A shoulder for people with mental illnesses to lean on

A shoulder for people with mental illnesses to lean on

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For the past 10 years, Timothy Mbugua has arrived at his jewellery shop in Wangige town, Kiambu County, every morning to a familiar scene — one or two people waiting for him.

But they are not his customers.

The visitors, mostly bedraggled and restless, have showed up for a drop of hope, mostly a meal, at other times a haircut, or just to have a scabbed wound bandaged.

They also have deeper “wounds”. But what they want in the immediate hour is something to eat; the emotional band-aid works better when the tummy is no longer in a civil war.

In the course of the day, more visitors will show up. Nearly all of them are men suffering from mental illnesses or trying to overcome drug addiction.

Mbugua, 51, and his small shop are the palliative they seek.


The early callers nod in greetings and sit on a wooden pew. They hunger for Mbugua’s thick porridge, which he carries in a jerrycan. He pours it into waiting mugs.

The conversation is not always coherent but the men respect Mbugua.

In the meantime, he arranges his merchandise — rings, chains and faux-gold armlets — while his stereo blares with upbeat music.

Indeed, every marketplace (or town) has one or several broken minds, and this couldn’t be truer than in Wangige town.

They walk fast, barefoot, stopping now and then to ask for a coin or beg for a cigarette off a smoker’s lips. They roam the busy market talking to unseen people.

They are motley — young, middle-aged, and elderly. At night they sleep under parked trucks, empty market stalls and shacks.

Some analysts attribute this to proliferation of cheap drugs that have ravaged minds, while keepers of traditions blame it on “family curses”.

But no matter the cause, the sick are at home at Mbugua’s.

During the interview, a woman rushes into Mbugua’s shop and says: “A man has gone berserk in the middle of town.”

She wants Mbugua to go calm him down. Mbugua pulls a pair of surgical gloves, lights a cigarette and smiles. “This is my life,” he announces.

They call him the “madmen’s man”. The moniker is not entirely derisive, rather a reference to Mbugua’s unique work. In fact, Mbugua finds it honorific.

Hardly anyone would have anything with these people, but Mbugua, a trained clinician, has a backdrop that can be summed up in a line from a famous one-act play by Thornton Wilder titled“The Angel that Troubled the Waters”.

So how did he find himself here? For more than a decade, Mbugua, who was born in Uasin Gishu County, was mentally ill.

In 1987, Mbugua, a promising student, won a scholarship to Moscow State University in Russia to study medicine.

The young man looked forward to returning to Kenya to practise medicine but three weeks to graduation day, an incident that would forever alter the trajectory of a promising future scuttled those plans.

“I was at a party and we were having drinks,” Mbugua narrates. He suspects that someone poured an unknown substance into his soda.

The next thing he knew he was on a Kenyan-bound plane, the entirety of his belongings squeezed into a small travel bag.

It is an episode that baffles him yet, but his adopted view is, “You can’t undo some things; you live with the accident but leave the scene of the crash.”

Mbugua was admitted to Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital.

Upon discharge, he moved back home to Uasin Gishu. But soon he was on the road, unaware of his surroundings, only to find himself in Wangige.

Looking back, Mbugua sees it as destiny pointing out the way.

The decade between the mid-1990s and the close of 2000s is a tabula rasa, and the spotty details he has since gathered are those scribbled by people who knew him and took him in during this dark chapter.

“I am told I slept in trenches, on cold corridor floors,” Mbugua says. But he says it is just as well that he is unable to summon the experience himself.

In the deleted scenes, he walked the streets, this hulk of a man, sometimes laughing at no prodding, and other times livid at the world.

But mostly he kept by himself. He lived like a nestless bird. “I had gone mad, and I don’t remember a thing from that terrible period. Friends tell me about it, and I cannot recall the files,” says Mbugua.

It is this kindness of these strangers and care from doctors and nurses that brought him back from the brink of full-blown mental illness.

