Maryam El-Maawy: A Lesson From a Beautiful Laughter

Maryam El-Maawy

I hate agony of any kind and seeing someone else going through it disturbs me. Blood scares people, agony is what scares me and that is why I think war photography tops my list of ultimate challenge. I avoid taking my daughter to the hospital especially when needles will be in the picture!

Agony is one of the many reasons I dislike hospitals. For starters, no one visits them just for the smell of iodoform amidst sounds of beeping machines. Hospitals flash pain all over you like rubbing sandpaper on your face. They make you abundantly aware just how fragile we really are. Apart from doctors, I think everyone else needs to hate hospitals. They are agony to bank accounts everywhere, with zero remorse!

Hospital visits are a constant fight for me because much as I empathize with my vistees, I get awkward. I always feel like I am not expressing enough I feel what they feel. It is said that empathy is like putting on someone else’s shoe and knowing where the pinch is. When has wearing someone’s shoe not felt weird even when it was exactly like your shoe and exactly your size? Haven’t you put on a shoe and swear there’s something wrong with it only to realize later you have been wearing someone else’s shoe that looks exactly like yours?

I knock on one of the many doors in Nairobi Hospital. I am here to see my cousin, Dida. Poor girl walked her leg through a blunt edge of a protruding timber tearing through her muscles. A lady’s voice, my aunt’s, signals it is OK to enter. I crank the handle and push the door forward. On the right side of the room I see Dida, in bed. I make my way in, right after the bed on the far left of the room, sits a three seater sofa. On its right, Aunt Mahmuda – Dida’s mom and Aunt Shununa is on the other end. Both have their feet up and tacked under them.

Just after greetings leave my lips Aunt Shununa bursts into laughter: “Haytham, you are so silly!”

“Am I? Why?” Unsure where the conversation is going, I chuckle.

“I read your Facebook post!”

I laugh too, Aunt Shununa proceeds to tell Aunt Mahmuda and Dida about the post. Yes, I posted something silly that day.

A few months later, Aunt Shununa is at the wrong place at the wrong time. She is hurt. Unfortunately, few hours back from now, she succumbs to injuries in a hospital in South Africa. Apart from the grief that has come with her passing, my head is ringing with two things; the sound of her laughter in one of the many rooms in Nairobi Hospital and regret. Her laughter is officially the second good memory I have from a hospital. The first was when I held my daughter for the very first time.

This visit was to be the last time Aunt Shununa and I meet. We call her Shununa at home, the rest of the world knows her as Maryam El-Maawy.

I regret few things in life and I’m hoping by the time I finish writing this, this regret will be a lesson.

Maryam El-Maawy was an accomplished human being in all aspects. She is a representation of an ideal girl child. In a society where girls have not quite understood how powerful the really are, we need figure heads like her. We need to appreciate them. We need to talk about them. Up until her death, she worked for the Government of Kenya and right after her death, State House published a statement referring to her as “an accomplished architect; and a patriot”. This is huge considering the community that Aunt Shununa and I come from, few women have made it to that level of accomplishment. I admired her a great deal and the first part of this regret is not telling her that I did and that she was exemplary. Every girl on earth ought to learn from her like a textbook.

She touched lives, thousands and what I love most about it is, it was all subtle. Very few people knew about her activities outside her office that were geared to giving back to the community. She became the epithet of the phrase ‘angel among us’. Despite a demanding lifestyle, she made time for good courses. Towards her last days, her philanthropy seemed to be on the rise. Like she was in a rush to go somewhere. A day or two before the attack, she was at the center of organizing a mentorship talk in Mombasa and asked my brother Ahmed Bhalo to be among the speakers. They talked to youth about careers and being outstanding members of society.

For long I had identified her as a hero living among us. I made a mental note to one day soon make a portrait of her and document what she does for the community. I procrastinated and this forms the other part of this regret. The portrait and article would be inspiring and make girls especially, want to emulate Maryam El-Maawy – in the words of State House of Kenya, an accomplished professional and a patriot. I wish I made a call or dropped a text to schedule a shoot. She would have thrown balls of wisdom and caches of experiences that the world through me, would have benefited.

What is done is done and this regret is an Invaluable lesson that I must document everyday heroes like her who live among us. In fact, I must cease procrastinating and carry out all the documentary projects I have shelved.

Aunty, thank you for the beautiful laughter you have left in my head and the priceless lesson. As you move into the next phase of life, I pray to Almighty Allah to pardon all your shortcomings and reward you for all your good deeds. Amin.

(PS: I did not take the photograph on this, I picked it from Facebook. Thank you to the photographer whoever you maybe)

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