Which stars need to align to set up the events that will lead a half Arab, half Ugandan, Kenyan, born and bred in Bungoma to become the most sought-after postpartum masseur in Nairobi?
Is it her culture, heritage, upbringing, gifted hands, personal experiences, Nairobi or a combination of all that? You are about to find out.
She is called Mama Kanda, the reviews of her work precede her. My wife started talking about her when she was expectant with our second born but she knew about her way before that. She talked of a lady who does massage for mothers within 2 to 8 weeks after delivery. She was hinting that she wanted to try out her services after the delivery of Kolya. And she did. Five sessions of 45 minutes each day for five days is what she got.
My wife’s review of mama Kanda started on a surprising note especially after the first hot water therapy, which was utterly new to her, by the end of the week she was preaching ‘every mother who has delivered needs this’. Her back pain was gone and her tummy looked smaller by a few inches.
On the 3rd day of my wife’s sessions I happened to be in the house when mama Kanda arrived. Kolya was nursing and so as she waited, we got chatting for a few minutes. The decision to write this article was born out of that 5-minute conversation.
On a typical day, mama Kanda’s itinerary can only be rivalled by that of a bodaboda delivery guy in regard to the number of times she has to crisscross Nairobi. She wakes up at 4.40am every morning and is out of the house by 5.30am. She would begin with her farthest client, say in Syokimau, then go to South C, then Kilimani, then Lavington, then finish with the nearest one to her home, say Kahawa West on Thika Road, then proceed home, using public transport and taxi where necessary. By 3-4pm she would be back home, refreshed and working on her family’s dinner and or maybe a cake order for a client.
But the story of how she reached there is fascinating.
She came to Nairobi at the end of 2014 after her 10-year old marriage had gone under.
“I wanted to leave but I didn’t know where to start, I had fears of where to go to and what would happen to my two small children. But I eventually decided to leave because I couldn’t stay in a toxic environment. I left my kids and a struggling business, took a small suitcase and landed at my brother’s place in Nairobi” she recalls.
That separation from her kids, though temporary and necessary, was most painful to her since she had never been away from them. Her husband knew she had come to look for work to support him in providing for the family.
But she didn’t know Nairobi was about show her the dark side of its soul. Her Mass Communication degree from Uganda wasn’t opening any doors for her and so she settled for any work she could get.
“I was just hoping for any job, but I realized I needed connections in this concrete jungle.”
Her Bungoma naivety had been exposed, she had told herself that her hardworking and industrious disposition will surely land her somewhere in the city, but Nairobi gave her that ‘we don’t do that here’ response.
“I contemplated selling samosas on the street but my brother discouraged me, saying that something will come up. He really supported me in that season. But it was tough. I had no job and I really wanted my kids but I couldn’t have them” she remembers.
Her kids came to visit her in Nairobi in April 2015 and when she didn’t go back with them, as she had promised, he knew that it was over between them. The subtle message had been delivered.
Meanwhile in Nairobi she would cook for friends and friends of friends for a small fee but payment wasn’t good and others would delay her pay.
“I am a good cook” she confesses. “My Arab and Ugandan heritage exposed me to so many different dishes and as a family we love our food and we do it well.”
One day her sister in law dragged her to a baby shower. She sat at a corner, observing the excited ladies making merry and talking about labor and delivery but nobody was preparing the new mum for the journey ahead.
“They concentrated on the labor part which will come to an end and then what will happen to this woman? All of a sudden she will be transformed from a girl to a mum, and still be a wife, and have her personal life. That transition is the hardest part for a new mum” she recalls thinking.
“I requested to say something and began to talk to the new mum-to-be about all the changes that will happen to her. I talked about leaking boobs and them getting engorged because of too much milk. I told her how to take care of herself post-delivery.”
Mama Kanda narrated her own child delivery experience to the expectant girl. She recalled feeling like she had been ‘run over by a trailer’. When she got home, her aunty from Uganda did the heat therapy on her and massaged her body and before long she was back to herself.
“You need to have your mama Kanda, somebody who will massage you well so that the pain can be bearable” she explained the expectant girl. “Nobody had heard about these things, to me it was normal, but the other ladies in the baby shower were looking at me like I was speaking Japanese.”
She had sold it well and the mum-to-be wanted in for a small fee that they agreed on.
