The first thing that hits anyone approaching the Nairobi City Mortuary doors is the smell. Workers who have to endure the stench of decomposing human bodies describe it as a living hell.
Coolers at Nairobi’s biggest mortuary have been out of order for more than a week, making the mortuary resemble a scene from a horror movie.
Rotting bodies piled high, some of them unclaimed for months and providing breeding grounds for maggots, rats and other vermin, make for a traumatising experience for both workers and relatives of the dead. Staff have taken to deadening their sense of smell with frequent shots of alcohol.
Relatives of the dead are fainting in shock when they see the state of the bodies of their loved ones.
On Tuesday afternoon, mortuary superintendent Jacob Nyongesa conceded that things were not good, but added that the “situation is under control”.
However, the statement was in stark contrast with the situation Nation journalists encountered at the mortuary the same day.
A strong smell of death welcomed us at the gate of the mortuary where most bodies of the common people end up. They include murder and car accident victims and those of tragedies and police shootings.
Rotting, bloated bodies lay on concrete slabs and in the chambers of the coolers.Our photographer almost suffocated from the overpowering stench and rushed out begging for milk.
Another colleague refused to go any closer.
The workers complained of headaches and psychological torture. Some choose to go to work drunk.
Workers who cannot be named for fear of reprisals described the conditions as “pathetic” and “dangerous” and the worst ever in their work as mortuary attendants. The City Mortuary, located on Ngong Road near the Mbagathi Road round-about is run by the City Council of Nairobi.
When we contacted Town Clerk Philip Kisia, he referred us to the council’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr Robert Ayisi.
“The machines broke down last week and we spent the whole day last Friday fixing them. The motors were spoilt and we used Sh2.5 million to fix them,” said Dr Ayisi.
But mortuary superintendent Mr Nyongesa said the machines broke down on Saturday, a day after they were allegedly repaired.
“Fans in the drawers broke down in one of the chambers carrying 24 bodies. The Medical Officer for Health provided Sh200,000 which we used to fix them on Sunday (February 5),” said Mr Nyongesa.
However, our visit on early Wednesday morning established that the machines were still out of order.
This is not the first time that the city mortuary that was built in 1956 to cater for 145 bodies is in the news for the wrong reasons.
In February 2010, workers at the mortuary went on strike to demand arrears on a special allowance unpaid for two months. In March 2002, striking workers attacked mourners as they demonstrated over non-payment of allowances and other grievances.
In September 2010, some relatives of the dead arrived at the mortuary to find mutilated bodies with parts missing.
Last year in July, the Ministry of Medical Services withdrew pathologists from the mortuary because of poor working conditions.
The pathologists were instructed to stop working until the city council provided them with protective gear, clean toilets and bathrooms and a changing room.
Despite the importance of the mortuary, which health officials say handles more than 60 per cent of the dead in Nairobi, there has been little expansion since 1956.
The only time it got a considerable facelift with support from the US government, according to Dr Ayisi, was in the aftermath of the 1998 Nairobi Bomb Blast. The facelift enabled it to store most of the more than 200 people killed in the terror attack.
Land set aside for expansion was ‘grabbed’ by powerful public servants during the Moi era and now contains a private housing estate.
In May 2011, the City Council commissioned the first major renovations of the chambers. (READ: Council: Sh15bn budget to better residents' life)
According to Mr Kisia, the chambers were renovated at a cost of Sh15.8 million enabling them to handle 48 more bodies.
The council blames the bad situation at the mortuary to the rising numbers of tragedies, police cases and high operational costs.
Last year, Mr Kisia told Nation that the mortuary makes Sh30 million a year but the council spends Sh300 million to run it. Preserving a body at the mortuary costs at least Sh500 per day.
It can accommodate 160 bodies but currently, its records have 214 bodies. These do not include 29 Sinai fire victims whose bodies are yet to be collected.
“A number were burnt beyond recognition and promises to identify them using DNA are yet to be fulfilled. We have requested for permission to bury them,” Dr Ayisi said. Last weekend alone, the mortuary buried 60 uncollected bodies to reduce the congestion.
By NYAMBEGA GISESA