Millicent Kagonga spreads a dismantled carton box on the floor next to a small mattress that she sleeps on with her daughter and sometimes her teenage son. The floor is cold and the carton is thin, but it is comfortable enough for her guest, a cancer patient whom she has rescued from a public hospital corridor.
“The patient was discharged from the hospital, still very weak and bleeding, but with no family in the city or money to travel to Busia, where she comes from, she spent the night at the hospital corridor, so I brought her home,” she says.
Millicent often welcomes the sick and dejected to her home, a one-room house in Kariobangi North, Nairobi, a humble abode that has become a sanctuary for poor patients battling cancer.
On any given day, about three strangers knock on her door, seeking advice about their condition. With their medical reports in tow, some come to ask Millicent for treatment advice, others just to seek encouragement.
Some seek treatment money. Others request her to help them navigate through the chaotic cancer hospitals.
Everyone has something extra to give. I may have no money but I am their voice.
On some days, she turns her house into a mini-ward, cleaning wounds for the very sick or those who do not know how to do it.
Free cervical cancer vaccine
When we meet her for the interview, she was just from taking four 10-year-old girls for the free cervical cancer vaccine at Kariobangi North Health Centre.
Before that, a 54-year-old woman with breast cancer had come to her house to seek a second opinion on whether to wait for three months before starting radiotherapy treatment, as a doctor advised after scans showed the cancer had spread to her spinal cord.
The next day after our interview, she distributed fortified rice, oil, and flour to cancer patients and their caregivers.
Yet Millicent is not a trained health care professional and has no access to levers of influence.
In low-income neighbourhoods, poverty clashes with health every day, and with no community health workers or readily available oncologists to educate and treat the sick, she has become a mobiliser, an advisor, a financier, and a palliative care nurse.
“When they knock on my door, I don’t get a chance to ask them how they know where I live. Most of them come to me when they are so sick, hungry, and ashamed that first I have to make them feel alive and human by cleaning their wounds or cooking for them porridge before they tell me their stories,” she says.
Language of pain
In slums where many sick Kenyans speak a language of pain and agony, Millicent repeats hope.
“I don’t feel helpless just sitting here watching cancer patients in need. Everyone has something extra to give. I may have no money but I am their voice, so I ask well-wishers to pay for the patients’ treatment, donate food, A familiar battle
Part of the reason she seeks help for poor patients, she says, is to fight the same feeling of helplessness that she experienced when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer four years ago.
She knew little about the disease hence delayed seeking treatment, as if this was not bad enough, she was rejected because diseases of the reproductive organs are still taboo.
“When you get cancer in the slums, where you share bathrooms and toilets, and where a thin iron sheet separates one house from the next, you become contagious. Neighbours gossip and ridicule you, not in whispers, but loudly. No one wants to share food with you, not even if you’re the one buying. I remember one day when I was so weak, I bought food and told my neighbour: ‘Cook it for me and we’ll eat together.’ She refused. She said I would transmit the disease to her,” she says.
Millicent’s cancer symptoms started with heavy bleeding that lasted six years.
“My family abandoned me. I became an outcast because my community believes that a bleeding woman brings curses to her family,” she says.
When she went to a clinic, the health workers told her she had recurrent urinary tract infections. She was given antibiotics but the bleeding continued.
One day, she asked them to test her for cervical cancer. They were hesitant at first because cervical screening is not recommended for young women.
“I didn’t know what cervical cancer was but I’d watched a doctor on TV talking about the signs and urging women to go for testing.
So I insisted because I wanted a proper diagnosis. A doctor inserted a spatula to scrape cells from the cervix for testing. Blood gushed out onto his white coat. He told me sorry. There was a big cancerous tumour growing in the lower part of my womb,” she says.
She would not have gone through the 25 radiotherapy sessions, three chemotherapy cycles and three brachytherapy sessions were it not the financial assistance she got from well-wishers.
Millicent may have the philanthropic spirit of a billionaire but she has no worthwhile job. Before cancer treatment weakened her back, she earned some little money from washing people’s clothes. Now with cancer in remission, she hand-weaves floor mats, a skill that she also teaches patients and survivors, to earn an income.
Barely getting by
“I also used to give cancer talks in hospitals and schools. They’d give me Sh500 or Sh1,000 sometimes. But after Covid-19, no one is buying the mats, I don’t do the talks, so I also rely on food donations to feed my family,” she says, pointing at a heap of beautifully hand-woven floor mats stacked in a corner.
She approaches the world’s problems with the weight of an elder, but she is barely 40 years. She grew up in the slums, dropped out of school after getting pregnant at 14, got three children but one died, separated with her husband at 20, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 27. Poverty and disease hurriedly matured her.
The first patient she helped was an elderly woman with stage 4 breast cancer. Her name was Caroline Achieng’. A year after her diagnosis, her breast was rotting but she had not started treatment.
“When I moved to this place, Carol used to keep to herself. Because I had decided to tell everyone who cared to listen that I had cancer to stop them from gossiping, one day it was Carol’s turn to hear my story. Then she confided in me that she also had cancer but due to stigma, she had told the neighbours that she had a swelling. We became cancer buddies.
She could share the fish heads that her friend gave her, remnants from fishmongers and I helped her raise funds for treatment. I took her to hospital every time she needed treatment until she died recently,” Millicent says.
Her most memorable donation, which she distributed to over 100 cancer patients and caregivers, came by chance last December. A group of well-wishers who were unable to reach a person they had hoped to help handed over a large collection of food donation, clothes, and painkillers.
“The men had brought nice clothes which they gave them to the male patients whose worn-out clothes could barely cover them. They then asked if we needed more painkillers and brought hundreds of packets of drugs for patients who had suffered for years. They also bought Carol Sh60,000 chemotherapy drugs. When I saw all these, I realised that there are people who care,” she says.
73 phone calls a day
Her phone rarely stops ringing. In a day, she says, she can get as many as 73 phone calls.
We ask Millicent if she ever ignores the many calls she receives, especially from strangers. She shoots me a slightly disbelieving look and says, “No. Calls come in from cancer patients on their death beds, asking for food, blood donors, pain relief drugs, diapers, hope…anything really. I never ignore them because I know by the time someone picks a phone to call a stranger, they have reached their last resort.
Some borrow phones to call me. I am their last resort, so I have to help them,” she adds.
A stranger who had been told about me sent me Sh65,000.
And does she reach a point where she wants to give up especially after begging for days for donations?
“I’m human. I get tired especially if I have to keep reminding you to keep a promise of paying a patient’s NHIF (National Health Insurance Fund), then you ignore my calls. I remember once when someone agreed to buy a needle that was required in a public hospital for a patient to done for a breast fine-needle aspiration (FNA) procedure. She told me to go to a chemist and assured me that she would send the money. When I reached the chemist, I called her but her phone was off. She never called back,” the 31-year-old says.
But she refuses to give up because at the moment, 117 people depend on her organisation, Symbol of Hope Warriors.
“Every time I feel like I want to give up, I remember when I was almost dying after bleeding for days on end. I was taken to the hospital, treated, and given a bill of Sh64,000. A stranger who had been told about me sent me Sh65,000, money that I had never I handled in my life. I know there are many more strangers like this – this gives me hope,” Millicent says.