Stakus Owino flashes a smile as he walks along the corridors of Bondo Sub-County Hospital mortuary.
Dressed in a maroon uniform with white gumboots and hand gloves, he exhibits the confidence of a man fully in charge of his docket, or rather dockets.
At 35, Owino has two unique job descriptions: he serves the dead and the living.
When he is not busy ensuring that bodies are well preserved at the mortuary where he is the manager, he is busy winning over souls for God as the presiding bishop at Israel Assembly Church.
The father of three juggles these two roles with ease and, as he puts it, a deep sense of satisfaction. The two are almost connected, he says: one wins souls for heaven, the other ushers them to heaven with dignity.
“I love the word of God. It gives me the motivation to work. On weekends, I create time to go and preach,” he says.
Owino always carries a Bible to his small office at the morgue. As he waits for the next body to be brought in, he goes through the Holy Book; either preparing for the next sermon or just seeking divine guidance for the job at hand.
Coming from a culture where the dead are held in awe, Owino has managed to ‘strike a rapport’ with the dead after faithfully preparing corpses for the final journey for the past 10 years.
For him, serving the dead is not any other job: it is a calling.
He concurs that working in a morgue is not anyone’s dream job. If it were, we would by now have heard at least one student declare, “When I grow up I want to be a mortuary attendant”.
“As a child I feared the dead, I could not even view a body,” he says.
Born in Kojwach village in Gem sub-county, Owino was five when his father died. After losing the sole breadwinner, the family found itself doing menial jobs to put food on the table.
Owino struggled to pay fees at Kambare Secondary School, but through God’s grace he managed to sit his Form Four national exam. He did menial jobs to raise fees. After high school, he got fed up with village life and moved to Kisumu.
After days looking for a job, he landed a cleaner’s job at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital, earning Sh6,000. He was moved from cleaning the wards to cleaning the morgue
“I was scared,” he says.
But he needed the money. As luck would have it, he struck rapport with the mortuary superintendent who helped him overcome his fear of the dead.
“He helped me overcome my fear, he would invite me to watch as he worked with the bodies, soon I was interested,” he recounts.
Such was his interest that he approached the hospital administration and offered to forfeit half of his salary to be enrolled for a three-month mortuary management certificate course at the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus.
Due to financial constraints, Owino took three years to pursue the three-month course.
“I could defer and go back home to do menial jobs in order to raise the school fees,” he says.
He did his internship at Bondo Sub-County Hospital, where his passion for the job impressed the hospital administration who decided to retain him.
The rest is history. Still, it has not been easy. His in-laws were, at first, not impressed when he told them what he does for a living, and even tried to dissuade their daughter from accepting his marriage proposal.
But his wife stayed put.
However, it took a lot of convincing to persuade his mother that working in a mortuary would not draw the wrath of the dead.
“I sat down with her and explained that it was not different from other jobs. She even gave me a piece of land to build a church,” says Owino.
At the mortuary, Owino’s job entails receiving bodies and cleaning them; ensuring that they are correctly and properly labelled for easy identification and preservation. He also prepares the bodies for postmortems and has to be present when the bodies are released for burial.
Back to his other calling, the worshippers at Israel Assembly Church describe Owino as charismatic and highly spiritual. The faithful do not seem to care much about what he does at the mortuary.
“I have known him to be a man who preaches on resilience, the kind of job he does on the side-lines does not bother me,” says Margaret Ochieng’.
Still, a number of his followers at first seemed wary of Owino’s interactions with the dead, before getting convinced that he could handle the living as well as the dead.
“I could not imagine how he was going to preach to us and also work in a mortuary. But now I find his sermons inspiring,” said one member of his church.
Owino, who says he has no plans to quit the job soon, advises the youth that they can curve a career out of the most unexpected and unusual places, including the morgue.