“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.


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.

What’s cooking in Kenya? Ugali, of course!

The finished product: lunch of ugali and tiny, dried omena fish.

I recently got my first Kenyan cooking lesson. A good friend I made in the small town of Sega took me to his home and let me help make a simple lunch of ugali (a thick, sticky mass of carbohydrates, and the foundation of the Kenyan diet) and tiny fish called omena, which are pulled from nearby Lake Victoria, then dried and eaten whole.

Tasty and salty. You don’t ever notice the eyes, I promise!

So, how did we do it?  Easy!  First, my friend George fired up his “jika” a small, charcoal burner and began heating a pot of water for our ugali.  After the water began to boil, he added a little corn flour.  Then, we began to stir.

As the gooey ugali began to thicken, George added more flour to make it the right, play-dough-esque consistency. His experienced hands put in the exact amount, but I’m sure I would need to try several times to get the right ratio.

Here I am, stirring ugali as it thickens over the charcoal heat.

George, my friend and culinary instructor.

George plopped the mass of ugali on a plate and covered it to keep it hot while we started the fish.  Some oil poured in the bottom of a pot, then the fish, then some salt, then a little onion and finally a small tomato all sizzled over the charcoal. I stirred so it wouldn’t burn, and eventually the fish turned slightly golden and crispy.

Stirring the thick mixture of corn flour and water takes some muscle.


Finally, we enjoyed the fruits of our labour. Showing proper Kenyan manners, George brought a basin and a pitcher of water so I could wash my hands as he poured it for me. Now with clean hands, we squeezed the hot, doughy ugali into edible balls in our palms, then scooped up a few fish for each bite.

Ugali may not have a lot of taste, but believe me: it fills you up! George and I were very full after a meal that probably cost only a few dozen cents in total. Maybe, if you ask me nicely, I’ll even make it for you once I’m back in Canada.

Bonus picture: another meal in Sega. This time, nyoyo (corn and beans) and uji (millet porridge) that I bought at a small stall by the side of the road.

Making Connections: friends on the path

I love a good story. That’s part of what drives me to travel; the people I find in new places often tell me things that I never would have learned at home in Canada.

And some of my favourite real-life stories aren’t just sitting around somewhere, waiting to be discovered. No, they’re being actively created by passionate, driven people.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these inspiring people on my travels so far. I’m impressed by people driven to challenge the status quo, step into uncharted territory, and work to improve their world. These brief paragraphs can’t capture their entire stories, but I hope you’ll see why I’ve been happy to meet them on my own journey.

Dan Ogola, as featured on CNN.

Dan Ogola is a friend I met in Nairobi, where I stayed for nearly a week with him and his young family.  Dan grew up in Ukwala, a small rural community in western Kenya, then later moved to the Nairobi slum of Kibera. These are very economically poor conditions that rarely produce movers or shakers, but Dan has become an energetic social entrepreneur. He founded the Matibabu Foundation, which is devoted to promoting prosperity through better health and education. Dan has built a hospital in his hometown and co-ordinates dozens of volunteer American doctors each year. He believes in supporting the young women who often marry and start families so young, so he founded a girls high school.  His next project is a education centre that will offer adult classes and improve community health awareness.

Dan was featured on CNN earlier this year as a global innovater.  You can watch a preview of their great full-length profile (the long one is also available on YouTube) here:

Kate McKenzie is a teacher from Alberta on an ambitious eight-month journey around the world to find positive stories of hope and share them with her students back home. Kate is traveling to some of the world’s most challenging places, including Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan.  I met her in Rwanda, where she joined our team to visit the Kiziba refugee camp.

Kate asks great questions and is really keen to find positive aspects even in the most challenging places. That’s refreshing, when our Westernized eyes sometimes focus more on the poverty and difficulties in other countries. And she seemed always interested in being with local people and learning about their lives firsthand.

Read more about her Worldviews project at http://www.worldviewsproject.com.

Kate joined our team to visit Kiziba and learn from the refugees living in that Rwandan camp.

