In the dusty town of Machakos, just south of Nairobi, disability is a dirty word.
Parents hide their disabled children at home, teachers are put off taking jobs at special needs schools for fear of becoming disabled themselves, and the children grow up into a life of prejudice.
But not everyone is happy with the status quo. Meet Margaret and Agnes, two women fighting for a different future for girls and boys with disabilities growing up in Kenya.
Margaret is the head teacher of a special needs unit at Township Muslim Primary School — Agnes, the mother of Nambia, a young girl given hope by the school.
Find out how these women became connected.
Margaret Mbithi’s story – the head teacher
I’m 58 and the head teacher of a special needs unit in Machakos. I used to teach in a mainstream school but what I always wanted was to work with children with special needs. When I told other teachers my plans, they tried to put me off. They told me my brain would become damaged, too.
There are some parents who think their children are cursed and hide them at home. They think their children are useless and that if you spend time with them, you become like them. I remember when I was pregnant with my last child, people even told me my baby might be born with special needs.
But I had a passion to work with these children. I didn’t quit. I went to the Institute of Special Education for a certificate, later I did my diploma, and then finally finished my degree. Now I am in charge of this special needs unit.
"Most people in the community don’t understand much about special needs. When you talk about disability, they tend to think of physical disability, hearing impairments and visual impairments. Some people think that these children are mad."
But thanks to the work of VSO ICS volunteers, things are changing.
My school is part of a mainstream school. The children in that school used to be scared of our pupils. They ran away from them. But thanks to the work of the volunteers, other children aren’t scared any more. They come and help us. And even the teachers see the children differently. They now realise that they are children too – and that with support, they can do marvellously.
What I want to say to parents who are ashamed of their disabled children is to bring them out, and bring them to school. I’ve really seen children change and develop when they are here and socialising with others. You shouldn’t discriminate against them.
Agnes Mutemi’s story – the mother
I’m Agnes. I’m 39 and a mother of three. My eldest daughter, Nambia, has learning difficulties. She’s 14 and I love her. She’s a pupil at a special school. I bring her here each and every day.
When Nambia was born, she didn’t cry. She had something the doctors said was called asphyxia. She was in hospital for two weeks. After two weeks, she finally cried. I told myself that all would be fine.
At six months old, I noticed that she couldn’t sit up by herself, but other children who were born at the same time as her were able to. I began to realise that my daughter was not okay.
I’d always expected that one day, my child would grow up to become a doctor or an engineer. But instead, she was kept in nursery school for six years. As other children progressed through the different classes, Nambia couldn’t talk or use the toilet.
Eventually I took her out of school. I was in denial there was nothing wrong with her. A friend suggested I get her assessed for a place at a special needs school. I refused. I kept her at home.
Six months passed. My friend returned to see me. She finally persuaded me to take Nambia for an assessment and introduced me to Margaret, the head teacher. I decided to give it a go.
Since then I’ve seen so many improvements in Nambia. She’s learnt to use the toilet on her own, she can wash herself, and she enjoys helping out with household chores like sweeping and cleaning.
"Raising a disabled child isn’t easy. The community’s perception is negative. They really look down on you. Some days, when they all turn to look at you as you pass them in the street, they can even make you feel ashamed to walk with your child."
But what’s kept me going is prayer – and the realisation that Nambia is my child. I can’t change her. She was created like this. Now, I don’t hide her. We walk proudly together.