At 33 years of age, Harrison Wanyoike has seen it all, so to speak, including witnessing his elder brother commit suicide in the most gruesome way.
He is no stranger to grief and failure, having failed, fallen, and fallen again, but always risen above his setbacks.
Harrison Wanyoike is a freelance DJ who hopes that his story will inspire those that think they have nothing to live for.
In 2016, Wanyoike lost his mother to Aids. A week later, his only sister had a heart attack and died. Fast on their heels was his grandmother, his only source of support.
Way before this, when he was just 11, Wanyoike watched his 17-year-old brother commit suicide by jumping into the path of a train to escape the misery of poverty in which the family grew.
“My brother and I were walking home one evening. He told me that he was tired of living and that he wanted to commit suicide. Our mother was jobless, and sometimes we would go without food for even two days.
Raising money for school fees was such a big problem, that my siblings and I would be out of school for weeks. When my brother told me he would commit suicide, I thought he was joking, only for him to jump into the path of train in Dandora, (a Nairobi suburb) which ran over him, killing him. As an 11-year-old, I felt so helpless, I could not believe it. I have been haunted ever since by my brother’s horrific death.”
His mother’s health started deteriorating in 2016.
“She was in and out of the hospital for six months. At around this time, my elder sister was diagnosed with a heart problem and admitted at Kenyatta National Hospital. When my mother’s condition worsened, she was admitted at Nairobi Women’s hospital.”
Between April and May 2016, Wanyoike was a deeply troubled man. Crisscrossing the city from their home in City Carton, a slum in Buruburu, to visit his ailing mother and sister in the hospital became his daily routine.
“My wife was expecting our second child at the time and could not work. That left me as the only breadwinner and caregiver. My grandmother, who lived with us in the same neighbourhood was too old to help out,” he recounts.
His mother and sister were still admitted in hospital when his wife, Caroline Wanjiru, went into labour.
“We took her to Pumwani Maternity Hospital but she developed complications and was referred to Kenyatta National Hospital where she was admitted.”
Wanyoike’s difficulty had tripled.
“I now had a sick mother, sister and wife in hospital all looking to me to fend for them and take care of them. I was sure that I would go mad.”
He would occasionally inform his sister how their mother was fairing. When she passed away, after a month in the hospital, Wanyoike was hesitant to break the sad news to his sister, afraid that it would make her iller. He, therefore, lied to her that their mother was making good progress. He contemplated over the matter for three days, unsure of what to do.
“I feared the news might shock her to death. Finally, I decided to consult relatives. They left the matter to me, though they pointed out that it was too risky to break such bad news to a cardiac patient. I sought the opinion of doctors, who told me that it would make no difference to tell or not to tell her about our mother’s death,” he says.
Wanyoike eventually delivered the news.
“Surprisingly, she was composed and seemed to sympathize with me more than she was concerned about her own grief. We were the only remaining children in our family and she feared what would happen to me if she also died, but assured me that all would be well.”
But all was not well. Soon after he broke the news to his sister, Winrose Njeri, her health deteriorated and six days later, she passed away. Wanyoike was now the only surviving member of his family.
“I did not get to mourn my mother’s or my sister’s death because soon after, my wife had delivered through caesarean section, which further complicated matters. I was running around organising my mother’s burial, taking care of my wife and looking for money to clear my dead sister’s hospital bill. It was the most demoralising period of my life,” he recounts.
After his family and friends managed to fundraise the hospital bill of more than Sh500,000, Wanyoike’s mother was finally buried two weeks after her death. Three days later, his sister was also interred.
“My wife did not attend either burial since she had not been discharged from hospital; doctors needed to monitor her condition, but she was recovering well.”
In April this year, another shocker would hit Wanyoike. His grandmother, Ruth Wanjiku, 80, succumbed to pulmonary embolism (sudden blockage of an artery in the lung, usually by a blood clot). Her death blew the last shred of hope he had been nursing to recover from the devastation of the year before. If Wanyoike had withstood the twin tragedies of his mother and sister’s departure, the setback of losing his grandmother further put him on the back foot. He was distraught, tossed into hopelessness and effectively robbed of his only remaining reliable support.
“Since the death of my mother, my grandmother had been the source of financial and emotional support for my family. Whenever I was unable to raise school fees for my son, she would step in and help us. Sometimes she even paid our rent. She was all we had, but she was now gone. It was unbelievable. I was shattered and lacked the will to go on with life,” he said.
But even in her death, it seemed his grandmother was still looking out for him. In the months that followed, Wanyoike and his family lived off his grandmother’s pension; she was a retired bank employee. Jobless and hopeless, Wanyoike even tried his hand at being a tout.
“Early last year, I was desperate to find a job. I found one as a tout at a Buruburu bus-stop. A tout’s job is a dangerous one for a first-timer. I was taken advantage of, such that while some of the more experienced touts earned a minimum of Sh800 a day, I was only making between Sh150 and Sh200 per day, which was not enough to support my family. The touts I found there were inhumane, and would swindle me of my dues. Sometimes they even assaulted me. I gave up after two months.”
He is firmly back to his deejaying job, which he works hard at, even though he is far from where he would like to be.
“What keeps me going is that I have a young family to look after. My two sons, five and two years, give me the strength to keep going. Their welfare is a responsibility I cannot shirk. I may not look up to them for strength, but they look up to me for their survival, so I cannot afford to give up. I have to keep trying to be better every day despite the difficulties. In them I see regeneration of my departed family.”
“Carol has stood with me through the hard times and always encouraged me whenever I was at breaking point. She is not just my wife, but my pillar of strength,” Wanyoike says.
He adds: “This is not the kind of tragedy that one would go through and still stand tall. I have learnt through this difficult time that the moment you lose hope, you are on your way to destruction. I have battled suicidal thoughts and been tempted to turn to alcohol, and crime, to earn a better living, but thankfully, through my wife’s support, I have managed to keep going, to keep hoping.”
“My experiences have taught me that those around you may encourage and support you when tragedy overwhelms you, this is not enough; you have to encourage yourself and stand up for yourself too. If you choose to remain positive despite all the unpleasant experiences, the burden becomes a bit bearable,” he says.
“I have chosen to be strong for myself and my family, and I hope that my story has encouraged someone who may be going through a difficult period in his or her life. If what I have been through did not break me, why should what you’re going through discourage you?”
Additional Reporting by DN2