, 08 February, 2020 / 5:45 AM
At an expansive portion of land in a rural suburb of Limuru in Kenya’s Kiambu County in the Archdiocese of Nairobi, sits Limuru Cheshire Home, a charitable institution for girls living with physical and intellectual disabilities.
In one of the rooms at this facility managed by Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN), Joy carefully works on an African print skirt that she intends to showcase in one of the institution’s future events.
Joy, (not her real name), has been staying at Limuru Cheshire Home with more than 50 other girls for the past two years, away from her poverty-stricken home in Deep Sea, a sprawling informal settlement that is located on the fringes of Kenya’s capital city, North-west Nairobi.
The 19-year old is intellectually challenged, and is “the most normal child in a family of seven children”, according to Sr. Rose Catherine Wakibiru, the Administrator of Limuru Cheshire Home.
“Joy’s mother has an intellectual disability as well. And all her seven children have one or the other disability. The only healthy member of Joy’s family is her father who does menial jobs in the slums to provide for his big family,” Sr. Rose Catherine says.
Despite her special needs, Joy attempted to go to a regular school but dropped out when she found it difficult to keep up with other children who didn’t have special needs.
“I always came last in class from the time I started going to school. Teachers always punished me, thinking I chose to be a slow learner,” Joy recalls, revealing that she sat her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and obtained a low mark. In an interview with ACI Africa, Joy only laughs when asked about the number of marks she obtained in her final exam.
She tried begging on the streets to help her father to fend for the family. In fact, before ASN rescued her and brought her to the Centre, she had worked with a begging cartel that took a cut from what she got from begging on Nairobi streets.
Today, Joy’s journey is one of the institution’s success stories, having been trained in dressmaking, bakery and equipped with computer skills at the institution that was started to empower girls living with disabilities “to exploit their potentials for sustainable livelihoods”, according to the institution’s mission statement.
Her work has won admiration at numerous displays at the Centre for individuals and groups who visit the Centre to make donations to the girls. She is one of the girls set to graduate from the institution later this year after which she will be given a sewing machine to set up a dressmaking business.
Joy has mixed feelings at the thought of graduating from the institution she has called home for the past two years.
“I don’t want to leave, much as I wish to go out there and start a business to support my family. I haven’t found peace and security elsewhere. It is only in this place that I have found real friends,” says Joy, her eyes shyly fixed on the ground.
All the other girls at the institution share Joy’s experiences. The girls who are drawn from different parts of the East African country come to the institution seeking solace from one difficulty or the other.
All the 60 girls at the community-based empowerment facility have either a physical disability or intellectual impairment. Most have a combination of the physical and mental impairment.
The facility was founded nearly 50 years ago by World War II hero Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, a renowned World War II veteran, who, at the end of war, immersed himself in charity work. He set up communities for ex-service people and proceeded, in later years, to build homes for cancer patients and people with all kinds of disabilities across the world.
Before his death in 1991 aged 74, Cheshire, who was commissioned an official British observer at the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki in a move that was designed to end the war in the Far East, had established charity projects in 52 countries around the world.
The Limuru facility was initially a home for cancer patients before it was converted to a home for physically challenged girls in 1972 and put under the management of ASN in 1986. It is among four institutions registered under Cheshire Disability Services Kenya (CDSK).
Others include Oriang’ Cheshire Home, which provides inclusive education to Persons living with disabilities (PWDs) in Homabay County (Homabay diocese), Nairobi-based Kariobangi Cheshire Home and Day Care Center for the elderly in Nairobi Archdiocese, and Makueni Cheshire Home, a vocational training and rehabilitation Centre in Kenya’s Makueni County, Machakos diocese.
Today, Limuru Cheshire Home sits on a 10-acre land that has been divided into different portions for buildings and farming. There are some three acres set aside for tea farming, two acres for horticulture where the girls grow carrots, cabbages, spinach and a variety of organically grown indigenous vegetables.
There are also three greenhouses where the girls grow capsicum and tomatoes for consumption at the Centre. Surplus produce is sold to the neighboring households that rely on the Centre for organic produce.
“For years, the Centre has built a reliable market that trusts us to supply them with food that is free from chemicals. All our farming here is purely organic,” says Sr. Rose Catherine.
Additionally, the institution rears five dairy cows, 30 chickens and also recently installed an open drip irrigation system to manage watering of crops at the farm.
Some of the facilities at the institution include a multipurpose room where the girls go for prayers, hold meetings and attend some of their classes. The classes include dressmaking, beads work, knitting, and computer literacy. Other facilities at the institution include a knitting room equipped with knitting equipment, a fully equipped computer room, a classroom and a physiotherapy room.
Sr. Rose Catherine who has been running the institution since January last year, assisted by Sr. Caroline Abuya has seen the number of the girls almost double, from only 37 last year to the current 60. This, she says, has led to a capacity challenge at the institution.