Later, a psychiatrist advised that aside from whatever scrabbled Mbugua’s mind in Moscow, he was also bipolar, and he put him on a treatment regimen.

The medication worked and by 2008, Mbugua was declared fit to rejoin society.

“I weighed 117 kgs,” Mbugua recalls. “It was enough to ferry sacks of potatoes in Wangige market.”

Mbugua squirrelled away every coin, eventually saving enough to open a business — a kennel.

He furnished it with bric-a-brac, neck chains, and other accoutrements. Soon the business expanded and Mbugua moved into his current stall.

Ever since his healing, Mbugua has never forgotten the kindness of strangers who took him, restoring him to health.

Any time a mentally sick person would pass by, a tinge of sympathy poked him.

Whenever the customer traffic ebbed, Mbugua would invite a patient and they would sit there, hardly talking, but it was as if an unspoken, cosmic cord connected them.

The daily routine — the camaraderie he forged with them — birthed an idea in Mbugua.

The business was not really flourishing but he would put aside some money and cook for his growing number of “friends”.

Every morning he boiled a pot of nutritious porridge and packed several cups.

If a patient required a haircut, Mbugua would wear a pair of gloves and shear the dishevelled hair using an old shaving machine he had acquired earlier.

He bandaged bruised feet and tried to strike conversations with the patients. For some reason, the presence of the rather unusual visitors didn’t deter his customers.

For extreme cases, Mbugua would refer the patients to the doctors who had treated him.

Under the tutorship of psychiatrist Cosmas Mutundu, Mbugua deepened his knowledge in handling patients.

His Russian education now a forgotten blank sheet of paper, Mbugua revisited basic clinic and first-aid pillars to best serve in what he identifies as his calling.

“For some, the need for family and people who show care seems to be the biggest void,” Mbugua explains.

“Some will walk into the shop agitated but after a cup of porridge and some talk, they walk out calmly.”

A few years ago in the grip of a manic episode, a disturbed young man called Charles Thairu razed his house at Mahindi village in Karura ka Nyungu, Kiambu.

An incensed mob nearly lynched him but word reached Mbugua, who rushed there and assured everyone that the young man would be cured.

After months of hospitalisation and therapy, Thairu returned home a changed man. With Mbugua’s help, the community helped rebuilt the burnt house.

“Reintegration into society is very important,” says Mbugua.

“The doctors and I had to assure the community that indeed Thairu had changed. Unfortunately, this crucial step is overlooked.”

Today, Thairu operates a thriving business selling roasted sweet potatoes.

Mbugua rates the recuperation and successful reintegration rate of the patients he has interacted with at 60 per cent, and they are already on their own feet.

In 2015 he registered Rewind 254, an organisation that seeks to provide a holistic approach towards people living with mental illnesses, from placing patients in rehabilitation centres to educating the community once the patient has been released.

“It begins with the family unit; we shouldn’t be ashamed if a family member is mentally ill,” he advises.

For years until recently, Mbugua has kept a low profile, avoiding the media or exposure.

The work he does, he explains, is a gift, a facsimile of the welfare he received when his own life careened off the tracks.

It is only recently that he granted a TV interview after the crew “ambushed him”.

But good has its way of locating the good. For his tireless efforts, Mbugua recently received an international award from Men Impact Change (MCI), an American-based institution that recognises outstanding individuals worldwide who are making positive change in the society.

The award in part cited Mbugua for “ … leading by example and advancing the legacy of change in philanthropy….”

One of the outcomes of the recognition is a partnership, where Rewind 254 and MCI will work together to scale up rehabilitation operations countrywide.

Although sometimes his work is strenuous – emotionally and financially – Mbugua soldiers on.

He buys porridge flour, bandages and the basic medicine with his money, and gently chides anyone who attempts to commend him for his unusual work.

“It is a gift God gave me,” he says. Well-wishers help now and then, but the bulk of the expenses is on him.


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