10.03.2011 St Marian Children’s Centre, Nairobi
I have been remarkably quiet about my voluntary work in Nairobi last summer. I worked, for 2 weeks only, at the St Marian Children’s Centre in the district of South B, about 200m from the Mukuru (Mukomo) slums. I never even wrote about it on my blog.
I think of my time there often and I remember the children I worked with very clearly. Not least because I have some lovely photos, not to mention endless video footage of them teaching me dances – they LOVED our last day when I let them record themselves and watch it back.
It was a culture shock beyond words of course. Maybe that’s why I haven’t really mentioned it much, I haven’t really processed it myself. The life experienced by these children was as far removed from me as, well I can’t even think of a metaphor.
“St. Marian Children’s Centre has been engaged in providing shelter for rescued children (sexual abuse, child labour & trafficking, domestic violence, sudden death or disappearance of parents) in the Mukuru slums neighbourhood of South ‘B’ Nairobi since 2009.”
St Marian Children’s Centre Funding Proposal 2011
I came in at the tail end of the summer holidays, just as their last volunteer had left and, conveniently, miraculously, filling the two weeks before their new volunteers arrived for the school term, and longer. I know of no NGO’s who would consider a non-trained, non-experienced, non-briefed, vetted, interviewed, examined, tested, rigorously made to jump-through-bureaucratic-hoops person anywhere near their coffee machine, let alone actual vulnerable people ‘in the field’. (As a by the by I had contacted about 10 charities on my arrival in Nairobi to offer my services, including Comic Relief who I knew were working on a project with the rubbish dump kids and Swedish Save the Children, to name but two. CR were charming enough to invite me to contact them when I returned to London, Swedish STC never even replied, despite many emails to many different addresses.) But Sister Mary had no such truck with paperwork. She met me (as blogged previously) and we spent a morning together. I was available, willing and unlikely to be a paedophile which was good enough for her. I am forever grateful to her for that.
My remit, such as it was, was to spend the morning of each weekday helping the kids with their schoolwork. The days, including holidays, were rigorously timetabled and extra studies featured a lot. Obviously, many of the kids had fallen behind in their studies and to have someone on hand to help them was invaluable. There was a house mother who took care of the household and the kids for 24 hours or more at a time, sleeping in the house and spending a lot of time preparing and cooking food, which the children would help with on a rota basis.
The house itself was, well, what can I say? You probably haven’t seen anything like it, I certainly hadn’t. Just a concrete block, much like cells I guess, with a front yard fiercely gated and locked at all times and two bedrooms upstairs for the girls and another which served as an office. There was a back yard where everyone took it in turns to wash and at the back wall a small annexe which was the boys room. But considering “the average family lives in corrugated iron shacks measuring 10’X10’” it must have felt like a welcome relief to the children. I wondered how well they slept and if anyone heard them have nightmares.
My domain was the front room in which a dining table and chairs had been crammed along with a beaten up sofa and a chained up TV cupboard which only showed grainy pictures from the Kenyan channels. Still a luxury! I wished fervently that I’d brought one of our 2 surplus DVD players from home but then realised that DVD’s would have to be purchased along with cables and so on, plus it may not work with Kenyan TV so it wasn’t such a generous thought after all.
I was a bit nervous when I first arrived. Confident I could communicate in some way, not least with a stock of silly improv games which kids are so naturally brilliant at but a bit apprehensive nonetheless. Perhaps they had a swathe of Wazungu do-gooders and were heartily sick of them coming and going, or perhaps previous volunteers had all been so brilliant that expectations where unfeasibly high. But I was relieved to find that, despite the latter being true, my path was immeasurably easier from having been worn by them before I came. They were curious but not fantastically interested in me, they addressed me as teacher and wanted to know how many children I had but that was about it, to start with anyway. I was lucky that I only had about 5 – 7 children each morning, as many had gone to relatives for a brief spell prior to school starting or, if a bit older, were attending extra tuition classes elsewhere. I was told that the centre could take up to 25 children and was astonished to say the least. And grateful I didn’t have that many to keep track of!
