My life after the wheelchair

Originally Published: February 20, 2011

A head-on collision in March 2003 involving a police vehicle and a speeding lorry changed Mary Mwangangi’s life. The irony was that Mrs Mwangangi was the top most traffic police officer in the country.

In an instance, one of the most decorated women in the police force fell victim to her nemesis: road carnage. On that afternoon, she was travelling from the Makindu Traffic Bay where she had gone to visit the officers.

As fate would have it, she had not fastened her seat belt. As a result, she spent the next five years of her life in a wheel-chair.

“There are only two things that brought me through that particular period in my life — a loving family and God,” said Mrs Mwangangi.

Broken ribs, hands and legs. On that fateful day her medical file read like an emergency room manual. Nine years later, she still retains a charm and has risen from the ashes like the proverbial Phoenix, although she could not get back to active duty.

“And just like that, my career in the disciplined forces came to a premature end,” said Mrs Mwangangi. But she still dedicates her time to public service as a member of the Public Service Commission.

Swahili accent

A couple of things stand out when she speaks. She makes eye contact and holds her gaze whether answering or asking a question. The other is her coastal Swahili accent. Born and raised in Mombasa, lingering for too long on some consonants or abruptly cutting others comes naturally.

It was in the coastal city that she eventually fell for the police force after a love-hate relationship with the men and women in blue. Love, because she was an officer’s daughter, and hate, because of having experienced police incompetence at some point in her life.

One day, she narrates, her family woke up to an empty car park outside their house. Fearing the worst, her father quickly circulated the details of the missing car to his colleagues via radio.

Soon a search was mounted and the car was located not far from their home at the Mombasa Railway Station.“My dad was really eager to know the kind of thief that was brave enough to steal the chief’s car. So he launched his own investigations into the matter,” said Mrs Mwangangi.

So, her father ended up interrogating the guards who were on duty the night the car disappeared. The inquiry revealed shocking news.

“The officer told him that my older brother was the one who left the car at the Railways parking lot the previous night because he had run out of fuel,” she said.

All the while, her brother had said nothing. Angry, her father came home, whipped out his pistol and threatened to shoot his son as punishment for gross indiscipline.

“Fearing the worst, I ran to the nearest police station to report the matter but no one believed me. The officers manning the desk had too much respect for my father and thought he would never do such a thing,” she says, letting out a light chuckle.

Instead of giving her assistance, they threatened to lock her up for being such a nuisance. So she went back home fearing the worst. Luckily, her brother got off lightly. Instead of a bullet, he received several hard slaps and a stern warning.

“From that day on, I decided the life I would choose in adulthood would have very little to do with the police,” she said. In the middle of a well-manicured lawn with clearly demarcated footpaths sits a simple house with lime green walls, flowerpots hanging from the rafters and the branches of surrounding fruit trees.

There isn’t a stone out of place. Here is the place the Mwangangis have called home for decades. Somewhere in the house is Mr Mwangangi, making sure her wife of 38 years is as comfortable as possible while at the same time giving her as much space as possible.

“This is your day, not mine,” he said, declining to be part of the interview. Although she regained her health after the accident, her recovery was not 100 per cent. There are things she cannot do for herself.

“He has been my rock,” she says of her husband. Every other day her husband bathes her, dresses her and drives her to wherever her services as an author and a motivational speaker are needed. To be there for his family, Mr Mwangangi opted for early retirement from his post as Lieutenant-Colonel in the Kenyan military.

“That was his life and he gave it up for me,” she says. Even though she had vowed to stay away from the disciplined forces, she found herself in it. Thus continuing the long line of service men in her family. As her grandfather and her father were, so she too was to be. It was in her blood.

And it took the slightest of encounters to nudge her towards Kiganjo, the Kenya Police training school. After her A-levels she got a job as a bank clerk. One day on her way to work, she saw a sight to behold.

“As I was crossing the road to get to the bank, I saw this woman in police uniform driving herself in a squad car. She looked so impressive. The image stayed with me,” she says.

By coincidence, when she got to the office and was flipping through the newspapers, she saw a Kenya Police recruitment advertisement. She applied and, as they say, the rest is history.

Male-dominated force

This was 1971. A male-dominated, chauvinistic police force was no place for a young woman. “It had its challenges too. But I rolled with the punches,” she says. “I gave as good as I got. Soon they realised I was not going to be a push over.”

To make matters worse, she said yes to a marriage proposal by the enemy. In the 1970s, there was animosity between the military and the police. Both units wanted to prove to the other whose duty was of more importance to the state.

“This was unusual at that time. Some of my colleagues thought I was illogical. But matters of the heart need not be supported by logic. Besides, in our own opinion, our wedding was some kind of olive branch extended between the two forces,” she says.

The foundation of their marriage was solid, but from time to time it was shaken to its core. “As an army man, my husband was travelling a lot. The time away from each other took its toll,” she says.

The year 1981 particularly stands out. The OAU summit was to be held in Kenya for the first time. The logistics of the function were proving to be a nightmare.

Things were getting thick for Mrs Mwangangi. She had just become a mother for the second time. Her husband was away and her house help chose this time to decide that the workload was too much for her. Plus, as the Officer Commanding Station-Nairobi, she was required to be at every security meeting and every rehearsal.

“There were times I would drive with the children to work and ask the driver to look after them until I returned,” she says. However, on the final day of the conference, lady luck smiled on her. On that day, she was in charge of former President Moi’s route home. She was to make sure the President had a smooth ride home.

“Just as the outriders were making their way into the President’s compound in Kabarnet Gardens Estate in Nairobi, his limousine pulled up,” she recalled. “Are you the officer in charge,” asked the President.

“Yes I am,” she answered. “Thank you for bringing me home safely,” he said. After enquiring about her name and rank, Mr Moi proceeded to his house. Some time later she was promoted.

A decade after retiring from the force, it is clear it is still part of her. Each time she speaks to a colleague, who was her senior, her sentences inevitably begin and end with the word ‘Sir.’ In 1984, the Mwangangis moved to Washington where the head of the family had been posted as the Defence Attaché.

The posting lasted five years. Mrs Mwangangi says that period helped her appreciate the different cultures in the world, and the importance of working hard and getting an education.

She too served at the Kenyan consulate in Washington as First Secretary. She earned her first degree at 40, and enrolled for her masters at 52. This journey towards the masters would be cut short by the accident.

“Its never too late to do the things you want to do,” she says as she flips over children’s books she has written.“As I was giving lectures on traffic and child safety, I realised not many people knew about them. That is why I decided to write these books,” she says.

She has published seven books. She mostly writes children’s books because, according to her, that is the only way to make a difference. At that time she was serving as the Deputy Head of Training and Research at the police headquarters.

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