarity on the role they are playing, by police on patrol was previously a challenge, but since their partners gave them branded reflector jackets with government and partner logos and branded as Ambulance.
Gordy’s twelve colleagues are grateful to him for his perseverance, and good example that impacted all of them to do the work they do. They also appreciate the assistance that has come as a result of their love for their communities. Like Gordy, many have bought land and built their simple homes on them. Some are educating children at all levels including at the University. They have also initiated businesses for their wives in which they work when they are not on the road. Most importantly, it has enamored them to the communities that chose them for this noble work and are committed to supporting them. They echo Gordy’s sentiments as he concludes our day, “I am convinced I was born to do this. I am grateful for the help I have received from the partners, but I did it before and I will do it long after they leave.”
What They Said
Mildred – Gordy is the kind of person who reacts urgently to every call. If it was not for that, I would have died in labor. He is helping the women here, they will not have their children at home unless they do not have Gordy’s number. The number of deaths of mothers has also reduced significantly. I have his number and would recommend him to any woman in labor.
Jessica – Gordy’s work is meaningful. I don’t think my neighbor would have helped me without transport. I had seen his number on display during clinic. But on that day, I got it from the community health volunteer who is my neighbour called Martin.
Dr. Brian Inima
Dr. Brian Inima – MOH Bumula Sub-County: The BodaBoda Ambulances have increased greatly the number of hospital deliveries.
Bernard Mare –Transport Officer MOH Bungom: Gordy has a lot of passion for the work he does. He has a big heart.
Dr. John Papaya – Coordinator of Community Health Services, Bungoma County: Gordy has a lot of humanity. No man would otherwise volunteer to do the work he is doing.
Photos and Stories by NaMeD Afrika Studios – (Nashon David Dwoya and Vip Ogola)
First Published on The Sunday Standard’s Sunday Magazine on September 4, 2016