You can also hear about the Worldviews project in her own words here:

And finally, I spent this past weekend with Joel Chacha. He was born in rural south-western Kenya, but was able to come to Ontario with a missionary family in the 1960s to finish high school and get his post-secondary education.

That opportunity changed his life, and he hasn’t forgotten the impact of access to education. He now lives and works in Mississauga, and has found Canadian donors among his friends and co-workers to support nearly 30 students back home in Kenya. Joel comes home at least once each year to meet the students, check their marks, and encourage their progress – with limited funds and too many bright minds to nourish, poor achievers may not have their scholarships continue!

Joel at his family's homestead near Migori, in south-western Kenya, where we met with several students he has helped support.

I met Joel in New Hamburg before my trip, and he kindly invited me to spend some time at his family home. It was a great chance to meet with these young people, who have almost all had one or both parents die from AIDS, cancer, or other diseases. With a much lower life expectancy in Kenya, orphans are a big problem, but Joel sees education as the door to a better life and a career beyond subsistence farming on the family’s plot of land.

His organization is called Teamwork Children’s Services and he has also begun managing a similar program in Zambia.

That’s just the start!  But these three examples have done very interesting things, and done them with respect and generosity.

Shooting the African wildlife (with my camera)

Yes, I really could walk this close to the zebras.

Animals! I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing creatures so far on my travels. Most of these are from Lake Nakuru National Park. I’ve since seen many other animals walking through the Kakamega rain forest or the lower slopes of Mt. Elgon, but my camera batteries are dying and I can’t upload them all!

Here’s a small sample:

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Before you conclude that all I’m doing is playing with the fauna, next I head south to Migori to meet with some students whose education is sponsored by a former New Hamburg, Ontario resident. Then I head to Sega to spend a few days with a community health project.

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.

New to Africa: a visitor’s pictures

I am in Africa, and noticed some things that are different from life in Canada. Yep, it’s true. Here are a few things that aren’t quite like back home…

I ate five variations of carbohydrates for lunch at a buffet: ugali (corn maize), chapati (flatbread), rice, cassava, and some type of mashed banana that apparently tastes more like a potato.

A tasty African lunch buffet in Kigali, heavy on the carbs.

















These guys are big! And they like to swat you with their head if you annoy them.

Wildlife: I saw one of these!  They have a really long, rough tongue that sticks out to grab treats offered by tourists. I’ve also since seen elephants, warthogs, and baboons, but that’ll have to come in another post.


Tough life at the Nairobi giraffe sanctuary: stand around near a viewing platform and wait for people to feed you.

Breathability: I haven’t really been enjoying walking along Nairobi’s smelly roads.  I don’t think there are emissions standards in Kenya! The air can get pretty polluted here in the city centre, especially with big trucks and buses struggling up hills, combined with general dustiness.

I don't think this photo truly captures the truck's belching black cloud of smoke.

Going places: I also tried some of the local mass transportation; Matatus are little mini-busses that pack people shoulder-to-shoulder and travel all over the country.  Without a guide, it can be hard to know where to get off, but the drivers helpfully shout out their final destination to get you on board.  Some of them are also upgraded with music speakers and odd names painted on the front. One matatu I rode had pounding hip hop music, and stickers with slogans like “Ambitious Hustler” and “Pants Hang Low” plastered on the inside.

Riding in style, if you can figure out the right one to take.

Security: Rwanda had some police officers with big weapons walking around as a peaceful presence on the street, but Nairobi takes security to new levels.  Almost every building seems to have a high fence topped with barbed wire, and a gate with security guards watching who comes in and out.  In both countries, I’ve often been scanned or patted down by guards to enter shopping malls.

Typical wall and barbed wire around an apartment complex.

I've seen this type of sign several times in Nairobi...real estate buyers beware.

A Kenyan security guard at my guesthouse's gate checks incoming cars.

I could probably keep adding to this list, trying to give you a complete picture of life in an East African city. But that’s enough for now.  I’m loving the new things I’m learning and appreciating the good and bad in both my homeland to my host country.