“We have been forced to clear some stores to make room for more beds. Additionally, girls are sharing seats since there are not enough chairs for everybody,” the Kenyan-born ASN nun says.
Popularity of the disability Centre grew after Sr. Rose Catherine who took her first vows in 1990 took over leadership of the Centre, revitalized income generating projects, and started scouring for funding, attracting the attention of local media while at it.
She would later receive calls from parents and guardians from different parts of the country who wanted admission at the facility for their daughters who were living with disabilities. Due to the capacity challenge, the school is unable to take in 27 girls who the nun has put on the admission waiting list.
“I have had many parents calling me crying to have their girls admitted. There are many on the waiting list and the number keeps growing every day. But we can’t do anything because we don’t have facilities to take in more girls at the moment,” says Sr. Rose Catherine.
She says that while majority of the girls are enrolled at the institution by their parents and guardians, a good number of the girls, the likes of Catherine Ngoro, are brought in by police after they are found wandering unattended.
“We don’t know Ngoro’s background. We don’t know her real name, her age or where she comes from because she can’t speak. The police brought her here after she was arrested on the streets where she had been wandering aimlessly,” narrates Sr. Rose Catherine adding, “We named her Ngoro because that is the only word she uttered whenever she opened her mouth to speak.” In Kikuyu, one of the local dialects in Kenya, Ngoro refers to the heart.
The other girls gave her the name Catherine.
Another case is that of Sylvia who, the nun says, was brought to the Centre by her father, after the mother abandoned her because of her intellectual impairment.
According to the Catholic nun, majority of girls brought to the facility have gone through one abuse or the other, including rape.
“They (girls with disabilities) come here very traumatized. Later, they open up to us and share the abuse they have been through. Many have opened up about having been raped by their close relatives,” says Sr. Rose Catherine.
On top of the abuses, the girls are treated as “second class family members who only enjoy their rights after everyone else has had their fill”, according to Sr. Rose Catherine who narrates that parents and guardians give priority to their healthy children before they think about children with disabilities.
“The parents take their children who don’t have special needs to school, buy them whatever they need and even pay their school fees. But many are usually reluctant to invest in empowering their children with disabilities,” she decries.
The girls’ records on the day that ACI Africa visited the institution indicated that only seven out of the 60 girls had completed paying their school fees, which is KSh.6,000 (USD60.00) per month. Only a third of the parents and guardians had managed to pay a section of this amount.
Sr. Rose Catherine who has previously worked on an HIV/AIDS programme in Jamaica before she was transferred to the Limuru home says she has been encouraging the parents and guardians of the girls at the Centre to fill bursary forms to get additional funding from the County government.
“So far, few girls have filled out the forms and were awarded KSh.5,000 each. We shall continue encouraging them to fill out the forms to get this funding to support our activities here,” she said.
To contain the capacity challenge and to ensure that as many girls as possible get empowered at the Centre, Sr. Rose Catherine has introduced an exit strategy, which she says will see girls equipped with personal management skills and other life skills graduate from the institution to give room to other girls on the growing waiting list.
Last year, some 10 girls who, the nun says, had stayed at the Centre from way back in 2012 graduated in a colorful celebration that was attended by their elated family members. The families, Sr. Rose Catherine says, had already been prepared to welcome their daughters back home. Of the girls that graduated, five have been given sewing machines to start their businesses. The institution is also appealing to well-wishers to buy equipment for the remaining five girls.
The religious sister who also worked as the Development Coordinator of her Nairobi-based Congregation of nuns, fundraising for ASN, has also been rallying for funds to help pay staff at the institution including a physiotherapist, charged with the responsibility of taking the physically challenged girls through physical exercises.
Those willing to sponsor a girl at the institution for a year can do so by paying KSh54,000 (USD540), Sr. Rose Catherine says.
“We are also in dire need of a bus,” says Sr. Rose Catherine. “The only vehicle we have for the entire population of students is a 14-seater van, which we use for everything else, including transporting firewood and grass for the cattle.”
But amid the challenges, Sr. Rose Catherine finds strength to soldier on in what she calls a fulfillment of her ASN charism.
“As a religious, journeying with these girls is a fulfillment for me,” says Sr. Rose Catherine.
She adds, “Our founder intended us to give life and to respect dignity of human life especially of the poor and the marginalized members of the society including women and children.”
And guided by the ASN motto, “Love, Serve and Self-sacrifice,” the nun says, she derives fulfillment from dedicating her free time to the service of the children and forfeiting visiting her relatives and friends in other religious congregations.
At the facility, a priest joins the girls for Holy Mass on Saturdays. They have daily prayers, which are led by the girls, including the recitation of the holy rosary at 5 p.m. every day. The girls are also engaged in Bible sharing, during which they discuss Bible stories. From the time Sr. Rose Catherine took charge of the facility, five girls have been baptized; 11 have received their first holy communion.