Remember the piece I did about Wheelchairs for Kids in Australia?
Here’s why they do it
Nobody deserves to be disabled. None of us came into this world wanting to face a lifetime of difficulty, discrimination and hardship.
Yet like just about everything else in life WHERE you are born determines how you might lead it.
When I arrive at the Compassionate Hands for the Disabled Foundation for a moment I think we have taken a wrong turn. Facing me is a collection of ramshackle tin huts, a dirt compound and nothing which says ‘residential school for the disabled’.
But greeted by the smiling face of director Anne Njeri, I realise this is no wrong turn and this is my introduction into life for many disabled kids in Kenya.
Half a dozen children wait patiently under the shade of a corrugated iron awning. All are sitting in wheelchairs donated by Australian charity Wheelchairs for Kids (WFK) – the organisation that has indirectly introduced me CHDF.
But there’s no excited chatter of youngsters waiting the arrival of an overseas visitor. These children are all profoundly disabled, incapable of regular interaction with others and all are either orphans or have been abandoned by their families for not being ‘normal’.
CHDF in Ruai, on the outskirts of Nairobi is home to 86 children, most of whom have cerebral palsy. Some are autistic, others have hydrocephaly or Down’s syndrome. There are more still with less complicated disabilities: loss of hearing and loss of sight.
Anne opened the centre eight years ago. A former journalist with a local radio station, she was disturbed by stories of disabled children being burned or sexually abused and being unable to speak out.
“In my mind I wanted a day care centre for people with disabilities. But after a week there were 15 kids [left] and no one to pick them up.”
Her empathy is understandable when you learn she was disabled once herself.
Born with a leg impairment – she believes resulting from a fall her mother had while pregnant – Anne was unable to walk until she was eight years old. Her condition came to the attention of a wealthy benefactor, who paid for surgery to correct the disability and fund her education.
“Attitudes towards disability in Kenya are not that good and that is why we have so many children who have been abandoned. They’re seen as a curse, so parents throw them away,” Anne tells me.
“We want the community to understand that disability is not a life sentence.”
But ingrained cultural beliefs are hard to break. Members of the nomadic Maasai tribe are known to leave a disabled infant or child for the wildlife to take, believing the child and they have been cursed.
Inside CHDF’s facility children are separated into groups, divided by disability. There’s a quiet room for the autistic children to practice how to be calm. One child seems lost as he sways back and forth manically rubbing his hands.
In other sections children play simple games matching coloured shapes, or practice making beaded jewellery. Therapists have noticed the repetitive nature of threading the beads onto wire helps the children concentrate.
Life has improved though for many of the children with the delivery of specially made wheelchairs brought from WFK in Australia, through a coordinated programme facilitated by WorldVision and a local charity Bethany Kids.
Prior to their arrival each child had to be physically moved by workers at the home.
“It was so hectic. The staff often ended up with back problems from carrying the children. We couldn’t keep them,” said Anne.
“The wheelchairs have totally changed the lives of the children. They can now sit comfortably in the right position. They don’t get fatigued and they can move independently.”
It’s hoped WorldVision can arrange the delivery of more chairs from WFK and other providers so that all the centre’s children can benefit.
It’s a similar story 50 kilometres away in Thika at the Joytown primary school, also for disabled children.
I’m shown round this facility by three members of another Kenyan aid organisation called PEK Care International – PEK meaning People Endeavouring Kusaidia. Kusaidia being the Swahili word for ‘to help’.
PEK’s existence also came about through fateful serendipity. Its chairman Paul Kirika – a Kenyan expatriate living in Perth, Australia – lost the lower part of one leg following a car accident.
Visiting his native Loitokitok on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro afterwards, he saw disabled facilities for those in the region were spartan at best, and subsequently donated his wheelchair to a woman he met at the local church, who’d had to be physically carried to the service.
By the end of his stay he’d received requests for four more and soon requests were flowing in.
“It just skyrocketed,” said Paul. “I’ve got adults wanting to use the chairs. It’s overwhelming.”
PEK has shipped over 800 chairs to Kenya so far, with plans to send more. Paul is also in talks with the Nigerian government about doing a similar scheme.
In Thika, Joytown looks and feels more like a regular school. A sprawling layout of stone buildings is interspersed with playgrounds, a swimming pool and the school dormitories and wash block.
It’s the last day of term and the children here are excitedly waiting for their families to collect them.
Jane Happy is on the floor busy finessing her writing skills with her pencil firmly jammed between her big and second right toes. She scratches her head in thought as she marks out neat block capitals and numbers, putting my illegible writing to shame.
Another child eagerly greets me, trying to climb onto my chair to give me a hug. She’s too big for me to pick up.
Double amputee Boniface is proud to have come near the top of his class having missed a full year of school following the car accident which took his legs.
He only gained access to a chair when he arrived at Joytown. Before then he was forced to move around on stumps using his hands.
Now fully mobile, he wants to be an engineer when he grows up and doesn’t see his disability as a hindrance to his goals.
Poor maternal care
More than 300 kids live at Joytown, all with similar problems to those in Ruai. A majority here also have cerebral palsy – the result of poor ante-natal care and/or lack of safe delivery practices.
PEK’s medical director Dr Steve Mutiso tells me more than 80% of deliveries in the Kilimanjaro area take place in the home or without qualified medical assistance, merely unskilled traditional birth attendants.
The lack of safe deliveries pushes the number of kids born with cerebral palsy to a much higher rate than the national average – up to 4 per 1000 live births.
“[There was] a ghastly practice of leaving children with cerebral palsy chained in the homestead.
“The few that survive a few years live a wretched life with their fate sealed to be killed by wild animals.”
PEK wants to encourage the development of better health care especially in remote areas, where nomadic lifestyles are prevalent and illiteracy rates are high.
And it hopes overseas donors interested in disabled care can help improve disabled lifestyles in the country.
They see the provision of wheelchairs to give mobility to children as a key part of that goal but better health services and training for traditional birth attendants would reduce the number of children born with disabilities.
While the general aim is to rehabilitate the children enough so they can lead independent productive lives, many are so intellectually disabled it’s hard to see them ever leaving the school environment.
Anne in Ruai already has one young adult aged 21. She says the home is his forever.
#If you want to help or find out more you can contact:
Anne Njeri at CHDF Kenya firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Kirika, chairman of PEK Care International email@example.com