Dan Matakaya at a motivational speaking engagement. (Dan Shieshie Foundation)

Disfiguring acid attack damaged more than skin

I was startled awake by a burning sensation on my face. I reached my right hand to my face to identify the cause of the unbearable, searing pain.

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First-person source
Dan Matakaya is a police officer based at the industrial area police station in Nairobi, Kenya. On Sept. 21 2013, his then spouse poured concentrated sulphuric acid on his face and changed the course of his life. He is the CEO and Founder of the Dan Shieshie Foundation.

KISII, Kenya—It is not all smooth sailing. 

I have moments when grief overwhelms me, and I find myself sobbing uncontrollably as my mind flashes back to how my life was before this incident. 

It’s a new path for me. But it’s a path I choose to walk not as a victim but as a survivor blessed to be here and able to tell my story. 

Falling in love

I met my ex-wife in 2009. She had come into the Itabwa police station where I worked to record a statement on a case on which I was to follow-up as lead investigator.

I was 21-years-old, vibrant, and loved my job as a police officer. 

My first impression of her was how beautiful she was. 

Along the way, we built a friendship. I came to love her other qualities: the way she spoke so softly and her polite demeanor. It drew me to her even more. 

Finally, after years of dating, we decided to settle down as husband and wife. 

For the length of our marriage, we never had any serious arguments. Our fights were merely everyday squabbles that we resolved quickly. 

My job as a police officer necessitated impromptu moves from location to location across the country. We lived apart during those periods and visited each other occasionally. This living situation lasted for the better part of our marriage.

Our lives changed forever

We were blessed with a baby boy who, unfortunately, died after a brief illness.

Our son’s death took a toll on our relationship, but we supported each other through grief the best way we knew how. 

During this period, I was based at Kisii station and living in the police quarters. My abode was a cylindrical tin house. It was small but large enough to accommodate us. 

It was Sept. 21, 2013. Two days before the incident, my ex-wife had visited. We had a small disagreement on how best to dispose of our late son’s clothes. 

I quickly moved past the misunderstanding. 

It was Friday evening, and I left for work to clock-in for my night shift as usual. On Saturday at 5 a.m., I returned home and casually slid into bed beside her to catch a few minutes of sleep before beginning my day. 

I was startled awake by a burning sensation on my face. I reached my right hand up to touch my face to identify the cause of the unbearable, searing pain.

My immediate thought was to get out of bed and look for some water to pour on my face. 

But, upon my feet touching the floor, a sharp pain traveled up my legs. I let out a cry that brought my colleagues to my rescue. 

The journey to recovery

At Hema Hospital in Kisii, medics performed first aid to stabilize me.

I was instantly put on an IV that I presume contained painkillers and sedatives because I immediately dozed off. 

When I came to, my concern was that I could not open my eyes. But, because bandages covered my face, I didn’t think much of it.

A few days later, I moved to a higher level of care at Kakamega Hospital. It was closer home for further check-ups. But, because the medics could not do much for my condition, I was again airlifted to Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi for specialized treatment.

My situation was declared critical. In the burns unit, the lead surgeon ascertained that I was 18 per cent covered in third-degree burns. 

No one had yet determined the corrosive substance used in the attack.

My face and right side of my chest bore the brunt of the attack. 

At Kenyatta, the medical team immediately embarked on a treatment plan. From September 2013 to January 2014, I had undergone more than fifteen surgeries focusing on skin grafting, reconstruction, and plastic surgery. 

Mentally, I became accustomed to the routine of being wheeled to the medical theatre. 

The burns unit had become my home. 

Even though I was still in bandages that covered most of my face, I interacted with patients in similar situations. Some, I learned, were victims of Gender-based violence as well. One way or another, our respective spouses had resorted to these barbaric ways as a way of expressing their emotions.

My hospital stay became an eye-opener for me. But, I never grew accustomed to the constant groans and cries of men in pain in the ward. It was a pain that some could not live through and opted to give up on life by refusing to take medication or forego any form of treatment. 

Gurneys wheeled someone out daily.  

Dan Matakaya before the incident.

The remark that thwarted my suicidal thoughts

Still, I held on to hope. 

After some time, I moved to the private wing. I was still in darkness. I did not yet know the fate of my eyes.

My everyday prayer to God had become like a song that, despite everything, my eyesight could be restored. It was not long before the specialist informed me that my eyes could not be saved.

In the same breath, they informed me that a government chemist had ascertained that the corrosive substance poured on me was concentrated sulphuric acid. 

Rubbing my face while trying to ease the pain caused more injury to my face and my eyes. 

The news was a blow to my recovery process. I lost my fighting spirit. I lost my will to live. 

Being blind meant losing my independence, privacy, and becoming a liability to those around me. I sunk into a dark place. Contemplating different ways to commit suicide became my obsession. 

My hospital bed was next to the window. Without the benefit of sight, I understood that the window had no protective bars. 

Jumping out the window to my death became my plan.

Then other thoughts began to sprout. What if it is not an instant death? What if something slows my fall and I am left to nurse other severe injuries and a broken spirit? 

These thoughts dissuaded me, and I put the plan on hold. 

