Sister Mary

Or the Mother of Mukomo as she is also known. Mukomo is a slum of about 400 000 people out towards the airport and Sister Mary Killeen has been working there since 1976. I spent this morning with her and she kindly took some time to drive me around and show me the main 3 projects she is working on at the moment. The first was a rehabilitation centre for streetchildren, which takes in up to 70 boys from the age of 9 to 17. (It’s boys only because there was a girls only facility but that has since closed down). They stay only a year, during which they have lessons, activities and counselling, with the hope that they will return to their families and schools after that. They cannot take orphans at the moment, that throws up a new and different set of problems in itself. But the kids have somewhere safe to sleep, catch up on their education including maths, english, swahili and art – the art and design teacher showed me around and his classroom was lovely, with some fantastic work on the wall. They also have a carpentry workshop and volunteers who come in to play music and sports with them. They do a phenomenal job with very little resources. In case you have conjured up a brightly lit, well ventilated and painted facility such as we may have back in the UK, let me adjust that picture for you. It’s concrete bunkers with corrugated iron roofing, sagging bunk beds four to a space (no rooms as such, no doors and no other furniture, not even drawers or tables and certainly no carpets or rugs) and although they have had some computers donated, they don’t yet have electricity in that building. The yard outside is a football pitch of dust on which not only the streetkids play but also 1300 or so primary school kids which adjoin the compound.

Then we went to a home for temporarily parentless children; somewhere they can stay while their mother, usually, goes into hospital for example. If the children are left on their own in the slums they will be raped and abused and it’s not always possible to find relatives to care for them, especially if there is 4 or more kids to look after. So they can come to Justynes house; she’s the sister who set it up having worked with Sister Mary for a few years. She’s no longer as sister though, as she left the convent and promptly met and married a Kenyan and is currently on maternity leave having had her baby in July. She’s rented a 3 bed property on the edge of the slum and has 13 children there at the moment, ranging from 3 years old to around 14 I think. The three year old was severely malnourished when he arrived with his 3 siblings and in just 2 weeks they have all filled out and are thriving. He could barely walk and was more like a 18month old but has improved immeasurably in the time he has been there. In fact I thought he was just a little older than Alfie when I met him. And there he was, happily playing with a pencil. They have not a single toy in the house and only 2 children’s books as far as I could see. But they were all very well behaved, doing their lessons round a big table in the living room. And they do have a little yard outside to play in, which is more than most.

And finally we visited a temporary site where older girls from the region are catching up on their studies, with help from volunteers. Sister Mary gave one of them a grilling, asking sternly if she was ‘getting into the habit of going around’ meaning hanging out with men and not turning up for her study periods. I turned out she was behaving and had been coming regularly, according to Glory, the supervisor. Phew!

Sister Mary is fantastic and not just because of the work she does or because she took an entire morning to show me around when she is incredibly busy and I can only be of help for a few weeks. But also because in the best Irish tradition she is a great talker. She not only told some hair-raising stories but we discussed child abuse at length; the fact that it is so endemic and accepted plus her own personal theory that women are just as involved as men. She has even studied the history of sexual abuse! A really fascinating woman.

So I’m going to be working at Justyne’s place for the next few weeks, helping out in the mornings with lessons and playing. I can’t wait to meet the kids properly and I will, naturally, tell you all about it!

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