In Summary
  • Under the tutorship of psychiatrist Cosmas Mutundu, Mbugua deepened his knowledge in handling patients.
  • Mbugua rates the recuperation and successful reintegration rate of the patients he has interacted with at 60 per cent, and they are already on their own feet.
  • Mbugua recently received an international award from Men Impact Change, an American-based institution that recognises outstanding individuals worldwide.

For the past 10 years, Timothy Mbugua has arrived at his jewellery shop in Wangige town, Kiambu County, every morning to a familiar scene — one or two people waiting for him.

But they are not his customers.

The visitors, mostly bedraggled and restless, have showed up for a drop of hope, mostly a meal, at other times a haircut, or just to have a scabbed wound bandaged.

They also have deeper “wounds”. But what they want in the immediate hour is something to eat; the emotional band-aid works better when the tummy is no longer in a civil war.

In the course of the day, more visitors will show up. Nearly all of them are men suffering from mental illnesses or trying to overcome drug addiction.

Mbugua, 51, and his small shop are the palliative they seek.

The early callers nod in greetings and sit on a wooden pew. They hunger for Mbugua’s thick porridge, which he carries in a jerrycan. He pours it into waiting mugs.

DRUG ABUSE

The conversation is not always coherent but the men respect Mbugua.

In the meantime, he arranges his merchandise — rings, chains and faux-gold armlets — while his stereo blares with upbeat music.

Indeed, every marketplace (or town) has one or several broken minds, and this couldn’t be truer than in Wangige town.

They walk fast, barefoot, stopping now and then to ask for a coin or beg for a cigarette off a smoker’s lips. They roam the busy market talking to unseen people.

They are motley — young, middle-aged, and elderly. At night they sleep under parked trucks, empty market stalls and shacks.

Some analysts attribute this to proliferation of cheap drugs that have ravaged minds, while keepers of traditions blame it on “family curses”.

But no matter the cause, the sick are at home at Mbugua’s.

During the interview, a woman rushes into Mbugua’s shop and says: “A man has gone berserk in the middle of town."

She wants Mbugua to go calm him down. Mbugua pulls a pair of surgical gloves, lights a cigarette and smiles. “This is my life,” he announces.

STUDIES CUT SHORT

They call him the “madmen’s man”. The moniker is not entirely derisive, rather a reference to Mbugua’s unique work. In fact, Mbugua finds it honorific.

Hardly anyone would have anything with these people, but Mbugua, a trained clinician, has a backdrop that can be summed up in a line from a famous one-act play by Thornton Wilder titled"The Angel that Troubled the Waters".

So how did he find himself here? For more than a decade, Mbugua, who was born in Uasin Gishu County, was mentally ill.

In 1987, Mbugua, a promising student, won a scholarship to Moscow State University in Russia to study medicine.

The young man looked forward to returning to Kenya to practise medicine but three weeks to graduation day, an incident that would forever alter the trajectory of a promising future scuttled those plans.

“I was at a party and we were having drinks,” Mbugua narrates. He suspects that someone poured an unknown substance into his soda.

The next thing he knew he was on a Kenyan-bound plane, the entirety of his belongings squeezed into a small travel bag.

DARK CHAPTER

It is an episode that baffles him yet, but his adopted view is, “You can’t undo some things; you live with the accident but leave the scene of the crash.”

Mbugua was admitted to Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital.

Upon discharge, he moved back home to Uasin Gishu. But soon he was on the road, unaware of his surroundings, only to find himself in Wangige.

Looking back, Mbugua sees it as destiny pointing out the way.

The decade between the mid-1990s and the close of 2000s is a tabula rasa, and the spotty details he has since gathered are those scribbled by people who knew him and took him in during this dark chapter.

“I am told I slept in trenches, on cold corridor floors,” Mbugua says. But he says it is just as well that he is unable to summon the experience himself.

In the deleted scenes, he walked the streets, this hulk of a man, sometimes laughing at no prodding, and other times livid at the world.

But mostly he kept by himself. He lived like a nestless bird. “I had gone mad, and I don’t remember a thing from that terrible period. Friends tell me about it, and I cannot recall the files,” says Mbugua.

TREATMENT

It is this kindness of these strangers and care from doctors and nurses that brought him back from the brink of full-blown mental illness.

Later, a psychiatrist advised that aside from whatever scrabbled Mbugua’s mind in Moscow, he was also bipolar, and he put him on a treatment regimen.

The medication worked and by 2008, Mbugua was declared fit to rejoin society.

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