Child hidden

This is the second edition of an ongoing series. Look for the third edition in next Monday’s Daily.

by Kathryn Nelson

By all accounts, Kevin Masengeli was born a normal child. But his possession began one year later and by his sixth birthday, he went down.

That’s what his grandmother, Norah Nasambu told me at the hospital.

She is the only one that can tell his story, yet she is the one that tried to stifle it.

Kevin was found by Red Cross volunteers during a hut-to-hut malaria campaign. A villager told them there was a boy living nearby who was possessed by the devil and needed to be rid of because he was bringing a curse upon the community.

The volunteers waited over 12 hours before reporting the situation to the district office, and it wasn’t until the next morning that we gathered a stretcher and left for the village.

It was only my second week in Kenya. I had been working with displaced persons in the war-torn area of Mount Elgon and had already experienced more than enough violence.

But what I saw in that hut disturbed me more than anything I have ever seen in my life.

A crowd gathered in front of a small mud hut and prepared to get Kevin and bring him to the hospital. As each volunteer passed through the doorway they let out a loud gasp.

The time came for me to enter, and I ducked down to fit under the door frame. I was immediately hit with stale, dirty, suffocating air.

Crouched in the corner of the hut was Kevin. He was naked and wrapped in a feces-infested blanket. Huge festering wounds covered his body and wept blood. His muscles looked like they had curled up inside his skin, leaving his mangled arms stuck to his torso. He weighed no more than 70 pounds.

I swear I could see his heart beating underneath his paper skin.

I have never in my life, before or after Africa, been so starkly confronted with such abominable violence and neglect.

At that moment I lost my belief in God, in humanity and in myself.

We carried him on our stretcher and brought him out from the darkness into the light of day, a place he hadn’t been in years.

I knew I had to take a photo, gather some sort of documentation to show others. I was convinced that if people saw Kevin, they could save him. That’s what I wanted to believe.

I started snapping photos of him, dozens and dozens of them.

I stayed crouched down next to him for what seemed like a lifetime. His eyes rolled around inside their sunken sockets and he only groaned at me.

We made eye contact and stared at each other for just a moment too long to forget.

Kevin was admitted to the Bungoma District Hospital, a collection place for the most ill and desperate.

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the building every morning waiting to be admitted. They let me just walk in.

The stench of death and chemicals lingered in the air. Buildings housing typhoid and tuberculosis patients were situated next to the child and maternity wards. People with swollen faces, rotting flesh and infected wounds were all around me.

For the first time since I moved to Kenya, I began to sob uncontrollably. This was not a world I wanted to see. There was no hope for these people. This hospital was a revolving door of death, and I couldn’t save a single soul.

I walked into the emergency ward where Kevin was staying. His body was so contorted that he needed two blankets to cover himself.

His grandmother Norah only spoke a tribal language, and it was virtually impossible to understand what she was saying. Slowly though, we began to collect the story of Kevin Masengeli.

Born out of wedlock, his mother cared for him for several years, until the convulsions started. She left him alone with his grandmother and never returned, dying several months later, most likely of AIDS.

As the devil continued to afflict him, Norah could no longer handle the stress and began to leave him alone in the hut. First for days, then for months.

His violent attacks became more dangerous and injuries to his brain began to develop. He hit his head on the ground so many times that he became mute and his contortions caused severe muscular atrophy.

Several months before we found him, he was poisoned, but lived.

Kevin was starved so severely that he would chew on the tips of his grandmother’s fingertips.

She just wanted her trouble to die.

At the hospital, I asked Norah why she would treat her own flesh and blood like an animal.

“So that the burden may go,” she said.

That night I went to the only club in town. I ordered a liter of vodka and bottles of Coke. I drank until I couldn’t see straight. I stumbled home and ripped my leg open on a rusty nail.

I still have that scar. I look at it every day and think of Kevin. It’s the only tangible mark of his life in this world.

I continued to visit him in the hospital every day because I needed hope. I wanted him to get up and walk with me, away from this godforsaken country.

But he didn’t. When I left him two months later he was scheduled to return to his hut with his grandmother.

There wasn’t an orphanage to take him, or money to pay.

It turned out that he was epileptic, but couldn’t collect the medications to keep him stable.

He was sentenced to his deathbed at the age of 17.

My life is divided by a fault line. There is only the before and after, and I have lost myself in the blur.

It’s like the night at the bar in Kenya. Everything is moving around me, but I can’t find where I fit in the midst.

I lost myself the day I abandoned Kevin, and now I’m left to pick up the pieces of a shattered soul.

Kathryn Nelson is the Daily’s projects editor. She welcomes comments at [email protected].