Karatina, Kenya: Do you have a mentally challenged relative? Well, many have, and only a few families can afford decent care for their challenged siblings.
A good number resort to crude and unfriendly means to keep their mentally challenged kin in check. Some even hide and lock up their disadvantaged kin.
This is the bitter reality portraying the harsh challenges mentally handicapped children are sometimes exposed to.
On a lush hillside at the outskirts of Karatina town is Kibirigwi Special School for the Mentally Challenged. For more than two decades, the school has been a safe haven for hundreds of children suffering from mental illness.
Many are normally hidden away in their homes and live in deplorable conditions. Twenty five-year-old Kabogo Karani is one of the mentally challenged children in the school. He suffers from Down’s Syndrome. His small body size, however, quickly hides his age.
Having come from a vulnerable family and not knowing how to speak, ever since he joined the special school, he has recorded remarkable improvement according to his teachers and is among the best students. He loves bead work and has made beautiful ornaments.
Eva Wanjiku, 15, tells this writer she knows how to write and quickly brings out her book and scribbles something on it for me to see. Their determination is impressive.
“Each and every single day is a learning process for these children, as you get to discover something new. Having interacted with them, we have come to understand that through constant training and practice, they can learn and become responsible people, “says 53-year-old Vaudine Mbuthia, the school head teacher.
She adds, “One of the mentally handicapped children was rescued from her home after some women found out she had been locked in the cow shed by her parents. Another orphaned girl used to live with her grandfather and was allegedly defiled by her uncles and due to her mental state, she had little understanding of what was happening until some well-wishers came to her rescue. These are just some of the horrific cases we have had to put up with,” says Ms Mbuthia.
Mbuthia has taken the responsibility of nurturing and teaching the youngsters to help them live a decent life.
She says the school traces its history back in 1983, when a group of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa Women’s Guild Kibirigwi Parish noticed a number of mentally challenged children being mistreated and lived in filthy conditions.
They started moving from one homestead to another, in search of such children, though it was not easy as many of them were locked away in their homes.
“They started with three children and housed them in a building within the church’s compound. Though it now looks old, rusty and neglected, at that time, the women tried their best to place the children they had rescued under good conditions and went out of their way to provide food and other basic commodities. By the end of the year, they had six mentally children under their care,” says Mbuthia.
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The women were out to touch a soul, and there was no better way than to offer assistance to the children. For them, it was all about reaching out.
As the years went by, so did the number of mentally challenged children housed by the women’s guild grow. They realised that as much as the children were being housed, fed and clothed, there was a gap. They lacked one important need in their lives - an education.
“It happened that in 1989 one Mr Gakuo, a teacher at Kibirigwi Primary School joined the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) to equip himself with knowledge on how to handle and teach children with special needs and upon receiving his training, he took up the responsibility of teaching the mentally challenged children who had been rescued by the women’s guild,” says Mbuthia.
“He was then joined by Teacher Muturi, and they helped in equipping them with some basic knowledge and skills,” she adds.
With great zeal and determination, Mbuthia, who was then head teacher at Kibirigwi Primary School saw to it that Kibirigwi Special School was registered.
“In June 2009, we officially registered the school and it was set up on a two-acre piece of land which with the support of the parents was demarcated to set a boundary from the primary school and the special school. My goal was to see that the children are equipped with knowledge and skills to help them become self-reliant.” says Mbuthia.
Opted to leave
However, it was not an easy task, “It was all about God’s favour. I felt a deep calling to be there for the children and when the letter of appointment of the head teacher came, I didn’t think twice and opted to leave the primary school and head the special unit,” she says.
Mbuthia says that after her training at KISE, she discovered that the challenged children faced a lot of difficulties even in school.
She offers: “I got to learn that most of these children are mistreated even by their teachers. They are forced to repeat a class for many years. I felt guilty because having been a teacher for many years, I encountered such children in normal school set ups yet I was unable to help them. I got to learn that these children need to be given time to learn. I vowed to help them.”
The school has 75 children, who besides being mentally handicapped, suffer from conditions such as Autism, Down syndrome, Epilepsy and Hydrocephalus.
The classes are divided into Nursery, Primary 1 and Primary 2. Six teachers teach them.
“The nursery class caters for ‘toddlers’. They can be older, even 20 years old, and are taught how to scribble, doodle and colour. In Primary 1, it is those we are preparing and teaching them basic life skills such as toileting, training them how to speak, feed themselves, among other skills. Primary 2 is the pre-vocation class where the children are taught how to cook, bead, ornament making and weaving,” explains Mbuthia.
Since they love music and videos and learn through them, the school has gone an extra mile to purchase a TV set and a radio that is normally placed in the dormitory.
Every year, they are taken on a tour in a selected part of the country and this has helped open them up to the outside world.
Rose Kimotho has been a teacher at the school for seven years. She says she is motivated when she sees the children doing something other people thought they couldn’t.
“The children have proved that what others can do, they too can. You just have to be patient and understand them,” says Ms Kimotho.
According to Mbuthia, the biggest challenge has been what to do with the children once they graduate.
“Along the way, some children become bored doing the same thing over and over and run away. Though we try to follow up on them by carrying out home visits and counseling their parents, we feel they need to undergo some form of vocational training that will help them start projects such as chicken rearing, rabbit keeping and carpentry, to enable them become self-reliant,” says Mbuthia.
“Currently, we are not able to do this since we lack a facility and equipment to train them on such skills. Finances are equally also a challenge. But I strive to ensure they are fed a balanced diet-because I want them to be healthy.”
Despite these challenges, Mbuthia says she is happy the community has slowly learnt to accept the children.
“We take these children from different parts of the country and it gives me much joy to see their parents come visit them when we have visiting days,” she says.
Looking back, Mbuthia, who has only one biological son, says she has no regrets because of the path she has chosen since she has found a lot of fulfillment.