- When Dr Ken Muma wakes up, he is already late.
- After a snappy shower, he will spend hours in the theatre, scalpel in hand; incising and mumbling instructions behind a surgical mask.
When Dr Ken Muma wakes up, he is already late. After a snappy shower, he will spend hours in the theatre, scalpel in hand; incising and mumbling instructions behind a surgical mask. After he throws his used gloves in the bin, he will step into an administrative meeting. He is the Director-General of Kijabe Mission Hospital, a 350-bed facility that performs about 10,000 surgical procedures per year and sees over 130,000 outpatients, mostly women, and children.
In the afternoon he will be back in theatre, mostly until the sun sets behind the picturesque hospital hills. When his children (aged 9 and 6) have scooted off to sleep, the pediatric surgeon with an MBA from Strathmore Business School and currently pursuing Master of Arts in Bioethics, then sits on his computer for more work until 3am. When he stirs awake at 6am, the good doctor will already be running late again. But he has something to show for his 10-year clinical experience; 5,000 surgeries.
He met JACKSON BIKO. He is a pseudo-eccentric, built like an ex-rugby player (he played once), and has little apologies left to make in his bag of apologies.
Is there something in your childhood that greatly informed who you are now?
Yes, my interactions with my mother. Our conversations always evoked thought-provoking questions like; what does serving humanity mean? But she never had answers. My dad, an engineer with Kenya Power, was a strict disciplinarian. His harshness was well known in Kongowea, Mombasa where I grew up. Mom was a teacher so we were the classic urban family, where a mother was always there during the holidays and a father was hardly seen because he was the guy who works full-time.
If my dad didn’t rule with an iron-fist I wouldn’t be here today because I think discipline is about delayed gratification, doing things today so that you can benefit tomorrow. That was my dad’s way of parenting.
How are you and your father alike?
I have followed his philosophy. I believe in discipline. I’m an unapologetic disciplinarian in my household. So this new movement of establishing consensus with your children, I don’t believe in it. I think children should be guided towards a value system. By the time you’re talking about reasoning with your child, it is those late years where you have harnessed a certain value system and way of thinking. I picked that from my dad. Some people regard it as a weakness, because then maybe I’m still irrelevant for today’s kind of parenting, but I think if it worked on me, it will work for me.
What are you least proud of in your life now?
Wow. [Pause] I think I could achieve more. There’s always a nagging thing in me that there’s something more or a higher impact to humanity I could be giving. I do not know what that is yet. I think I should have had more impact by now nationally, be in a place where we’re addressing healthcare issues from a national perspective.
What has your experience as a surgeon dealing with children taught you?
That we all have a child in us and that solutions are simpler than we make them. We complicate things as adults. Life is simpler than we think. I have also learnt that when you address a child’s problems you’re taking care of a community’s problem. Understanding problems in the context of a community, rather than in the context of an individual is very important.
Where do you derive your greatest gratification?
When I do something that my inner conscience tells me is right. I get a lot of joy from that because as a Christian I’m guided by our Maker.
What personal traits do you have that you’d like to change?
I can’t say I’d like to change, but the fact that I can be very brutal – or direct. I don’t know how to sugarcoat. When I am saying something, diplomacy or the feelings of others is always secondary. When you do something great I will celebrate you, I’m very loyal to my people. But in the same token, that same passion and energy, when you have done something that is not great, I will say it with equal fervour and unapologetically.
What were some of the lessons you learnt in the two years you were working in Sudan?
If I hadn’t gone to Sudan I would have regretted it because the reason I became a doctor was to work in warzones like in Angola. It was my childhood dream being answered and it was one of my most rewarding times in my career. I matured there. Can you imagine if you have a population that does not know systems? And whose problems are solved through violence?
My greatest lesson was learning to talk to people and understanding where they’re coming from. Engaging people at their level and not my level.
Have you found the meaning of life?
Not yet. You know the book of Job says that, after all, this is vanity. [Chuckles] I can’t say I have reached that point where I find out. Am I curious about life, this thing we call level seven thinking? Who am I? That meditative moment? No. I think I’m more practical. I’m a man of here and now. I am very solution-oriented to the current problems and current realities.
Because you save people from the jaws of death, do you sometimes suffer from God Complex?
Of course, once in a while I fall short. But you constantly have to remind yourself that the source of all evil is pride. But yes, that’s an ever-existing reality. I think there are pros and cons of being a surgeon in Africa. The systemic weaknesses make doctors sort of destined to a certain fate.
You are a surgeon, to mean you are in the life and death business. Do you think death is a woman or a man?
Death is a woman. Why? Because death can be very brutal if she chooses to, just like a woman. As a woman, death knows what it wants and it goes for it. And it’s difficult to stand in their [women] way when they are set on something.
Does losing a patient ever reflect on your mortality? Does it make you less or more scared of dying?
The experience you have as a clinician and the experience you have as a patient are vastly different. It’s amazing how every time I fall sick, or when my child falls sick, my instinct is still the human instinct. You don’t get better at handling death because of this job, and this is despite you having so much information. Your child is still your child, your wife is still your wife. And you still go into panic mode.
Are you a romantic?
No. (Laughs) My wife will tell you that I’m very practical. She’ll tell you if you’re expecting roses, sweetheart in the morning, a kiss, a peck, a hug in public, that’s not me. I’m very official. I look for solutions. I’m a lover not a romantic. I love my wife. I love my children. I love with practicality. I have been married for 13 years now. There’s one thing I’ve learnt about relationships; there’s no formula for love.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?
I’m a 10. I’m a happy man. I’m content. A very simple man.