“Disability is not Inability”: Special needs kids in Kenya

Children are expected to pitch in however they can at the PEFA Matumaini Centre.

I’ve visited Kenyan schools before, but last week I met some special students. I spent a week at the PEFA Matumaini Centre (www.pefamatumaini.org) near the small town of Molo, which is home to 23 young people with physical and mental special needs. The centre also supports dozens more disabled children who still live at home or attend boarding schools. The centre works to demonstrate their motto, that “disability is not inability,” to both the children living in their dorms and to the surrounding community.

Mike, one of the older students, relaxes on the centre’s lawn.

During my time here, I had the opportunity to befriend the staff and children. I helped serve a dinner of ugali and beans, and shared a Bible story with the children. We played kickball on the centre’s grass, and later started watching the classic 1980s movie “Karate Kid” (once the popcorn was devoured, most of the audience lost interest and left). A few of the high-functioning boys were always eager to use my camera and took hundreds of photos of themselves, their friends, and anything else they could aim a lens at.

Four o’clock each afternoon means chai (milky tea) in the dining room.

As I got to know the children, I began to wonder just what made these kids “special needs.” For many, I could see why they needed extra care at the centre. Obvious medical problems like spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy made eating, washing, or using the toilet impossible without help.

But others seemed like fairly normal kids. They ran and played soccer, chopped wood for the kitchen, and didn’t strike me as particularly disabled. A club foot or a learning disability meant they had been classified as “special needs.”

Harun squeezes water from a pulp made of sawdust and shredded paper. After drying, the charcoal is used for cooking fires.

Some local families, I got the impression, didn’t need much convincing to send their kids away to a centre that provided school sponsorship and food each day. It was a striking difference from how Canadian families react to special needs children, likely a result of different economic capabilities. But how did the children feel about being separated from parents and other kids to live in a compound with such a range of different needs? I never got the chance, or courage, to ask.

That’s not meant to diminish the PEFA Matumaini Centre’s fine work caring for children who have been diminished and marginalized. I really appreciated the centre’s focused motto of “empowering children to reach their God-given potential as responsible members of the community.”

Phyllis was often the slowest to get to church or meals, but always had a striking smile on her face.

The centre provides education sponsorship for kids to attend the area’s only primary school with a specific mandate to integrate special needs kids into regular classes. The school is next-door, just a few steps away from the dorms (still a difficult distance for some of the children). It’s much more basic than a Canadian special needs classroom.

Back at the centre, a volunteer physiotherapist works to strengthen and relax bodies tensed and twisted by years of seizures. The children learn to grow vegetables and wash their clothes, and to make charcoal from shredded paper.

Wyclef’s epileptic seizures have damaged his brain and his body. He can’t walk very well or eat by himself.

Living conditions for these kids aren’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t what I would want. As it does for many Kenyans, diet consists of mostly ugali and spinach or other greens. Beans are twice a week, meat is once, thanks to money from outside donors. Some children have no families able or willing to care for them, so they live at the centre full-time. Others live in the shared dorms just for the school year, then go home for holidays.

Many young people have been given staff positions after their school years finish. With more donor support, the director hopes to add new playground equipment and solar panels for power.

The young people seemed mostly happy, but some can also be obstinate and rude with staff. Have they been conditioned to be more needy or demanding by this childhood of special attention? What is the effect when a child is told they can’t learn or play like their friends?

John suffered a brain injury in an accident, but still loves music and sang for me several times. He always beckoned me to come sit with him, then spoke in a very slow, halting voice.

When does a child need special care, and when is it better to be left to adapt in the general population, as tough as that might be? My  uneducated position is that applying a “disabled” label doesn’t help some children. I saw this at the centre, where children who limped with a club foot where lumped together with children with severe epilepsy and serious brain injuries. People had decided they were slow learners, but my impression was that the diagnosis may have been a bit fuzzy. Maybe they had a learning disability, maybe they could have thrived in a typical Kenyan class.

Catalina, a physiotherapist living at the centre, works with the children when they’re not in school.

I am certainly not qualified to make those important medical distinctions. But I did see a committed staff at the PEFA Matumaini Centre trying to improve skills, self-confidence, and ambitions for a large group of young people who otherwise may not have had many opportunities.

Leonida and George play on the centre’s playground equipment.

Centre director Madam Florence baked a tasty cake on my last day in Molo.


Crushing stones in Kampala for 10 cents a bucket

A tool of the trade, which I wielded like an amateur.

The “clink, clink” of hammer hitting rocks is the soundtrack of the Acholi Quarter. Like an unsteady metronome, it counts out hours and days here in the Kampala slum.