She was elated to have some work to do. After the girl delivered, mama Kanda would visit her every morning, perform the heat therapy, massage her, bind a belt around her waist, bathe and massage the baby. She had fifteen sessions in total with her.
“At this time had you done it before?” I ask
“Just for friends and family but not for money. I had never thought of it as a business idea” she responds.
The new mum recovered quite fast, her big tummy went down considerably, her pain disappeared and she had enough of milk for the baby. Her friends were surprised to see the changes in her pictures just some weeks after delivery.
“She called me one evening saying that her friend had delivered and she was in a lot of pain and wanted my services” she recalls. Of course mama Kanda was up to it, what else would she be doing? But now at a different fee because she needed to make some profit out of it.
She visited the second mother and her services left her feeling exuberant. Guess what happened next? You are right, she told her friends about it.
I can hear mama Kanda laugh on the other side of the phone as we talk. She understands that’s the moment ‘mama Kanda’ was born. The turning point, the moment her Nairobi dream got some footing, the moment that light began to shine again. You know that time in life when colors are profound, when you hear the birds sing and let insects live, she was there and that laughter said it all.
It was early 2016, more than one year since she landed in Nairobi. She found herself having two clients in a week, then three, then four and life was changing.
Our conversation drifts into the other things that were happening in her life around that time. Like she was offered a job as a tea girl in a certain company. She nearly took it but she looked at the income against the time spent there and she refused. Her friends could not understand her. They urged her to just take it ‘kujishikilia tu’ as she waits for something but she couldn’t bulge.
“If I took that job I wouldn’t have done mama Kanda, I would still be struggling” she explains. “I have never been one for employment, I value my freedom and time to do the things I want to do. I would rather cook for people and teach them how to cook that take that job.”
Fierce focus, even in suffering.
They say great people sacrifice momentary pleasure for the future. They delay self-gratification for the cause of the goal. They pay themselves later. I see that in mama Kanda.
Armed with a mattress and unrelenting hopes she moved to her own place, a bedsitter in Kasarani to start her new life. Her kids joined her.
The referrals were working for mama Kanda but the clients weren’t constant enough so she decided to advertise her services on her page and mum groups on Facebook but nobody paid attention.
“I would get one or two likes. I think Kenyans are too skeptical of new things. I would list all the benefits of my services but no one would respond” she remembers.
Then she asked one of her clients who had been impressed with her service to write a review for her in one of the mum groups. She did and the calls started coming.
“Have you ever been thrown a lifeline? That was me. I was a sinking, drowning woman” she exclaims.
“So that review was your lifeline?” I ask.
“Yes, I would not be here if it wasn’t for mothers who referred me on Facebook and to their friends and family” she has no doubt in her answer.
A few years later my wife would read some of those reviews and mama Kanda would end up in our house and this story would happen. See how it works.
She would give 100% to all her clients, pouring all her heart into her hands and to the mothers, her consistency on both service and punctuality earning her more positive reviews and referrals. And apart from the massage she would go the extra mile and give mothers tips on how to take care of their babies, teaching them how to bathe and massage their babies for free.
“What keeps me going is the fulfillment I get from doing this work” she says. “I work with a vulnerable group, most of them have issues; pelvic pains, back pains, some don’t have milk, some are going into postpartum depression. Then I work with someone for 5 or 10 sessions and they are back on their feet. ‘Mama Kanda unajua sahii hata si limb, unajua sina back pain tena’ they would call and say. That’s why I do this work. I believe it’s not just a skill, but a gift from God.”
She would invest herself so much in the work that she would carry the mothers’ issues home with her. She would even dream about them but she has since learnt to let go and debrief.
“What’s the most memorable or unique experience you have heard with a mother?” I ask.
“Several, I have had scary experience and also good experiences, which one do you want?” She answers.
“Let’s begin with a good one first” the optimist in me responds.
“I had a client who did not have milk and could not bend. Lifting the baby from the bed was impossible for her. She had to sit down gently then someone else brings the baby to her. She could not wash her baby because her back and waist were very bad. I was afraid of performing the therapy on her because I wasn’t sure if it would work. But after 7 sessions this mama was back on her feet. She would call me in the mornings just to thank me and say she was able to wake up at night and breastfeed her baby, or she was able to bathe the baby. The pain was gone.”