Having lived an active life, the hospital environment became depressing. Insomnia became my friend and my nights grew longer. 

My roommate and I picked up a habit of having conversations long into the night about life. 

In one of those conversations, he retorted, “Dan, I wish I was in your condition. Yes, you are blind, still nursing life-long scars and even regrets. But I am sure you are going to leave this hospital alive, which is unlike my situation.” 

That statement, coming from a stranger, took me aback and made me rethink my life. 

Sure to his words, he passed on days later from leukemia. 

He gave me a fighting chance. 

In life, you think you have it rough until you meet someone who is going through worse. 

From here onwards, I looked forward to my discharge date. 

Relearning life’s basics

I was discharged from the hospital in February 2013 and assigned a day nurse who, for six months, dressed my wounds at home. 

Despite healing well according to the regular check-ups, I was re-admitted to the hospital for surgery to “release” contractures that had developed because of my newly-acquired sedentary lifestyle.

The skin on my neck, shoulders, and arms had fused during the healing process making it impossible for me to stretch my ligaments. One of my nostrils had also become blocked, but two procedures to unblock it had proven unsuccessful. Future surgeries sought to remedy these issues. 

Overall my progress was encouraging. 

Re-learning the basics of life was my next step. 

I was referred for rehabilitation at the Kenya Society for the Blind in 2016. Reading in Braille, palm sign language, and daily living skills that would make me navigate life as an independent individual were part of my life lessons. 

Due to my blindness, I had a morbid fear of walking without a guide. But, because mobility was a critical step for me to regain my independence, I gave it my all. 

Slowly but surely, I learned to walk with a white cane. That cane would soon become my companion. 

Armed with the knowledge to help me navigate life, I went back to work and embraced what had become my new normal. 

I am scheduled for several surgeries in the future. In 2019, a California-based organization named Face Forward International covered my expenses to fly to the United States to have a series of reconstructive surgeries that included unblocking my nostrils. 

I was ready to return for follow-up procedures in March 2020, but because of the travel restrictions that resulted from the pandemic, the trip was postponed. 

Choosing to forgive

I decided to forgive my ex-wife. 

I called my sister-in-law and requested to talk to her. That’s when I told her I forgive her.

She didn’t say a word before she broke down. 

Despite not getting closure when I attended the case in court, I have moved on to let the law take its course. 

Forgiveness allowed me to let go of the anger I had been carrying. I cannot recount the number of times I broke down and thought of revenge to seek relief from the pain in which I was drowning.

Now, my energy is funneled into rebuilding my life, writing a book, and running my foundation. 

In the course of my journey, I have lost friends and gained new ones. 

I cannot mention the immense suffering and deep hurt that my family has been through, all while supporting my restorative journey in any way they could.

The Kenya Police Service stood with me through it all. They assisted with my immense hospital bills and ensured that I still had a job to come back to after recovery. 

My experience led me to start the Dan Shie Shie foundation. It’s an outfit that supports male victims of gender-based violence through various programs. 

It was part of my promise to God that, once discharged from the hospital, I would give back to society. 

I am also now a certified counseling psychologist after I embarked on a psychology course that helped me acquire the skills to handle my situation. That training has lent itself to helping others through the foundation.

In the process, I demystify therapy when interacting with survivors of gender-based violence. Most of them overlook this critical tool to help in self-healing traumatic situations. 

Part of my job is to remind them that I would not be where I am if not for therapy. 

Still, I feel that there is a lot that governments need to do to regulate access to acids and other corrosive chemicals that have become readily available.

As a police officer and survivor myself, I can say that incidences related to acid attacks have spiked. And, unless addressed soon, these attacks could spill out of control. 

What has changed?

Eight years have passed since the incident.

My strong faith and therapy sessions have allowed me to rise up from an ordeal in life that would have otherwise drowned me. 

I have a new purpose in life, and new opportunities have cropped up.

Traveling, playing football and dancing are my hobbies, but it’s different now. I can only go on long-distance travels in the company of a caregiver, and I listen to football on the radio. Occasionally, I go out dancing. All of these hobbies help me live a normal life as much as possible. 

I try to live a healthy lifestyle by monitoring my diet and exercising—two things that have contributed to my healing. 

I also believe that my police training equipped me with skills that have helped me endure this adversity. And for that, I will always remain grateful to the service.

I swore never to get into another relationship, but that too has changed. I am now slowly opening up to the idea.

It would be wrong of me to generalize women and unfair to myself to lock out any possibility of finding love again. 

Assaults with acid are rare.

Statistically, around the world 80 per cent of victims are women, but men have become targets of gender-based violence as well.

The actual scope of acid attacks in Kenya is not known as there is no specific data kept. 

Dan Matakaya, a survivor of an acid attack, launched the Dan Shieshie foundation.

Apart from providing psycho-social support, the foundation collects data on the severity of the issue in Kenya.

Lola Wanyonyi is an experienced Multi-media Journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, and holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Communication and Journalism from Moi University. She is Skilled in headline writing, breaking news, media relations, Online News, and News Writing. She is a contributing editor to various international media news outlets.