On May 25, 1980 a young surgeon debuted a unique newspaper column in the Sunday Nation that told the story of his medical experiences and personal interactions with patients, sometimes interwoven with narratives about his family.
Thirty-eight years later, Dr Yusuf Kodwavwala Dawood continues to write what is perhaps one of Africa’s longest running columns, and on Thursday he celebrated his 90th birthday in London.
Every elderly person knows when age has caught up with them and, for a surgeon of Dr Dawood’s stature, the feeling cannot be any clearer.
He has seen the effects of ageing in the numerous patients he attended to in his five-decade-long surgery career.
And with his knowledge, he understands to a great extent what is going on in his body, especially the nagging rheumatism that is sapping the strength from his limbs.
When he spoke to the Sunday Nation from Walton, United Kingdom, his wife Marie and daughter Jenny had just woken him up with cards and presents.
“I feel very lucky, but I feel my age now,” he said, as his unmistakable face rendered itself via Skype. “I feel it in my joints and my speech and my balance. I’m very unstable,” Dr Dawood said.
Dr Dawood and his wife relocated to the UK in April after staying in Kenya for 57 years.
He says that, as a person born BC — Before Computer — writing his Surgeon’s Diary column that appears twice a month is not as easy as it seems.
He admits he is the old-school type that writes down his stories on a piece of paper before keying them into a computer, which has lately been a laborious endeavour.
But, thankfully for his fans, he said he still had the urge to write. “I intend to continue writing as long as my brain is working,” he said.
His writing, which was an appendage of his main job of being a surgeon, has seen him pen 938 articles for the Surgeon’s Diary so far.
He also has 12 books to his name — five with the tales he shared in his column, one autobiography and six novels.
REAL LIFE ISSUES
Given the longevity of his column, he has gathered quite a legion of fans over time, in Kenya and elsewhere across the globe.
“Some people have grown with it, and they say that since they started reading English, they have been reading my diary,” he said.
And because he has been writing about actual occurrences from his interaction with patients, sticking to the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality has always posed a challenge. But he went round that restriction by changing the names, ethnicities, locations and other details.
“People don’t usually identify themselves in the story, which is good because we are supposed to be following the code of confidentiality,” he said.
But there were few who never took kindly to the fact that he made reference to them, after reading between the lines. His defence has been: “It was a true story and I only wrote about you in the way it happened.”
Being such a prolific writer, Dr Dawood could not turn down an opportunity to advise budding writers on how to make it in the game. His top-of-mind remark was that a writer should never feel discouraged when a publisher sends them back.
He went on: “Writing is a very lonely profession. You have to sit in your room for hours. On some days, you may be able to write a thousand words; on some days your mind will be very sterile.”
Dr Dawood’s stay in Kenya saw his life revolve along four things, which he often calls four wives: surgery, writing, charity and family.
He reckons that the family aspect was overshadowed by the others, which is why he decided to relocate to the UK in April so he could spend more time with his wife and their two children. The two had moved to Britain in the early 1980s for their university education.
His daughter Jenny took early retirement after working with computer firm IBM for 33 years to take care of them.
Jenny told the Sunday Nation that she is “exceedingly proud” of him, as is her brother Jan. They had a celebratory lunch on Friday to celebrate Dr Dawood.
“All the family and extended family adore him as he brings much pleasure into all our lives. I hope that when I’m 60 I am as good and as fit as dad is now,” Jenny added.
And Dr Dawood is a man with a big heart. All the payments earned from his column go to charity, disbursed through the Marie Rahima Dawood Foundation.
Last year, the foundation handed over Sh13 million he made over the years for writing the column to the Palmhouse Foundation – an education trust that helps needy students. “We also gave a large donation to the Rotary International,” he said.