“Another woman had gone to hospital and had been given an orthopedic mattress. She was going for physiotherapy sessions for her back, being charged 6k per visit and she wasn’t improving much. She decided to just try my services, almost convinced that it wouldn’t work. I worked with her and her severe lower back pain was gone. She gave me a very good tip.”
“Did you just do your standard therapy on her” I probe.
“Yes the hot water therapy and massage” she answers.
I shake my head in amazement wondering if there’s anything like this for men. I refrain myself from asking that question. Focus man, focus.
“That’s why I said I believe it’s a gift, working with so many mums my hands have become so sensitive, I can literally feel any part of the body that’s tense” she continues.
She is about to talk about a scary experience. Am on the line praying it’s a minor one and nothing too bad. I wouldn’t want to hear of a bad thing happening to a mother who has just delivered. After two kids, and witnessing my wife’s experience, I have become sensitive to such matters and they can get to me.
“There was a new mum I worked with who didn’t have much milk at first. So I would massage, tell her what to eat and the milk started coming. Then she started telling me that the baby is having a problem lurching, maziwa imekuwa too much. When I went to see on the 3rd or 4th session I noticed her boobs were engorged. When I pressed the milk was not coming out a lot. So I told her I thought she was engorged and we need to do a hot water therapy on the boobs to open the ducts and allow the milk to flow. She convinced me she would do it on her own. It was on a Friday, so I did the normal therapy on her and went home. I don’t work on weekends so I went back on Monday and the house help told me that mama is asleep. But the baby was crying and had been crying for a while. I was disturbed so I pushed the door and let myself into the bedroom. The baby was crying and the mama was in bed. She was talking to herself. I took the baby from the cot and lifted the blanket to see her. She was having hallucinations and had a high ever. I immediately got water and started to cool her down as we looked for her sister. The sister came with her husband and took the mama to hospital with her baby.”
Mama Kanda went home very disturbed but thank God she recovered fully. Pheeeww.
She became very cautious. If a mother has too much milk she would make sure its expressed or drained under her watch.
But no work, however godly, doesn’t come without its share of objections and headwinds.
Some are just hilarious; like mothers whose husbands object to the massage and so he has to be out of the house before mama Kanda comes in.
“I could be near the gate and am called to hold on until he leaves for me to come in” she says.
Others see it as a waste of money, I understand them because I had questions on the cost too. Let me just say it’s a premium service whose benefits outweigh the hole in the pocket.
Other objections are medical, especially for CS mothers. Some people will not understand why a mother should undergo such a therapy only 2 weeks after the operation until they hear the experiences of other women.
Postpartum depression in mothers is real and mama Kanda is learning to spot it and help the mothers where she can.
“Many people would cut a pregnant woman a lot of slack, they will say its hormones. But they don’t know that after delivery, the hormones are still all over the place. She is like her pregnant self but even worse; sleep deprived, baby issues, everything is haywire but most people don’t understand, even some mothers don’t understand” she explains.
For such mothers, she has to give more time, inquire about their support system, listen and offer the nuggets of knowledge she has picked up over the years. She would also encourage them to seek more help out there.
“Have you ever gotten a bad review?” I ask.
“Not really. I have had some from trolls using pseudo accounts on Facebook which can be disturbing but I have learnt to ignore them. After the sessions I ask the clients how they feel, what changes they have seen and if there is more to be done, I will go an extra mile and do an extra massage for them if need be” she responds.
Sometimes she has had to stop massages mid-session and insist that the mother goes to hospital if she notices an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.
So what’s next for mama Kanda? How can she scale up this business? How does she create many other mama Kandas out there?
“I trained two girls before so that I can send them to places I cannot reach like Rongai and Kitengela but it didn’t work very well. People insisted they want me” she says.
Rongai people, do you now believe you live in diaspora? If mama Kanda can’t reach you, then you live far. Just accept it.
Mama Kanda dreams of owning a parlor for mums and their children. A sanctuary where a mother can get massaged and pampered while the baby is being taken care of. A place for mothers to release, connect with other mothers and for a while be removed from the endless monotony of baby world.
But capital stands in her way.
She knows it will take a while, and some coming-of-age to turn mama Kanda into a brand that can transcend her. She is still concerned though, mama Kanda is her baby, nurtured by her passion, quality and consistency to become the thing is it today. She wouldn’t want that compromised and it literally gives her chills thinking about it.
But the time for venturing out will come.