So, five girls aged between 10 and 13 and the two boys, Dennis age 5 and Stephen 7. The girls impressed me no end; they were studious in the extreme and a couple could easily sit and do exercise from their books all day. They loved to write, often writing out the whole exercise before filling in the answers. They loved ‘stationery’ of course, using as many different coloured pens as possible, underlining in red and bordering their pages with patterns. There was an old biscuit box of mostly broken pens and pencils which they used with relish. Anything else had to be borrowed and returned from the office upstairs; towards the end I was up and down those stairs like a yoyo. One of the best things I did was ask Pete to collect any unused paper at the end of a conference he attended. There are always so many notes left it seemed a shame to waste the one blank side if we could use it. He did a sterling job, hoovering up the complimentary pads and pens as well. We used this stock every day to draw, make letters to spell out WELCOME and put on the wall, to cut and clip and teach each other how to make paper chains and snow flakes and all manner of shapes which we strung up in that room so by the end you could hardly move. One time I brought in some old magazines, suggesting that they could each cover and personalise the exercise books I had bought on the way in that morning (for a mere 6Ksh each, about um, 5p or something?) I was dismayed to find that the girls only wanted to put pictures of the almost exclusively white models on their books, carefully cutting out their faces from the adverts and proudly sticking them like a collage on the covers and the pages. It made me shudder to think that white female images peddled by white male advertising conglomerates should be so aspirational for poor, black girls. But then I wondered why I was so surprised. Isn’t white skin a symbol of privilege and riches in most areas of the world? We feel sorry for ourselves as Europeans, trying to stop our children from believing the hype of the ‘ideal woman’; celebrity, model, singer and whoever else she may be. Think how much more unattainable it must be for these kids. The poison reaches further than we think.
But then every day was a surprise for me. To say I learned a lot about myself sounds trite and glib but is nevertheless true and one of the main reasons I haven’t written about this before. I was sure, knowing the importance of consistency with children, that I was always firmly consistent. Ha! I rashly promised them a prize one day, for completing a comprehension test after we’d all read a story. Reading was a minefield as the two girls that were good at it naturally wanted to read aloud all day, having little patience with one particular girl who was slower. They weren’t averse to reading her lines for her despite my protestations and she consequently had a very short attention span for any group work. The story was fun though, we’d all read it together, discussed it, talked about family relationships which were mentioned and I assumed that the simple comprehension test would be a doddle. Wrong! My two high achievers relished it and wouldn’t let me stop halfway, when I realised I had lost most of my audience. So there I went, promising a prize to the winner and thus hoping to at least get them to attempt a few answers. It went the other way of course, whether a prize meant nothing to them, or a promise, or even if the test was too hard, they just lost interest and wandered off to play with the pink ball. I rallied, explaining I’d take the written answers home and hoping I could cobble some kind of triumph for the slower children out of the scribbles, but no. And I chickened out. I never ‘marked’ the tests and I never produced a prize. I had some London souvenir geegaws with me and thought I could give the ‘winner’ a keyring or something but I became paralysed by my own indecision. My middle class egalitarian views balked at nominating ‘a winner’, to commend everyone seemed childishly deceptive and crass; I felt sure they would see through my intentions. However the thought of giving even something as innocuous as a keyring seemed fraught with connotations of favouritism, awarding those who are already rewarded with great school grades and respect of their peers and carers and marking me out as unfair and biased. So in the end, to my eternal shame, I did nothing. Except keep those bits of paper to remind me of my inconsistency.
The Pink Ball
I’d brought along a few odds and ends with me, intending to play some getting to know you games and name games, which I’ve found helps when working with kids no end – knowing their names quickly (and using them a lot!) never fails to impress. But I hadn’t reckoned with the power of the pink ball. This was a soft and going softer blow up ball I’d bought for Alfie at some roadside stall for a few shillings, deciding his first interest in balls was to be encouraged at every opportunity. It wasn’t even round to be honest. But the magic power it had! The two younger boys, Dennis and Stephen were mad for it, often taking it in turns to distract me so they could pilfer it out of my basket when my back was turned and slope off outside to the yard, hoping I’d be busy with the girls’ homework before I noticed. Which worked a couple of times. We played with that ball endlessly for the first 3 days and I was able to use it to powerful effect when encouraging a bit of work to be finished so that we could ‘go outside and play a game with the ball’.