Churchill breaks a rock from the quarry wall in his corner of the Acholi Corner’s biggest employer.

A rock quarry cuts through this hilly neighbourhood of tin-roofed wood and mud shacks. The steep canyon of brown stone and dirt runs alongside homes and streets where children play. It’s interrupted by a main city street leading to Kampala’s large Nelson Mandela football stadium, where the slum fades into urban development.

For most men in the Acholi Quarter, extracting stones and turning them into gravel for construction projects is the best work available.They break rocks with sledge hammers and steel wedges made from old car parts. Then, they carry the chunks to other workers sitting by the roadside who bash the rocks into gravel. They’re paid for each 20 litre plastic jerry can filled, with prices ranging from 200 to 300 shillings (eight to 12 cents) depending in the size of the crushed stones.

Finding the right crack to attack takes a practiced eye.

The first refugees who arrived here from northern Uganda, running from the atrocities of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the 1980s or 1990s, claimed an unofficial share of the quarry on a first-come, first-served basis. Division lines are marked on the rock walls with black steaks from burned rubber tires. Those owners now hire others to help bludgeon the earth into measly profits.

Carrying a piece of future gravel towards its close encounter with a hammer.

During my time in the Acholi Quarter, I spent a few hours with the men doing this job. For someone raised in a developed, industrial country, where so many jobs involve air conditioning, computer screens, and barely breaking a sweat, it was hard to comprehend that some people broke rocks all day to provide for their families.

My new friends, Churchill and Jovino, demonstrated their work for me. I was hoping for a fully hands-on experience, an expression of solidarity with the men who did this job for so many years. I did carry a rock chunk from quarry to roadside, then sat down for a few minutes to smash it into gravel. I managed not to crush my thumb, but my technique was poor and it would have taken me all day (at least) to fill one plastic bucket and earn my 10 cents. The experienced workers can fill a dozen jerry cans in a day.

The black ash from burned tires marks the borders of each person’s area.

My hosts didn’t let me get too dirty by working for long. I was also the target of some strange looks as passers-by observed this visitor with a hammer in hand. This is what workers here do in the hot Ugandan sun for nine hours a day, six days a week. If they’re less lucky, they are hired less regularly and can’t earn money each day to pay their rent and children’s school fees.

Jovino demonstrates how to break stones into smaller stones.

It’s not safe work. There are no hard hats, safety goggles, or fences around the quarry’s high edges. Churchill has a gapped smile after a chunk of rock flew into his face and knocked out a tooth. Jovino’s hand was grotesquely swollen and when I first met him, a somewhat common injury that results from the constant pounding of hammer on rock.  It had to be drained and infected tissue removed. Another man’s foot was bloody and bandaged after stepping on a sharp shard. Men have died when an unstable rock wall collapses and crushes the workers at the bottom of the quarry. Even worse, playing children have run off the edge and fallen to their deaths.

Churchill has slowly chipped away at the quarry for 14 years.

Although the job is hard, the men I met wondered what they would do once the rocks were finally all gone. Each year, the quarry is dug deeper and available rock shrinks.

Seeing this work made me overwhelmingly grateful for the job opportunities back home. I can be confident that as an educated Canadian, I will never have to do such dangerous, boring, difficult work to survive. The industrial world’s job market and government supports make such a life nearly impossible. What a privileged and easy existence I have, completely unearned, simply because of my birthplace.

You can read my previous blog post about the Acholi Quarter by clicking here.

The joys of simple living

A cheap guesthouse where I slept for a night. Not pictured: the noise from a nearby night club.

I also could have called this post “The unglamorous life of a backpacking.” At least, that was the alternative title that came to mind while I rinsed my dirty socks in an also-dirty guesthouse sink.

You see, when I travel, I prefer not to stay in the nicest hotels. In fact, my accommodations often could be called “bottom of the barrel.” Part of this is my own stinginess; three months spent in expensive places would quickly add up to more than I want to pay!

But the places where I sleep are also an important part of my travel experience. Taking private transportation directly to a comfy hotel means I would miss a huge amounts of grit and beauty. Falling asleep in a cheap room to the delightful lullaby of shouting motorbike drivers and street kids playing tag on the street below (true story!) is a real part of life in this part of the world that I wouldn’t want to skip.

I’m in East Africa to learn and challenge myself. Do you know what’s challenging? Washing all your dirty laundry by hand in a basin or sink! That sure makes me appreciate the luxury of tossing anything remotely dirty into a machine that does all the work for me.

Some places have showers with hot water, other times (usually at people’s homes) it’s a basin and pitcher to pour water on yourself.

