There are some experiences in life that nothing can prepare you for. No amount of reading, watching or studying will create a sense of anticipation or understanding of what you are about to encounter. Back in December 2010, together with 22 other people I climbed a mountain. Some of us were from the UK, some from Africa, and some were disabled; this was the first expedition to the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, that included a group of disabled climbers. That journey was arduous, challenging and at times even euphoric. I climbed because I wanted to help in some small way. I bore the hardship because I believed I could manage the journey. I shared my joy with others as we reached the summit. The catalyst for me began with a challenge and I of course could not resist. In doing so, I made a commitment to help a small charity called AbleChildAfrica whose work with disabled children in Africa rang a bell with me and I wanted to help support those who are often the most vulnerable or excluded in a community. As a child losing my own hearing was devastating but made bearable because of the support and encouragement I had from my parents and school and I wanted to give something back. I chose Able Child Africa because it has an ‘inclusive’ ethos. Their aim is to enable children to become valued members of their homes and communities. Therefore AbleChildAfrica recognises the support they provide must also include the support and education of the parents to enable them in turn to understand and support the needs of their children. Unlike my family situation, many parents of disabled children in Africa are led to believe that when their child is born with a disability it is by way of retribution for their wrong doing. They also believe disabled children are unable to contribute to the family wealth in that they will never work and will therefore become a burden. AbleChildAfrica are continually pushing these boundaries and dispelling myths by replacing them with facts and support.eriences in life that nothing can prepare you for. No amount of reading, watching or studying will create a sense of anticipation or understanding of what you are about to encounter.experiences in life that nothing can prepare you for. No amount of reading, watching or studying will create a sense of anticipation or understanding of what you are about to encounter.
I had discussed the importance of the work that AbleChildAfrica does with the Director, Jane Anthony. I also had the opportunity to discuss some of the challenges faced by disabled children in Kenya with the Director of the Little Rock Centre, Lilly Oyare and the Executive Director of Action Network for Disabled Youth, Fred Ouko (both AbleChildAfrica local partner organisations in Africa), with whom I had shared my mountain climb. I listened carefully to all their accounts of the work they are undertaking in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. So, as an AbleChildAfrica Patron I felt well prepared for my eventual visit to Nairobi. I was sure I understood the challenges and indeed I felt confident the trip would not contain any surprises. I could not have been more wrong.
As our taxi bounced over the rough terrain of Kibera, often described as East Africa’s largest slum , the first signs of an environment where no human or animal should be expected to endure unfolded before us. Out of the dusty window, amongst the hustle and bustle, I could see malnourished children selling small buckets of coal and makeshift stalls trading everything from dusty furniture to fruit and vegetables as well as pans of meat scraps and fish heads smothered in flies. I began to witness the abject poverty of the Kibera slums and I was shocked.
As the days unfolded I underwent an emotional roller coaster. At first, I was overwhelmed, dismayed, shocked and appalled. I accompanied Lilly and 3 very young boys with hearing impairments from the Little Rock centre into the depths of the slums. We went in turn to the homes of each child. We walked amongst the shacks, bending low to avoid cutting ourselves on the sharp edges of the corrugated roofs that hung low enough to gauge out an eye. Stooping, ducking and trying not to slip into the human excrement streams that run through every tiny crevice. The stench was unbearable but we continued; I cannot show that I am not able to endure it because it is where thousands of people live. I cannot judge because their circumstances are complex and complicated. They are truly victims of a society, like so many others, which at times can feel as if it feeds off human misery.
We reached the home of Albert*, he pulls back the slatted wood door to his home, a single dark room tidy room with a mud floor and very little furniture. His mother is not home and he becomes distraught. His teacher tells us he is afraid we will leave him alone and not take him back to the centre but Lilly is there, she holds his hand and assures him in sign language that he she will not leave him alone. We go on, the heat is unbearable and adds to our discomfort. I am not familiar with the terrain and we stumble often, unsure of my footing and keeping Lilly in sight we move onward to the home of Daniel . The entrance is via a dark dank muddy alleyway and it takes several minutes for my eyes to become accustomed to the dim light in the room. It is here I am struck by just how much of an impact environment can have on functioning, without sufficient light in this house I have difficulty seeing and therefore reading the lips of the group and encountered difficulties communicating , I struggle to know what to say without patronising. No words seem appropriate. There is a woman sitting on a slat of wood with a thin mattress, no duvet, no comfortable furniture except one chair which the woman says she moves at night so the children can sleep on the floor. We hear a noise and in the gloomy darkness, there is another child stirring from a nap. He is startled by our presence and somehow this all feels voyeuristic and uncomfortable. I try to rationalise what I am seeing. It is hard to comprehend how these families survive, much less provide for the needs of their disabled children. Another sibling sits in the dark alleyway outside, It’s Arnold’s little sister, she has huge eyes and she is staring at us. I smile, she smiles back and her face lights the passageway!