I quickly decided that, although ostensibly here to help with lessons, what I really wanted was to get these kids out of the house. They spent all day in that living room and yard, locked in and unable, for security reasons, to go anywhere without supervision. Break time was often wild and loud as they ran around to expend some energy but what I really wanted was to tire them out with as many trips as I could muster.
I was told by the social worker in the office upstairs that trips could be arranged because some kindly volunteers would pay for or otherwise provide taxis to our destination as long as they had prior notice. Of course it didn’t work that way so on our first trip out, to the Elephant Sanctuary, I crammed 8 kids and 2 adults in our little Toyota and went off on our adventure. They had a great time and to top it all off, House Mother had some money for a take away meal afterwards. So we sat and ate soggy chips with runny sauce and sausages for the kids, at a makeshift joint in South B. Delicious!
The second time we were going to Mamba Village, one of those dreary made-for-tourist sites which kids are mad for and which adults loathe. Lydia had been before and was so enthusiastic she whipped the others into an expectant frenzy. And it was… alright. I was determined to bring Alfie with me (and he turned out to be the main attraction that day, the kids were brilliant with him) so we’d had to arrange one of the elusive taxis to freight half our party and of course, this being Africa, we waited a good hour for him to turn up. But anyway, off we went and met some Maasai tribesmen at the gate, who dutifully danced (jumping very high) and hollered for our benefit, until they realised it was a group of kids and the likelihood of a tip was nil. We saw some crocodiles and Dennis was most perturbed, convinced he might fall through the wire netting and be swallowed up. We then went to ‘the Lake’ which had been carved into a shape of Africa and, for an additional fee, you could take a boat ride to ‘Mombasa’ and ‘Cape Town’ and circumnavigate the continent in about 10 minutes. We passed some sorry looking souvenir shops on the way to ‘the Lake’ which, thankfully, were closed as it was out of season. After our boat ride we sat down for some squash and biscuits then ran over to the giraffe enclosure – this was one you could feed apparently. Poor soul, he did look glad of some company. But the boys were gagging to get to the main attraction; a set of rusty old fairground rides which miraculously came on was we passed and of course you could ride on, for an additional fee. I’m glad Alfie wasn’t old enough to sit on one of those rides because they looked like they’d been hand-made out of scrap metal (probably true) and worn into the ground, literally, by thousands of kids over a period of about 100 years. Still, the kids loved it. Seeing their delight, the centre workers duly started blowing up a bouncy castle nearby. Cheers guys, that was nice of you. Of course, for an additional fee, you could have 15 minutes on this monstrosity. The kids were hysterically giddy by this point and wouldn’t let Alfie go. Or rather, they wouldn’t let him stay in the safety of his buggy. To be fair, he loved it too, even if mummy was nervously filming the whole thing from 2 inches away.
So, that was our experience of the hideously exciting Mamba Village (to be avoided at all costs). Unfortunately, the trip then took a turn for the worse when we had to wait over an hour for the taxi to come pick the kids up. Although we were treated to the rather hilarious sight of the Maasai tribesmen smoking and chatting on their mobile phones, only to throw them down at the sight of a tourist bus pulling into the car park whereupon they would resume their jumping and dancing and hollering and allow the tourists to take a photo with them, for an additional fee.
Things went from bad to worse when Lydia, bless her heart, was entrusted with the information as to which fast food joint we were lunching at that day, her remit to direct me to the place so we could all meet up for lunch. It didn’t happen, she took us to the wrong place and I hadn’t the foresight to get the number of House Mother’s mobile phone. In the end it was approaching 3 o’clock so I paid for chicken and chips for my lot and took them home, only to find the entire gang waiting for us with even more chicken and chips. I’d had to feed poor Dennis and Stephen at least, they looked ready to faint poor boys but of course felt dreadful when I realised everyone had been waiting. A quick grace was said, I grabbed yet more soggy chips and escaped with Alfie in tow.
