Cardiologist Dan Gikonyo details his encounters with freedom fighter Charles Rubia and the police. This article is extracted from his forthcoming autobiography.
Kenya and the world learnt of politician Charles Rubia’s demise with great sorrow.
He was one of the notable selfless fathers of the country’s second liberation, having been incarcerated by Daniel Moi’s regime.
My first encounter with Mr Rubia was back in 1990, when the whistle for multiparty democracy was blown.
I happened to be the family’s physician and by that time, I had already met Ken Matiba when his wife Edith was hospitalised at The Nairobi Hospital, after her brutal politically-motivated attack at their home in Riara Ridge in Limuru, Kiambu County.
As fate would have it, the two, Rubia and Matiba, were arrested by the repressive Moi regime due to their agitation for multiparty democracy days before the Saba Saba Day of July 7, 1990.
FEAR OF REPRISAL
While in detention, Rubia wrote a letter to the State seeking to have his personal physician allowed to visit him.
The police officer in charge of detainees, a Mr Kinoti, brought a handwritten letter from Rubia to me in person to our Nairobi Heart Clinic located on third floor of Nairobi Hospital’s consultancy block. He asked if I would be willing to see Rubia in detention.
During this time, many people, including physicians, feared to be seen openly associating with leaders and human rights activists who were perceived to be ‘anti-Moi’.
Notable figures including lawyers Gibson Kamau Kuria and John Khaminwa were detained, harassed or intimidated.
After my acceptance, it took Mr Kinoti a number of days before he could get consent from the State allowing me to visit Rubia.
The day came, and at 10pm a plainclothes police officer who was driving an unmarked Peugeot 404 station wagon came to Nairobi Hospital to pick me.
I had readily packed my medical bag in which I had put a stethoscope, weighing balance to record his weight, a tape measure for measuring his waistline, urine and stool specimen bottle, syringes and injecting needles.
The officer asked me to follow him in my car. We drove out of The Nairobi Hospital compound and turned right to Ralph Bunche Road and then to Ngong Road.
We then turned right and drove to the Traffic Police headquarters.
On arrival at the station, I was instructed to park my car in the yard and wait.
After about 20 minutes, the officer ordered me to come out of my car and enter into a different Peugeot 404 station wagon, ready to leave to where Rubia was being held.
From the traffic headquarters, the officer drove me down Ngong Road towards Uhuru Highway-Mombasa Road roundabout.
I thought that we were going to Jomo Kenyatta [International] Airport as I suspected that Rubia could be in detention in Mombasa or Kisumu.
However, on reaching Nairobi West roundabout, we turned right on Lang’ata Road.
As we approached the Carnivore place, we took the turning for Wilson Airport and I thought we were due to take a night flight using a light aircraft.
ONLY ENGLISH OR KISWAHILI
Local flights normally are not allowed during the night and can be very dangerous.
But what could I do? I had already agreed to meet and examine the health of my patient.
We packed outside the main entrance to the airport. I was left alone in the car as the policemen walked inside the airport compound.
After waiting for about half an hour, one of the officers came to pick me up. They requested me to carry my medical bag.
We went into the airport and he led me through dimly-lit rooms. Inside a third room was Rubia, seated on a wooden chair.
The dusty room was spacious but only with a large table in the middle. There were about 10 men who you could easily tell were policemen.
“Doctor, here is your patient,” one of the policemen started the conversation. “But you must speak to him in Kiswahili or English,” he added.
I interpreted that to mean that I was not allowed to speak to Rubia in his Gikuyu language.
PATIENT IN BAD SHAPE
I had met Rubia both at the clinic and Muthaiga Central Club where he was the chairman.
However, the Rubia I met in custody on that night was a far cry from the one I knew. He was a man in bad shape.
From a doctor’s clinical observation, he looked exhausted, tired, and he had lost much weight.
Equally, his hair was haggard, out of going for days without grooming. He was wearing a simple shirt, jacket and a pair of trousers, and his shoes were quite dusty.
From a psychological perspective, he appeared to have been longing to meet somebody he could closely trust — like a personal physician.
Immediately he saw me, his face visibly brightened up. During my three-hour examination, I asked him how he was feeling and he answered that he had difficulty breathing and his chest was wheezing.
As he told me, this was from poor sleeping conditions – he was made to sleep on a cold dusty floor without adequate bedding.
There was no bed to lean his head on, so I asked the officers for a bed sheet which I improvised to a medical examination couch.
I proceeded to take blood samples, blood pressure, blood sugar, kidney and thyroid functions, among other vital examinations.
By the time I was through with the procedure, it was almost 2am, and time to say goodbye to my patient.
I promised him that I would write a report requesting the State to provide him a bed and fruits for breakfast.
With a heavy heart, I bade him farewell and in turn he asked me to pass his regards to his dear family.
I promised him that I would return to give him the medical report and to do further consultation on him.
It took over two weeks to be allowed to see Rubia for a second time. During the second visit, police movement was as intangibly dramatic as the first one.
It began with my waiting at my office up to 10pm. Police came in for me in an unmarked vehicle and drove me to the Traffic Police headquarters on Ngong Road.
I was made to wait at the parking yard for them to consult and come and escort me to the venue of my medical examination.
However, this time I was called out of my car and I came out carrying my medical bag.
I expected to be taken to a waiting car but to my surprise I was ushered into the police station.
I was walked through several rooms and into one big one. Here I found Rubia in the company of his wife, Mrs Rubia. She had brought him food.
Informed by the doctor’s medical report, the government had given him better sleeping conditions and fruits.
However, on further medical examination, he had more wheezing and needed a computerised tomography scan to examine the chest.
Mr Kinoti asked me if the scan could be done inside the police station. It was not possible, and furthermore there were only two CT scanners in Nairobi at the time.
I advised that we have it done across the road at The Nairobi Hospital as it was a walking distance from the police station.
Even for that, Mr Kinoti explained, he needed clearance from the State. It took weeks to have the clearance approved.
And when it was under the condition that we could only do the procedure under night fall.
During the CT scan, there were half a dozen police officers in plainclothes in the medical room.
I could see the face of the radiologist (Dr V.K Talwar) change as he scrutinised the images. The CT scan revealed a tumour in the chest.
The following day, a Saturday, my secretary, Ms Lucy Njeri Kaba, and I prepared a medical report.
I had asked Mr Kinoti to pick a copy by 10am. It was ready with my recommendations that Rubia needed an immediate surgery to remove the tumour in the chest.
Mr Kinoti must have taken the report to the powers that be the same morning. In the 1pm news bulletin it was announced that Rubia has been released from detention.
Thereafter, he underwent chest surgery at London Bridge Hospital. It turned out that the tumour was not cancerous but a large retro-sternal thyroid mass that had grown downwards below the sternum.
After the surgery, Rubia returned to Nairobi but had suffered damage to his voice, which he did not recover fully from.
Had he been a free man, doctors would have done the surgery earlier with less complications. In all, he suffered that we may be free.
Dr Gikonyo is a cardiologist and director and co-founder of The Karen Hospital.