Perched on the hilly tea growing fringes of Nyambene Forest, about five kilometres from Maua town in Meru County, Riaki village stands out as a serene neighbourhood.
The cool waters of Kanoro River, which originates from Nyambene Forest, cuts across the village forming two ridges before feeding an expansive swamp covered by arrowroot farms.
Tea plantations cover the steep landscape of Ikumbo, Rwataali, Mwaali and Auki settlements of Riaki in Akachiu Ward.
But the physical serenity and agricultural abundance of this village easily covers up the cancer scourge that has visited almost every home in the area.
Mr Silas Kithinji, a head teacher at Amwamba Primary School, who lost his mother to ovarian cancer last year, argues that the village could possibly have the highest concentration of cancer cases in the country.
He counts more than 10 people who have died from the killer disease while several others are suffering in the same area as they grapple with different stages of throat, tongue, eye and mouth cancers.
A few metres into a dirt road off Maua-Mikinduri road towards Rwataali hamlet, we bump into one of the cancer patients on her way to hospital.
Ms Lydia Muthoni says her mother, Mary Kanini, was diagnosed with throat cancer in March kicking off their family’s journey of suffering.
“She cannot talk. We have been to Kenyatta hospital and many other hospitals but she is yet to improve. We have sold land, and cattle and borrowed extensively besides devoting most of our time to take care of mum. We are suffering,” Ms Muthoni says.
She is quick to add that they are not alone as almost every family in the village is battling cancer.
No sooner we are finished talking to Ms Muthoni at the roadside, than Auki sub location area manager Patrick Kiini shows up.
Mr Kiini, whose mother is fighting breast cancer, says the area started witnessing an upsurge in cancer incidences in 2015.
“We have a crisis in this village – everyone is affected. We have lost more than 11 villagers to cancer in the last two years. We have been financially and emotionally drained by the disease,” Mr Kiini said.
Mr Kithinji’s mother Beatrice Ciokiunye is among those who succumbed last year after being diagnosed in 2015.
A few metres away from the late Ciokiunye’s gravesite, Mr Bernard Kimathi’s mother had her leg amputated due to cancer.
“My mother in law, two uncles and a cousin are also suffering from various cancers. This has reached alarming levels for us. I have had to take my children out of boarding school. We are helpless,” Mr Kimathi says.
We walk for a few steps from Mr Kimathi’s home to the house of Mr Ezekiel Bundi whose wife Doris Kawira was diagnosed with tongue cancer.
The condition has pushed the family into the edge of an emotional and financial cliff.
“I have so far spent Sh300, 000 in various hospitals but she is not improving. She needs special foods because she cannot chew or swallow hard food. I have incurred a lot of debts and neighbors are overwhelmed because almost everyone has a cancer patient,” Mr Bundi recounts.
Opposite Mr Bundi’s homestead is Mr Morris Kaberia’s family whose son Stephen is struggling with cancer of the mouth.
We find Mr Kaberia and his wife Agnes picking coffee berries for sale to raise some money for his son who is undergoing treatment at Kenyatta Hospital.
“He was diagnosed with cancer last year and is currently undergoing radiotherapy. We are financially drained and do not know what to do. The last one year has been hell on earth for the family,” a distraught Mr Kaberia says.
Further away, less that a kilometre from Rwataali, at Ikumbo hamlet is a fresh grave of 36 year old Jacinta Karimi.
She was laid to rest on Thursday last week after succumbing to throat cancer which was diagnosed in September last year.
The late Karimi’s father Henry Michubu, says his niece who is married across the river is also fighting mouth cancer.
“My daughter started coughing last year and we thought it was a cold because she used a motorbike to work. We have borrowed against our tea leaves to sustain her treatment but we lost her last week. The cancer had spread to the brain,” Mr Michubu said.
He adds that five other neighbours at Ikumbo have succumbed to cancer in the last couple of years.
Across the road, Mr Hezekiah Mugambi, a teacher from Riaki, recounts how he lost his mother and two uncles to blood cancer.
Nearby, Ms Esther Rukunga is still nursing the pain of losing her younger sister to cancer of the eye last year- just years after losing a niece and father to blood and stomach cancer respectively.
“We are tired of fundraising for cancer treatment every now and then. There is an urgent need to establish why cancer is concentrated at Riaki village,” Ms Rukunga says.
Mr Kithinji who says the government should now give priority to cancer research focusing on the village.
They suspect the carcinogens might be in Kanoro river which serves the community as most of the affected families use the water.
“It is no longer enough to do cancer screening at Riaki because people are dying every day. We want the government to come in and establish whether the carcinogenic substances are in the water, the forest or the air in this area,” Mr Kithinji said.
He noted that neighbouring Kiegoi, which also borders the Nyambene Forest, has a high prevalence of cancer.
According to Dr Cyprian Thiakunu of Nyambene Nursing Home, the high incidence of cancer in Kiegoi and Riaki had led to formation of a consortium to establish the cause of cancer’s prevalence.
He however said the consortium comprising of doctors in private practice, Meru University, KeMU and government doctors hasonly managed to identify the prevalent types of cancers.
“We are aware of the high cases of cancer in Kiegoi and Riaki and the research was meant to identify the predisposing factors but we did not get funding. There must be a comprehensive research to pick out what chemical is concentrated in this area,” Dr Thiakunu said.
He adds, “A comprehensive research would analyse the water, soil, air and food used by the locals.”
Dr Thiakunu noted that the most hit area is around the Nyambene forest and the researchers were also curious to find a link in the bombs used by colonialists to fight the Mau Mau.
Mr James Kimathi, a nurse who has practised at Riaki area for several years also says a research should focus on the Nyambene Forest.
“Could there be carcinogenic substances in Nyambene Forest? The cases around the forest are very many and the situation is alarming,” Mr Kimathi said.
Dr Joshua Kibera, an anatomical pathologist at GracePark Hospital in Meru town, earlier said up to 40 tests brought to his lab, from Meru and neighbouring counties, turn out positive to cancer every month.
At Cottolengo Mission Hospital, Chaaria, which sees most cancer patients from Meru, 545 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2018.
In an earlier interview, former medical director at Cottolengo Mission Hospital, Dr Giuseppe Gaido also noted a sharp rise in cases of gastrointestinal cancers in Meru.
He said that out of five endoscopies (examination of the digestive tract) done at the hospital in 2018, three were turning out positive.
"We suspect the food being consumed in the region for the high cases of oesophageal, stomach and liver cancers. However, this is subject to verification through a comprehensive research," Dr Gaido said.
According to the National Cancer Institute, prostate, oesophagus and stomach cancers respectively are prevalent among men while top cancers among female patients are breast, cervix, and oesophagus.
A study on oesophageal cancer incidence at Cottolengo Mission Hospital, published in the East African Medical Journal, about 379 patients were diagnosed with oesophagus cancer between 2010 and 2017.
Data from Kenyatta National Hospital indicate that about five percent of all cancer patients seen at the facility come from Meru, after Nairobi with 26.4 percent, Kiambu 15 percent and Murang'a 6.6 percent.
Meru County government is planning the first mountain race in Africa, which will take place on Mt Kenya in February next year, to raise funds for a Meru Cancer Institute in efforts to fight the disease.