Lydia B and I spent March 2015 volunteering with North Meru Disability Community Centre (DCC), Kenya. It is situated in the town of Maua, on the slopes of the Nyambene Hills, at a dizzying height of 1700m. Depending on where we were heading on our almost daily journeys, sometimes we came across spectacular views of Mount Kenya, vast pea-green tea plantations but, most importantly, always a sincere and very warm welcome by Kenyan adults and children alike.
The DCC’s objective is ‘to empower the marginalised communities with emphasis to the disabled children’. We went into the field four days each week with the centre’s occupational therapist, Norah, and their physiotherapist, Anthony. On one occasion, after being dropped off by matatu, we ventured into the tropical forest on foot, following a dried up river bed, to find 8 year old Timothy, lying listlessly on a sofa in his family’s windowless wooden-built single room home. He is one of many children in the area suffering with cerebral palsy. After Anthony had spent time stretching his limbs and joints, helping to support him in a sitting position, he soon came round and delightfully engaged with his immediate environment and company. The work of the DCC includes seeking out families with a disabled child and encouraging them to access services that can provide support, encouragement and reduction of stigma.
Each Tuesday at the DCC is a drop-in clinic. Here we met 5 year old Judith; her parents were in consultation with Norah who diagnosed flat feet. Judith came back to the clinic the following Tuesday to meet with Julius, who, with conviction, got to work in his workshop to make a pair of orthopaedic in-soles.
Julius in the DCC’s workshop making in-soles for Judith
Judith trying out her bespoke orthopaedic in-soles.
We were made to feel very involved and were provided with an insight into the dedicated work being carried out to support and encourage some of the poorest families for whom daily life is difficult in their challenge to raise the quality of life for their dear children.
It was great once again to visit the DCC in Kenya and some of their associated schools, including Athi, and learn more of their work. An excellent and helpful visit for 2 of us from HATW; I particularly enjoyed meeting Nelly who is now 11 and in excellent health after much surgery - she looks very bright, active and happy. Here she is (above, second from the right):
I enjoyed the chance to 'recharge my Africa batteries' and realise once again the scale of the needs there. There were contrasts and some anomalies as usual, and I came away with questions but also greater understanding I hope!
I was astonished to see the kids at Athi wash and use antibacterial spray on their hands before lunch (and not a new bottle brought out for our benefit!).
There was good speedy broadband at the DCC, but lots of stigma and ignorance around disability and its management in the community.
We enjoyed our welcome at the mission hospital guest house, including the wonderful early-morning singing from the chapel next to us. We had no health problems and only one very brief power cut!
(One other highlight for me was an enforced stop on the main Meru – Nairobi highway to allow 6 elephants to cross the road!)
Oliver Kirimi the DCC director met us off the shuttle minibus, settled us into our lovely house, and generally hosted and looked after us well all week. He is genuine, serious, honest and keen to get things done. He introduced me to Lydia who is the Chair of the Board. She is a gentle, quiet lady who works in the accounts department of the hospital and is confined to a wheelchair.
Our first visit was to Twale School in the valley, Meru side. A primary school with secondary across the field, it has just opened a unit for 12 children with disabilities this term. They are looked after by 2 very enthusiastic special-needs teachers and accommodated in a wooden hut attached to a classroom block, which has a lumpy mud floor, half a dozen desks and absolutely no equipment. Most of the children have cerebral palsy or mixed issues, but one has quite severe autism and needs very specialised care. It was a useful insight, and highlighted the need for appropriate buildings, stimulating toys etc.. We were also told about a sad lack of parental interest and support. Many of the children need assessment but it is said to be too costly for them to come to Maua. Not sure if this is somewhere we could help in future?
Next visit was to Turuu children’s home and orthopaedic workshop, part of a Catholic Mission. They can make and repair limb prostheses and repair wheel chairs, have a training therapy room also. Julius the DCC orthopaedic technician is attending there for training, Anthony DCC physio and Norah DCC OT also visit. (These 3 are called the DCC Rehab Team). For reference, an above-knee hinged prosthesis from Turuu costs about £500.
The DCC building looks good and the Guernsey Overseas Aid funded work has made a significant difference. There is still some equipment on order but due imminently. But they are obviously still very short of space and I encouraged them to think about how to change that. If funds were available, it seems the workshop could be extended forwards quite a way into the yard, allowing the therapy room to be extended into the back of the workshop storage area.
We met with each of the rehab team individually. All are young. Enthusiastic, motivated and working well together as a team, we liked them. They appear knowledgeable but quiet. A number of workshop hand tools we had brought were well received. We also gave some knitted kids' jumpers and 2 first aid kits which had been donated. I asked Norah what her dream for Athi would be, and she said she would like to go more frequently (currently one Friday a month) and concentrate on training and encouraging staff and mothers there to undertake daily therapy for the kids. She is greatly looking forward to the OT visit in March to help her with this dream. All reinforced the view that often parents are not keen to help their children with disabilities.