How about a cold water shower, or maybe washing by pouring water on myself from a basin? That makes my Canadian habit of standing relaxed under a hot stream of water seem absolutely luxurious.

I’m not saying this because I think the Canadian way is entirely wrong. I don’t plan to completely stop driving my car on our smooth highways, eating junk food occasionally, or enjoying the air-conditioning on a hot summer day once I’m home.

But travel to other parts of the world can be a good reminder that I don’t need those things to survive. I like to abandon my comfortable way of life for a while, in the hopes that I can more fully appreciate so many of the foods, conveniences, quiets, and comforts of Canada once I return.

I’m certainly blessed, both through the technology and comforts of home and through opportunities to live differently.

A refugee’s journey to the UNHCR in Nairobi

The Nairobi UNHCR office, which serves all of East Africa. Somali and Sudanese refugees line up outside each morning to file claims or change their applications. Photo courtesy of Cathy Fairley

Last week I had the privilege of touring the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At this Nairobi office, refugees’ hopes for resettlement can either sink or float, but most often they stagnate.

This UNHCR office serves all of East Africa, but staff here are kept busy mostly with Somali refugees who continue to escape their violence-soaked country and pour across the Kenyan border, just as they have for years.

The Nairobi office receives around 100 new refugee claimants each day. That total has shrunk dramatically since the height of East Africa’s famine and drought last year, when 500 to 700 new people arrived each day. The UN’s office here couldn’t handle so many, so that rush created a backlog of 12,000 applications awaiting final approval.

These days, 300 to 500 applicants line up outside the building each morning. During my team’s visit, the lineup was fairly small; most of the daily visitors are admitted inside for processing before noon.

Once past the security checkpoint with metal detectors, guards, and finger print scanning, the refugee claimants come to a small office with staff stationed at desks. It’s not a big, fancy office, but the refugees can conduct business in 25 different languages, thanks to the UN’s many translators.

Since 2008, all these applications eventually have to go through Lucie Gagné, the Canadian who works at the UNHCR as head of refugee resettlement. She approves each case after staff interviewers check if each applicant has a legitimate story and refugee claim. Kenyans have sometimes tried to register on the list for resettlement, or Somalis with violent pasts try to receive status.

Gagné will soon have some help handling the long waiting list of cases, though: the Kenyan government has sent staff to be trained in process, and eventually hopes to take over refugee approvals and registrations. It’s uncertain when those changes will happen or how effective the national government will be.

The Somalis who come to Nairobi are stepping into uncertainty. The Kenyan government doesn’t provide any support for refugees who leave the official refugee camps in Dadaab or Kakuma, but people journey to the capital anyway. The camps are extremely crowded (at one point 350,000 people lived in a space designed for 90,000) and full of violence, and the city offers some hope of income and dignity while they wait for resettlement in another country.

“I think what keeps them in Nairobi, instead of in the camp where they have food and medical care, is they want to do something with their life,” Gagné said. Even this temporary home in Nairobi is a stopgap. Their real hope is to be chosen for resettlement in Canada, Australia, or some other country.

Unfortunately, the dream is a long time in coming, if it ever arrives at all. It can take one and a half years for a refugee application to be approved by Gagné and her team, despite the staff’s frequent 12-hour days.

There are an estimated 100,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, currently living in Nairobi. Only one per cent each year is chosen for resettlement in a new country, and more arrive each day, so most will spend their lives waiting here for a ticket to a “promised land” that may never materialize.

“There’s no prospect of integrating [in Kenya],” Gagné said. “There’s no prospect of going home. You have a lost generation.”

I was surprised at a few things during my visit to the UNHCR office. I had a preconception of the UN as a mostly European or North American organization, but that wasn’t the case. Staff seemed to be mostly African.

But especially surprising was the level of compassion I saw from the people we spoke to.  I expected a cold, bureaucratic machine but instead found people who seemed to offer genuine compassion for refugees and struggle with no being able to help more.

Gagné was even sympathetic of those who try to lie, cheat or bribe to speed up their claim: “It’s desperation, it’s survival,” she explained, and added she would probably do the same in their position.

“As a humanitarian organization, we try to be inclusive rather than selective, but be consistent,” she said, and deciding which families among many worthy cases should be approved for resettlement was an obvious dilemma for her.

Of course, talking later with Nairobi refugees who are waiting for the UN’s help reveals an entirely different opinion on the office’s compassion and mercy. For them, the process is slow, unfair, and dispassionate. But for me, the tour was a remarkably candid and revealing look at a refugee’s search for peace and good people’s efforts to provide security through the world’s flawed systems.

