When Kenya Broke my Heart

We thought it was like any other day, coming home from a long day of work after a long commute. However, when Rachel (an intern from the Netherlands) and I arrived at our student residence, we saw an odd sight in front of the supermarket that is connected to our building: there was a man lying down on the floor. Was he homeless? Drunk? Who was he?

There were a few other people standing around him, so at first we thought that they would take care of him and that we could go. However, Rachel insisted that it wasn’t right, and that we should check to see if he was okay.

It turned out that he was having a diabetic attack, was convulsing, and had vomited on the floor. Some of the people standing around (such as the security guard and the man who works in the pharmacy in the building) were giving him Fanta and some bread to eat, but no one was trying to help him in any other way or trying to get him medical attention.

I asked if we should call an ambulance, which garnered responses ranging from bewilderment at my question to the security guard saying, “no, we don’t want to do that, we don’t know who he is or where he comes from.” I asked what the emergency number in Kenya is and found out that there isn’t one. Even the pharmacist didn’t know what to do- he just said, “I’ll look up a number to call on my computer inside the pharmacy.”

The man also had two children with him- a little boy and a little girl. Rachel took them to get some food while I was dealing with the man.

I decided just to Google on my phone “emergency number in Kenya,” and the first thing that popped up was a number for a charity called St. John’s Hospital that you can call in case of a medical emergency. So I called them, and they said they had no ambulances but to try the Red Cross. So I called the Red Cross and explained to them the situation.

First, they seemed confused that I was calling about a man who I didn’t personally know. They then said to me:

“We’ve been having some cases lately where people pretend to be sick, and they carry around hospital papers and ask for food and money- but it’s just a fraud. So, is this man actually sick or is it a fraud?”

He did have hospital papers with him explaining what to do in case he was having a diabetic attack. From what I had been gathering from the situation, it also seemed that he had just been evicted from his house.

Yet, I saw his vomit on the floor, I had seen him convulsing, and I thought about how, in the U.S., an emergency dispatcher would never in a million years ask that question- and even if someone is a fraud, they treat them first and ask questions later. They don’t risk someone’s life just in case they might be lying.

“Yes, he is actually sick,” I said.

“Okay, we can send an ambulance, but because of the traffic it’s going to take us 30 minutes to get there.”

I said that was okay, and in my head thought about how in the U.S., ambulances arrive in 5 minutes. How if this man was having, for example, a heart attack, that he would die waiting 30 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.

As he drank the Fanta and ate the bread, he started to sit up and be able to talk.

His name is Simon, and he is a building painter who has had trouble finding steady work. He has diabetes and was just evicted from his house.

The mother of his older child died because she tried to have an abortion.

The mother of the younger child had a mental illness and ran away from the family- so he doesn’t know where she is.

“This is so shameful,” he said, staring at the vomit on his jeans. “I pray every day and I go to church, and I am still in this situation.”

He said that he had gotten sick at that moment because he had taken his diabetes medication without having eaten anything- in a day. His kids hadn’t eaten anything either.

As we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I debated actually telling Simon that I had called one, because I didn’t want him to leave. I was afraid that he would leave because of a conversation I was having with the man who runs the laundromat in the building:

“This man probably doesn’t want to go in the ambulance because he can’t pay for it and doesn’t have insurance. In Kenya, when you go to the hospital, you pay first and then get treated. If you don’t have money or insurance, they turn you away.”

“But aren’t there public hospitals or anywhere to go if you can’t pay?” I asked. “In the U.S. even if you have no insurance, the hospitals are still required to treat you if you go to the ER.”

“The public hospitals have about 6 ambulances for the entire city. And if he goes to one of them tonight, they won’t even look at him until the morning.”

“So, if someone is having an emergency and they don’t have money for the hospital, then they just die?”

“Yep. And not only that- many times if someone is lying on the ground and having a medical emergency, not only will no one help them, but people will reach into the person’s pockets and steal their wallet.”

I made the mistake of telling Simon that the ambulance was coming, thinking that it would comfort him. Instead, he said that he was feeling better and didn’t need it. 40 minutes after my call, once we could actually hear the siren of the ambulance, Simon said that he didn’t want to take it and that he just wanted to go, well, not home but to the place where he came from.

“Where are you guys going to stay?” I asked.

“There is a school that we have been staying in,” he said.

I couldn’t convince him to wait for the ambulance. The laundromat owner got Simon and his kids a motorbike taxi and paid for them to go to the school, where they would sleep.

A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived.

Eventually, when I was alone in my room, I cried and cried and cried.




  1. This sadly is the reality we live in.. If you don’t have money then you are an underdog. Our systems fail us much more than we fan fathom . What can we do.. Its a country trying to climb the economic ladder


  2. Chris ian · · Reply

    It’s such a painful thing to hear about in our country …. people feel money is everything to a point that they disregard the value of human life
    We always forget the moment we stop fighting for each other, that’s the moment we lose our humanity.


  3. You cried Alice, because you have a heart.

    Kenya is democratic and to those Kenyans who commented, you can change things. Don’t just accept things as they are or give into the money lovers. Start a legitimate movement to change aspects of your country (without protest marches or anything which could interpreted as a coup). Make the noise on paper (write letters to politicians etc.) and through the media, be wise as you do so.


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