In a lonely hospital room in India, Lorna Irungu lay in her bed awaiting a third kidney transplant. A cloud of uncertainty loomed, just as a ray of hope stayed within Lorna’s reach. In that moment, that split second where fear and hope do a final battle before one’s spirit either persists or surrenders, something popped up on Lorna’s hospital TV set.
For the last many days, Lorna’s pain and uncertainty had been spaced out by phases of getting lost in the world of American politics, keenly following the homestretch of Barack Obama’s campaign to be the first Black president of America. It seemed like a tall order, yet to Lorna, there were indications that the man from Illinois stood a chance, however slim.
Thing is, as Lorna battled her condition in far-away India, she found this remote connection to Obama’s self-belief in becoming the US president – two Kenyans fighting fights of their lives albeit with varying repercussions. If he lost, Obama would carry on with life. If Lorna lost, it would be the end of the road. Was any of what she was watching on TV related to her transplant, or was she reaching? Lorna would often catch herself wondering.
If Obama won, maybe, just maybe, it would mean that she too would win in India.
Whatever popped up on Lorna’s TV was the final event which tipped the scale inside her mind. Obama had won the presidency, and all of a sudden, like a ton of bricks, it hit Lorna that she too would triumph as she marched towards her third kidney transplant. She wouldn’t surrender to Lupus, an ailment she got diagnosed with in 1997, which had led to kidney complications.
Nearly ten years later, Lorna’s and Obama’s paths crossed, not in India where Lorna was fighting for her life or America where Barack was sailing to the presidency the first time they interacted, but in Kisumu, and not in a Lorna-watching-Barack-on-telly sense, macho kwa macho.
Obama was in the country for the launch of his sister’s Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resource and Vocational Training Centre. Interestingly, planning Obama’s trip was Lorna’s first assignment at her new position as the Managing Director at Gina Din Group.
They say never meet your hero. But not Lorna. As she welcomed Obama at the airport, one couldn’t help but see the joy written all over her face. Days later during a group lunch, Lorna finally got the chance to tell her hero what a huge impact he had made in her life. Obama was seated right across her, listening intently. He was moved. He got up and offered Lorna a tight embrace. It was affirmation that nature serendipitously conspires to make our dreams come true.
When news of Lorna’s passing broke, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with heartfelt messages about her. In the myriad of eulogies, one post stuck with me.
“If Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ was a person, it was Lorna,” someone wrote. How befitting.
As a budding journalist in the ‘90s, Lorna’s health took a sudden dip. The diagnosis was shocking. Lupus, the doctors said. It was evident. Lorna lost weight drastically. At the time, the AIDS crisis was at a crescendo in Kenya, and speculators didn’t waste time in concluding that Lorna’s physical changes were as a result of AIDS. Stigmatisation followed.
But this, like all the other setbacks she had encountered, didn’t stand in Lorna’s way.
“You have to be careful about the words you choose to hear spoken about you”, Lorna would say, because in some instances, even doctors didn’t believe she would pull through.
In the year 2000, a job came calling at the newly-launched radio station, KISS FM. She was Caroline Mutoko’s co-host on the breakfast show. Unbeknownst to her listeners, Lorna was undergoing dialysis three times a week. And in her subsequent roles in media, she continued thriving, shaping African narratives as she battled Lupus.
It’s that go-getter mentality and heroism that makes one mononymous. When Lorna was picked by Gina Din-Kariuki to take over her PR empire, we never asked which Lorna it was. Of course, it was The Lorna Irungu-Macharia. And deservedly so.
Kenya is mourning a hero and fighter who taught us over the years to always show up. A fearless advocate for women and health. We are not born with a fixed amount of bravery. These are muscles one grows as they beat the odds once, twice, three times. Lorna showed us that. She just did it. ‘‘Man, Just Do It!’’ seems to be Lorna’s gift to us.
Adieu Lorna Irungu-Macharia. We’ll Just Do It!