Ubuzima: New life

I recently met some men and women who gave the word “life” a new meaning: Ubuzima.

Ubuzima is a small community of Rwandans infected with HIV. More literally, it’s the Kinyrwandan word for life.

The group of mostly women meets each week at a church in Kigali. Last week, my team and I had the privilege to join them. We sang worship songs together (well, they sang and the Canadians tried to hum along). And when the worship turned into a dance circle revolving around the meeting room, the Canadians happily participated.

Singing and dancing with the Ubuzima HIV support group

Even if dancing for God isn’t a normal activity for this Mennonite guy, the group’s energy and passion was irresistible. Our circle of new friends each greeted us enthusiastically with hugs, and the aura of warm love and community support was strong.

“Do we look sick to you?” asked Mama Deborah, the group’s organizer. She was right, our hosts had an abundance of energy and it was a lot of fun to spend time with these vibrant women as they sang, talked, and prayed together.

Ubuzima has grown to around 60 people, much to the surprise of Mama Deborah. She began the ministry by simply sitting and crying with a few infected women at the church. Although she didn’t give them any material support to ease their lives, the group kept multiplying.

Living with the disease has left many members weak and unable to work most jobs or lift heavy loads. In a country where people carry heavy objects for long distances, that makes daily life extra difficult. As a new way to support themselves, several of the Ubuzima women have begun spending their days creating colourful jewelry, purses, and other bags with newly-bought sewing machines.

One of several sewing machines used by the group's growing business.

My Canadian team and I bought several of their creations. Much as I dislike the dollar signs that inevitable hover over my head as a visiting North American, I was happy to invest in a new business that offers a livelihood to people who would otherwise have little. I hope more customers come and the business thrives.

Having HIV still carries a real stigma in Rwanda, although attitudes are shifting in recent years.  Some of the women who come to the group haven’t told their families and attend Ubuzima secretly.  Earlier this year, a woman died from AIDS. Her family didn’t even know she was infected. But in this small weekly community, they could relax with no shame and no condemnation.

Some of these women were infected through rape during the 1994 genocide. We asked their leader if there was any bitterness or depression resulting from the injustice that changed the rest of their lives.  That depends on the person, she said, but many have decided that they can’t change what has happened to them. They can only look ahead to the future.

Around 170,000 Rwandans are living with HIV, according to the most recent estimates I could find. That’s 2.9 per cent of the adult population; certainly not the worst rate in Africa, but a far greater problem than Canada’s paltry 0.3 per cent.

Note: this is a reflection on my Rwandan experiences, but my team has actually been in Nairobi, Kenya for several days.  More updates coming soon on all we’re seeing and learning here.

Kiziba refugee camp: life with no home

Blue school uniforms and rough wooden trolleys for hauling firewood in Kiziba refugee camp.

The thing I’ll remember the most about my two days in the Kiziba Refugee camp were the children. They were everywhere, since half of the camp’s 20,000 residents are under the age of 15.  They shouted endless “good morning!”s to me, jostled for position in front of my camera, and mostly just followed in a noisy, snot-nosed crowd.

Those young people have never known a different home. Their families fled the murder, rape, and lawlessness in the DR Congo and crossed the border to Rwanda, where they’ve lived in this camp. That started in 1996, and they’re still there.

I saw many faces like this one while walking the narrow lanes between the camp's small houses.

They want to go home.  That’s the message I heard several times, even from the young men who had never seen “home.” This was a strange idea for my Canadian team, and we asked why they didn’t just leave the camp and accept the Rwandan citizenship offered by their host country. In Canada, a nation of immigrants, your family’s traditional land is not important. But for these Congolese, it’s a crucial part of their identity. Even if they did try to make it as a Rwandan, they’d be just another poor person without land, education, job prospects, or any money to start a new life.

Instead, the camp residents are making the best of their limited situation. Some are starting businesses or working on community projects (although options are very limited). They’re also hoping to be one of the 15 families or so that are accepted each year to resettle in a foreign country. Whether hoping for a ticket to Canada or a return to a peaceful Congo, most have spent 15 years waiting. That wait likely won’t end soon.


I don’t have answers yet, but I have learned a lot of good questions. I’ve also gained a new appreciation for where my refugee friends in Canada came from.  They would have worshipped in church each Sunday, collected firewood for hours, and played football in their refugee community. They might have held leadership positions or had jobs. There’s a functional, but very impoverished, society inside these camps. The people my team met were the leaders who worked hard to improve their situation, and I was happy to learn about and encourage their efforts.