Children in the paediatric cancer ward at Kenyatta National Hospital take part in arts and crafts activities organised by local groups. Photo by Anyiko Okowo. The children's faces have been blurred for their protection.
 
Paediatric cancer wards are sobering places in any country. But at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, a large number of children are not just sick but alone.
 
Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) is a sprawling hospital in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, with over fifty wards, a bed capacity of 1800 and a daily traffic of 30,000 patients.
 
It is one of eight hospitals in the country that offer cancer treatment, but the treatment centre is incredibly overstretched. It has only two radiotherapy machines, meaning that, in May of this year, patients were already being booked for appointments in June 2015, more than a year away.
 
Because of situations like this, those who can afford it travel abroad for medical care, according to Ithai Simon, head of communications at KHN. That means that the majority (78%) of KHN patients are poor. Most don’t have health insurance and can’t even afford the subsidised specialised healthcare provided by the hospital.
 
The roughly 300 children in the three KNH paediatric cancer wards are no exception. Many come from poor, rural families living on the outskirts of Nairobi or in the north of the country.
 
These young children enjoy a puppet show put on by volunteers, a happy diversion from the loneliness of the paediatric cancer ward at Kenyatta National Hospital. Photo by Anyiko Owoko.

Parents who know that they can’t pay sometimes don’t come back.

Anyiko Owoko, a freelance journalist and blogger in Nairobi, wanted to write about children with cancer. When she failed to find any statistics for children suffereing from cancer in Kenya, she decided to go to the children’s cancer ward at KNH to find out more. She discovered a very lonely place amidst the tens of thousands of people at the hospital.
 
I knew that kids from well-off families would probably be ok because they could afford to go to private hospitals so I chose to go to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), the largest referral hospital in east Africa.
 
During my visit, I found out that many of the kids were abandoned. It shocked me so much. I think when people hear such a story they think this is normal in Kenya but that’s not true. It’s shocking. The public relations officer of the hospital told me that, at one time, there were about 30 abandoned children in the cancer ward.
 
Local organisations run extracurricular activities for the children in the cancer ward, which can be a lonely and sad place especially as many patients don't have visitors. Photo by Anyiko Owoko. The children's faces have been blurred for their protection.
 
I haven’t been able to speak to any parents who chose to leave their child there, but I’m sure one of the reasons is the economic situation in Kenya. It is just terrible right now. Because KNH is a public hospital, it is a little more lax than private hospitals. You can bring your child, sign the documents and come back and pay later. Except that parents who know that they can’t pay sometimes don’t come back. Cancer treatment is very expensive. KNH is subsidized so it's way cheaper than a private hospital, but, because it is large, the service is very slow.

It’s bad enough to be sick… but sick and abandoned? It’s heartbreaking.

I spoke with several organisations that have been running extra-curricular activities for the children in the cancer wards for the past two or three years. They told me that they have never seen a child walk out of the ward.
 
I met one little girl with special needs, she’s autistic. She had cancer in her leg so it was amputated. She was very jolly—even though she only had one leg she had already learned to run and jump. The nurses told me that her father used to come every day until the day he signed the documents for her leg to be amputated. Then, he never came back. It’s bad enough to be sick… but sick and abandoned? It’s heartbreaking.
 
The little boy who drew this bird was named Paul. An orphan, he was abandoned by his foster parents at the hospital. He passed away shortly after Anyiko met him. Photo by Anyiko Owoko.
 
I think even more than the financial quagmire that they find themselves in, parents leave their children because of misinformation. They are not sensitised to cancer, they know nothing about it.
 
Unfortunately, we are still living in a society with many superstitions. Parents are worried about what people will say if they find out that they have a child with cancer. The organisations I talked to said the parents are highly traumatised and they want to start offering them counselling services. We need to try to understand why parents abandon their sick children. We can’t say that they don’t love their children. There must be reasons.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 Observers journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87)

We can’t say they don’t love their children.