I have been procrastinating for a week before writing this. I don’t really know why. Perhaps it is because it’s a complex and emotional problem as usual and the way I see it there’s no obvious answer. But anyway, not writing anything is unforgivable.
Early last week I went to see a centre for children with special needs set up by a Kenyan teacher I know called Beatrice. Beatrice gave it the rather slick name ‘The Barney’s Centre’, but this name belies the reality of the place. The home or day care centre is located somewhere way out on the Thika Road, past Kasarani Stadium, past Safari Park Hotel, basically in a fairly run down area. Put it this way, driving my car in there was interesting.
Beatrice is one of the teachers in the kindergarten that our youngest daughter goes to. She set up Barney’s school/centre one year ago with three friends; all were adult students studying children with disabilities of varying degrees. Over this past year, the three friends have all dropped out of the project one by one. Even though Beatrice has her own children, she spends all her holidays and free time at the centre helping out.
I’ve known Beatrice for ages but some time before last Christmas she collared me about her special needs school and asked for food donations.
‘Some of the mothers are pretty desperate,’ she said. ‘We like to feed the kids and the mothers where possible, at least one meal a day.’
I said, ‘tell all the kindergarten parents about this, write a note, parents will be sure to chip in once they know what you’re doing!’
However, the food whip round bombed and most people forgot. (I think I wrote about this).
Beatrice resorted to targeting only those kindergarten parents who had stopped to listen for more than a second.
‘What I’m doing now is asking a few of you to bring in a specific food each month. Like rice, sugar tea. I know, you can buy dry beans.’
‘Fine.’ I said. (except I am just as guilty as everyone else. Sometimes I forget about the beans, then have to make rushed trips to Nakumatt to buy the chick peas, lentils and beans at the last minute).
At the end of the school term, Beatrice collared me again.
‘Come and see us at Barney’s and see what we are all about.’
I agreed but was dreading it. I knew it would take over an hour to get to the place, then it would be hot when I got there and of course, it would be harrowing. Fortunately there was another mum who I don’t know well, who Beatrice had also arm-twisted to come, so I drove both of us and we went together.
After a couple of wrong turns, Beatrice talked us into the depths of then met us at a random railway track then hopped in the car to show us where to go.
In fact the Barney’s centre was a bright little place. She had rented a row of six rooms (6,000 shillings per month) and there was a sizeable yard or open area in front. There was a space for preparing food (Beatrice does get end of market, fresh vegetables donated each week), a treatment room and a room for a couple of house mothers and some children to stay the night. However, it’s still cramped. There are public loos next door so there’s a big problem with flies. Plus the landlady is keen to rent the plot out to more commercial tenants, even use the yard to build more units.
‘At the moment we have around 18 kids coming in,’ Beatrice explained, ‘some of them live far and it’s hard for the mum’s to carry them from home to here and back again in one day.’ (I hadn’t thought of that – some are over 12 years old, some 15.)
Over the next couple of hours we met the children and some of their mothers. Some children were more handicapped than others. There was a fifteen year old girl who stays propped up in a chair almost all day, a Sudanese child who was severely thin with twisted limbs in splints donated by UNHCR (because he is a refugee – UNHCR don’t help anyone else in the home). Then others that were mobile but were mentally disabled, one down syndrome child.
We also met Stanley who is the physiotherapist and should come in to the centre 5 days a week, but they can only afford to have him come in for three and even then they struggle to pay him on a regular basis. The idea is that the Mums pay some school fees to contribute but many cannot or do not.
When I met the mums, they said immediately, ‘will you sponsor my child?’
Beatrice had warned us that this would be their approach. The mothers told us how hard it was to mother a child with special needs, how the fathers were either absent or refused to pay school fees for a child with difficulties. How they could not get out to work because their children needed so much care. How their disabled children were constantly sick and needed expensive medication all the time.
Interestingly, because the Barney’s Centre opened around a year ago, many of the mothers that day were carrying new babies. Beatrice explained that their new found freedom after many years meant that they decided they were ready to have another child.
I said to the Mums, ‘We’re here to help the Barney’s centre not individuals – that way you all get help.’
Perhaps the mums knew about empty promises.
Beatrice said later that one father had managed to get private sponsorship for his child. He came in with a cheque made out to the Barneys centre then demanded Beatrice refund him 50% cash. She refused so he took his child out of the school. No win situation.
Beatrice, with the best will in the world, is drowning under the responsibility of it all. She saw a need, set up a school, is helping the community hugely – but it’s unsustainable.
‘I wish I could just come in and be with the kids and not worry about the rent, salaries, the mother’s problems.’
A heroic fundraise spearheaded by another teacher at the kindergarten (without hauling in the parents), raised enough money to buy a patch of land for the Barney’s centre. All they need now is funding for buildings.....
What I don’t understand is when all this Aid money pours into Kenya, why a big organisation or NGO like Care, Oxfam, Dfid – somebody! – can’t step in and take the Barney’s Centre under their wing and take care of the running costs. Anybody out there?
Barney’s is an excellent project Kenyan run and set up – right now it’s just doomed to fail unless poor Beatrice is thrown a lifeline. What’s needed is not odd donations here and there but proper administration. Please, if you have any ideas, let me know!!!