We continue to the home of Peter. He is luckier than most because he has both parents at home in their one room, they have recently moved across the slum. Because Peter’s father is working they have electricity and a small black and white TV with a blurred image on a small table which has pride of place. The door is made from planks of wood and is hard to open over the rough mud floor, we ease ourselves inside one at a time into a single room, which is no more than 3.5 metres square. Families, often with several children, eat, sleep and cook in one room. A tribute to survival under the most extreme conditions.
As I begin to walk back to Little Rock my thoughts reflect on the items I have not seen. The homes are all void of toys, books, toilets, washing facilities and running water. Most have no electricity. No basic essentials or home comforts. I have no words to describe how I feel at this point. I was later informed that each family must pay 500 Kenyan shillings (about £3 UK or $5 US ) per month for rent. My heart feels so low and pitiful faced with the enormity of the challenges, at this point I cannot begin to imagine how I can possibly help.
As I emerge from the slums and turn the corner I look towards the gates of Little Rock. The new building, recently constructed by AbleChildAfrica, is like a mirage in full colour brimming with smiling happy children. This centre for early years education sits like an oasis in the midst of the slums. A beautiful bright sunny building, its walls decorated with cartoon characters and colourful friezes, surrounded by manicured borders shaded by clusters of bougainvillaea flowers. Here is the result of years of hard work, tenacity, persistence and vision. Almost 800 children benefit from this inclusive centre annually; it is a sanctuary of care and understanding in Kibera.
During my visit, I was accompanied by Jane Anthony, Executive Director of AbleChildAfrica and a trustee, Alanzo Blackstock. Alanzo became a Trustee of AbleChildAfrica as he has a personal connection to their work, his brother Larry resides in Kenya and serves as a Trustee for Little Rock It was also good to meet up with Shikuku Obosi, also a Trustee of AbleChildAfrica, whom I met on the Kilimanjaro climb; we share our memories of the trials we endured together. As I spent more time with the teachers, children and trustees I gradually begin to realise this is not a story of despair but one of hope ; with encouragement and funding they have created a tangible positive environment for the future of the children from Kibera. Lilly soon realised she could not educate students when they were hungry so she feeds them. She could not create a comfortable environment for them until they were clean, so she taught them about cleanliness. The Centre takes the children each day from as early as 7am. From the age of 3 months They are provided with a uniform of purple shirts and grey trousers, which they wear with pride. The Centre gives each child 2 meals per day. Most children would otherwise go hungry and the school feeding programme not only keeps the children nourished, it allows them to better concentrate on learning when in school. Each child is given structured tuition on reading, pronunciation and language including signing which means they become bi-lingual and this gives them a huge advantage I join the children in various classes and noted the school has an ‘inclusive’ policy, whereby all children, including those with disabilities, are taught together, working together to support each other to learn. In fact, the extent of the inclusion is such that no child is left out and children automatically support those who need it, whether it be inside or outside the classroom.
Lilly, or Teacher Lilly as she is affectionately known to the kids, works alongside state primary schools to secure placements for the Little Rock graduates, and the children who have already been placed have attained top marks amongst their peers- they are a credit to her excellent teaching skills. They excel in their studies and will stand very good chances of going on to complete compulsory education, which is sadly by no means the norm for many children in the area. AbleChildAfrica and Little Rock are joining forces to ensure disabled graduates are afforded the same opportunities in state primary schools.
On my last day in Nairobi, I met with Fred Ouko, Director of ANDY, a youth lead Disabled People’s Organisation. Together with AbleChildAfrica, ANDY is currently running a programme that uses sport to engage young disabled people in social groups and healthy lifestyles and also offers them access to employment and training opportunities. Due to poor rates of access to education and training, the unemployment rates of young disabled people in Kenya are high. I attended a deaf volleyball session and chatted with the team members about some of the challenges they face. I also meet with Benjamin and Eric, who are visually impaired, who participate in the ANDY Swimming club. They are currently looking forward to internships arranged through the programme to help them get some skills that they hope will lead them into employment and ANDY will be there to support them along the way.
As the work of AbleChildAfrica grows it needs more partners, good education and public awareness and crucially, funding -these things are actually making a difference.
The lesson I learned is if you help them they will help themselves – so please dig deep and support the great work of this charity I am proud to be Patron of.
All images: AbleChildAfrica
*Children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.
Text DRUM14 followed by £10 to 70070 to donate to AbleChildAfrica and make a difference today.
Or you can donate online; https://mydonate.bt.com/charities/ablechildafrica
If you cannot contribute financially please share this blog with everyone you know, not just for me but for the thousands of children who often do not have their story heard.
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