Working in a mortuary is one of the jobs that does not feature on the list of options for many job-seekers, especially women.
But Eva Ngima, 34, prides herself in being the lead and only female mortician at Nyeri County Referral Hospital, a large and busy facility in Mt Kenya region.
She is used to the humming freezers, the closing of drawers and the pungent, sneeze-inducing smell of 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 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 found her calling to work among the dead. Her desire is to give the dead the respect they deserve.
“I would 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,” she said.
At one time after her mother’s death, she applied for the mortician’s job, but was asked to rethink the decision. Another chance arose in a private hospital in Nyeri, but she was rejected because of her gender.
I finally got the job
Not one to give up easily, her breakthrough was in the same year. In the interview, there were 18 men and only two women. Days turned into weeks and months but she did not give up.
“I had tried to get jobs in different mortuaries, but it was hard. I finally got the job and I have never looked back,” she told the Nation in an interview.
Her normal routine involves receiving bodies, preserving, preparing them for post- mortem, cleaning and dressing them up, and finally releasing them to the next-of- kin for burial. The bodies are from accident victims and patients who die while undergoing treatment at the hospital.
Ms Ngima’s day starts at 5am as she prepares to take her youngest child to school. When she gets to work around 7.30am, her first duty is to check bills and documents like burial permits and death certificates.
“The process of embalming takes up to an hour depending with the number of bodies we 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. Then cleaning of the rooms starts.
“One of the reasons I wanted this job was because the sanitation of the public mortuary then, was bad. I always ensure I keep the place clean,” she says.
“Many believe that public mortuaries are very dirty and smelly; that is what I want to change in the Nyeri mortuary,” Ms Ngima says.
Just like any other job, she says that her work has challenges. Understandably, most people recoil in fright at her tales on experience with dead bodies. Those known to her say she was out of her mind to choose the job.
However, Ms Ngima says her biggest motivation are those who understand that the job educates her children, feeds her family and pays her bills.
On different occasions, her guests have refused to eat meat in her home, for reasons known to them, she says. But the support from her children and family is enough motivation.
Describing herself as prayerful, Ms Ngima says: “I’ve been called names and barred from attending some functions on grounds that I might take there spirits of the dead with me.”
By CYNTHIA WAMBUGU Daily Nation