We met Thomas Akini the DCC Social Development worker who is responsible for the self help groups and groups of people living with disabilities. This is obviously a much more major part of the work of the DCC than I had realised, is very clearly defined and well-organised, with weekly minuted meetings and fines for those who do not turn up, and is growing rapidly. Micro-finance is obviously very popular! One session was training in soap making. I have encouraged Julie when she visits to talk to Thomas to learn more about this programme. Maybe Athi can learn to raise funds with these techniques?
We met and were invited to dinner with Revs Jim and Sue Monroe. They are from the US, he is the hospital CEO and she looks after ex-pat visitors. Fortunately I was able to negotiate free accommodation for Julie G (accountant) and Lydia B (occupational therapist) who will spend the month of March there, and for future volunteers.
Next visit was to Njia School, a special school for mentally challenged and hearing impaired children. They have a good audiology unit and a trained teacher and refer for ENT help. No hearing aids though. The school may become just for the hearing impaired in future. They have built a small clinic outside the gate which is supposed to generate income but doesn't really, although it is seen as a valuable local resource.
We also visited Athiru Gaiti school, just down the road 10 minutes from Maua. It has an established special unit with a great teacher, good clean classroom with some toys and equipment, including a stocked 'play shop' and an indoor garden. The outside play area however is difficult and rough with broken swings but a usable slide. There is a basic dormitory for boys and one for girls. Very little water, and the lined fish pond, although stocked with fish was all but dry. Water is their main problem. A dining hall built last year with community development funds needs decorating and furnishing. Funds too have dried up. I thought this might be a project our supporters would like to help.
After lunch with the hospital board, we went to Athi School. Esther the head was keen to see us and we were happy with what we saw. The buildings looked clean and well cared for. Water is still a problem, the storage tank has a tap now but it leaks, very little comes through the pipeline from the forest. The tea factory next door will unfortunately not allow them a hose pipe but they do go each day and fill jerry cans there. 104 children are enrolled but often fewer than 90 turn up. 60 live in. Florence and Emily are still there, and Florence talked in English and led the singing of one song. Although she looks in good health, I thought there is a deep sadness about her.
In the dining hall there are tables and 150+ plastic chairs, and a display table for the bead necklaces the children make as therapy. The 'therapy room' is a partially-built structure attached at one end to the back of the dining room, and at the other end to one of the dormitories. Funds are needed for window, doors, roof etc..
Oliver feels that completion of the therapy room would lead to more therapist visits and possibly an in-house OT or physio appointment. Esther is keen on getting it finished. She is also very keen for more classroom space. Currently she has 4 – and one is just an old wooden hut. This is hopelessly inadequate and infilling between the dormitory, therapy room and the dining hall could create another classroom.
Finally we visited a 9 year old girl at home. She has CP, has a shaped sitting frame which the family do not use, normally she lies on the sofa and doesn't go out anywhere. She seems alert and communicates with sounds and expression when elevated so that she can see what is going on round her. She is obviously regarded as low in the pecking order within the family, although the parents did seem kind and interested. The physio gave her some exercise and arranged for her to come to Maua for assessment and discussion of schooling. This did seem like a good indicator of the current situation in the community – lots still to do for individual children and in changing attitudes, but interested people trying to make a difference.
I'm sure there's lots else we could do in future, but encouraging self-help is important too. We need to work together for the benefit of all the children.
Thank you for your past support and encouragement. Please help us carry on as there is much to do!
One year into the DCC expansion in Maua, we are excited to see the developments at our project partner. Investment has not only significantly improved the workshop building, but has provided equipment for making mobility aids and therapy equipment to help in the ongoing treatment of disabled children. Staff at DCC have also been able to benefit from training so that they are expert in using the new equipment.
Here are some of the local children benefiting from the therapy equipment which is now available.
HATW makes long term links – we are always looking for expert volunteers who are able to give time to visiting and working in partnership; of course, financial donations to support the projects enable the work to continue and sponsorship is another way of targeting funds to those with the greatest need. How would you like to help? Please contact us at email@example.com to find out more.
Work is ongoing with the orthopaedic workshop. No new pictures are available just yet, but we know that internal work is ongoing, along with the purchase of equipment. Some staff training too has been arranged. The schools are now closed for the long holidays.I will be visiting the project in January with one of our trustees, and then in late February, three UK volunteers will go out for a 4 week placement. We are all very much looking forward to the visits and to finding new ways in which we can develop our work together to help lots of children in the Maua and North Meru area.There are many encouraging signs of progress...
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