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Volunteer social worker strives to give women in slums hope

By Mercy Adhiambo | March 8th 2021
Mukuru Kwa Njenga social worker Risper Kigen during the interview on February 19, 2021 in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

There are leaders who take charge on the frontline and then there are those who work in the midst of the chaos of life, giving their time and resources to help others rise above their misery. Mercy Adhiambo speaks to Risper Kigen, a volunteer social worker about her dedication to changing the narrative in the slum

Risper Kigen believes every human has a story; and that those stories matter. As a volunteer social worker in Mukuru kwa Njenga, she says the most challenging part when working with people in the slum is that they have lived believing that their stories and life experiences are useless.

“My job is to remind them that despite the hopelessness they might feel, someone cares,” she says.

As the world marks International Women’s Day, she says the story of womanhood is incomplete if there are those that are constantly left behind as narratives of women rising are discussed globally.

“If you take a walk around the slums, you meet women sinking into alcoholism. They drink as their little children watch, then it becomes a cycle of addiction that is extremely difficult to break,” says Risper.

Having worked as a social worker in the slum for more than a decade, she says the most painful thing is when she watches women getting into a path of self ruin because of ignorance and poverty that gets intertwined and affects everything around them, including how they raise their children.

“I recently came across the saddest case of a woman who has stopped breastfeeding her newborn baby because she believed her husband was cheating. Their cultural belief was that if a baby breastfeeds and her father is cheating, the baby will die,” she says, adding that the baby was extremely malnourished and could barely make a sound.

“It is always sad how most of those traditional cultural beliefs tend to push women to the periphery. They get punished,” she says.

She speaks for the hundreds of volunteer social workers in different parts of the country whose job includes walking door to door to inquire if all is well.

“In the slum, you never know what you will confront when someone opens their door for you. It could be a dying mother, an ailing infant, an abandoned disabled child, a home that has not been washed for weeks because the owner is always out looking for money…” she says.

Tears, worry, violence, sexual abuse, drug abuse, prostitution; she has seen it all in her line of work.

What gives her a thrill, she says, is when she sees women rising beyond the stereotypes and doing better by shattering the barriers that were put for them right from childhood.

“When I see children who were born here and grew up around the misery that defines some of the homes but they triumphed through it all and broke the cycle, I feel happy,” she says.

She gives examples of children with disability she worked with, some of whom had been abandoned by their parents, but they ended up passing their exams and getting admission into national schools.

“What they need is love, and someone to care enough and give them a chance,” she says.

She adds that the work of a social worker in slums is to inject hope where people are losing trust in the systems that exist, including their own families.

Catholic priest John Munjuri of St Mary’s Mukuru who has worked closely with Risper says she has seen her getting into her own savings to help people in the slum who are overwhelmed by life’s unfolding.

“I will forever remember how she used her own resources and accompanies a woman who had no family and was battling cancer. She was not doing it for show. Because at some point it was just her and the sick woman. Rispa deserves to be celebrated when other women are being mentioned,” says Father Munjuri.

Risper admits that there are days she feels overwhelmed and that being a volunteer social worker in the slum means there are many people who view her with suspicion.

“These are people who are not used to people helping them without motive. They are always asking what I am getting out of it, and when I say I am getting nothing, they doubt it,” she says.

She runs businesses with her husband and says, since she has training in social work and psychology, she decided to volunteer her time in communities that most people would not want to get into.

She does not deny that there are moments when she feels overwhelmed and toys with the idea of giving up. Or days, when she starts to feel a little bitterness creep into her when thinks of how the country is moving on yet there are many people who do not have access to basic needs.  

Those moments, she says, vanish quickly and a sense of satisfaction descends when she meets people who tell her she transformed their lives. And they are many -- from those who were giving up on life due to a HIV diagnosis but she nudged them towards seeking ARV treatment, to those who simply need someone to talk to about their dreams and ambitions; even when they seem too big.

“Sometimes, the best gift you can give someone is to listen to their story and tell them that you understand them. Even without a lot of money, you can still change people’s lives by reminding them that they matter,” she says.

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