Working at the mortuary is one of the jobs that have for a long time not featured on the list of options for many people, especially women.
But 34-year-old Eva Ngima prides herself in being the lead and only female mortician at Nyeri County Referral Hospital, one of the largest and busiest facility in the entire Mt Kenya region.
She is used to the screeching of heavy cabinet doors, humming freezers, the closing of drawers and cabinets and the strong unpleasant, sneeze inducing air filled with formalin.
To her, caring for the dead is comforting, and by doing so, she is demystifying the long held stereotypes and employment norms associated with the once male-dominated career.
Interestingly, the mother of two wanted to be a journalist but was unable to pursue her studies beyond secondary school. “But life happened and I ended up working as a cleaner at the hospital,” she said.
Ms Ngima’s passion for her work began when her mother died of breast cancer in 2014. That is when she finally found her true calling to work among the dead.
Her desire is to give the dead the honour and respect they deserve. “I would go to view my mother’s body in this mortuary, and I did not like the way they were handling bodies. That is when I decided I wanted to work here and make it clean,” Ms Ngima said.
At one time after her mother’s death, she applied for the mortician’s job but was asked to rethink her decision.
Yet another opportunity arose in one of the private hospitals in Nyeri but she was rejected because of her gender.
Not being the one to give up easily, her breakthrough was in the same year when she got the job.
In the interview, there were 18 men and two women including herself. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months but she did not show any sign of surrender.
“I had tried to get jobs in different hospital morgues but it was always hard. I finally got the job, and I must say I have never looked back since then,” she told the Nation in an interview.
Her normal routine involves receiving bodies, preserving and preparing them for post-mortem, cleaning and dressing them, and finally releasing them to the next of kin for burial.
The bodies are from accident victims and patients who pass away while undergoing treatment at the facility.
Ms Ngima’s day starts at 5am as she prepares her youngest child and takes her to school. She gets to work at around 7:30am; her first duty is checking of bill and documents like burial permits and death certificates.
“The process of embalming takes up to an hour depending with the number of bodies they receive in a day,” she says, adding that she works with three colleagues.
Modern embalming involves treating human remains with chemicals to prevent decomposition, which leaves bodies suitable for public display during viewings and funerals.
The cleaning of the rooms then starts after each care process of the bodies is done to ensure it is presentable and clean.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this job was because of the sanitation of the public morgue which, at the time, was not clean. I always ensure I keep the place clean at all times,” she says.
“Many believe that the public morgues smell bad and are very dirty; that is one idea I want to change in the Nyeri morgue.”
Just like any other job, she concedes her work has challenges. Understandably, most people want to coil in fright at her tales when narrating her experiences.
Those known to her say she was out of her mind when she took up the job.
However, she says her biggest motivation are those who understand that this is the job that educates her children, feeds her family and pays her bills.
On different occasions she had guests who refused to eat meat in her home for reasons known to them, she says.
But, the support from her children and family is one of the major motivations that keep her going, because she believes they are the people who matter.
“My father has always supported me, and when he is in town he passes by to say hello. I have been called names severally; they say I should not attend their events; that I might take death spirits to them, but I am a very prayerful person,” she said.
At times relatives of the deceased would call to check up on her or even bring gifts as a show of appreciation.
Top among her achievements is mastering the art of counselling the bereaved. “I feel there is more I can do to make my services more remarkable and memorable,” she explains.
She has been advocating for professionalism in her sector: storing bodies in decently as opposed to leaving them strewn all over the floor and ensuring they remain covered.
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