One of the main things to get used to in Kenya is that no-one will ever admit to ignorance. The classic example is when asking for directions; no one would dream of admitting they didn’t know the destination you wanted, they would simply make up something to tell you. Great! Similarly, being helpful and knowledgeable are considered great attributes and can lead to all sorts of difficulties for us Westerners, where honesty is expected. Thus Lydia, for example, would often say ‘yes’ with a big smile, in answer to all my questions, not realising that I was after the actual truth. One of our conversations went like this:
Me: Do you have any brothers and sisters Lydia?
Me: How many brothers do you have?
Lydia: I have no brothers.
Me: So how many sisters do you have?
Lydia: No sisters.
Me: So you have no brothers and no sisters?
Food was another minefield for my ignorant Western palate. I had decided, magnanimously (ha again!) to forego lunch so that I could dash home to my boy (in fairness it was the first time I’d ever left him) and thereby not be a burden to the Centre in any way. I soon realised that the House Mothers were offended by my refusing their food and that not sitting down with all of them and sharing food was somehow insulting. I got the impression they felt it was the least they could do as I was giving up my time for free but of course they didn’t realise that I had the horrendous Nairobi traffic to negotiate on the way home as well. I had also wanted to avoid the inevitable Ugali (a kind of stiff meal porridge) and any other scary food but in fact it was all delicious and what did another 15 minutes matter really in the greater scheme of things? We were on Africa time after all! I quickly got used to saying grace as well, though thankfully was never asked to be the one to lead it as I wouldn’t have had a clue. My biggest faux pas however was on the return from Mamba Village when our two groups got separated for lunch and I therefore fed my bunch as it never occurred to me to do otherwise, the clock ticking later and later. When we got back to the centre, eventually, it seemed all the others had not only bought food for us but waited patiently until we got back (and the chips got cold). House Mother gave me a stern look that day and I’m not sure if it was because she knew we’d forgotten to say grace or whether because I’d squandered money, albeit my own, on buying surplus chips. The whole culture of food was a little beyond me then, and still is.
Another shocker was the children’s treatment of toys. I say toys in the loosest manner, I didn’t buy them anything extravagant. Just plenty of exercise books, a skipping rope, a ball, some crayons and a couple of packets of cards and such. I love card games and think they’re a great way to learn maths for example. What astonished me was that the day after I’d brought in the cards, they were bent and dog-eared and torn and strewn on the floor. They looked like they’d been played with for months, not a day. Why didn’t they take care of them? Didn’t they realise that they could keep these cards and play with them day after day if only they’d put them back in the packet? No, is the answer, they absolutely didn’t. They had no possessions, let alone toys, so how would they know to take care of something? The children often lived absolutely in the moment and the idea of delayed gratification, for example, had never been explained or even demonstrated.
My other surprise was teaching the boys how to play snap. They had no idea, not a clue. I explained it to them time and again and they simply didn’t get it. I brought in special ‘snap cards’ with pictures of animals on, which helped a little bit. But in the end it took me nearly a week to teach them this, to me, rudimentary game. Why it was such a hardship for them I still have to work out.
Sister Mary told me a story of a volunteer who’d handed out counters with some game she played with a group of kids. As you played the game you ‘bet’ with your counters and when the counters ran out you had to wait for the game to start again before you got a new set of counters. The uproar it caused! She said that 14 year old boys would come howling to her on their knees, begging her to give them more counters so they could stay in the game. She explained over and over again that this wasn’t part of the rules and these boys would cry with anger and frustration. They had simply never experienced anything like it and their emotional development was so stumped that they reverted to baby behaviour because they simply could not cope with the disappointment. Extraordinary.
Stephen perplexed me when I first met him and I took an instant dislike to him. It pains me greatly to say that, again my white middle class upbringing not allowing me to talk like that about a child, especially me who loves children! Nevertheless it’s best to be honest about it, however unpalatable. I thought him sly and a chancer. He looked always furtive and as if he was up to something but mostly I got the impression that, if caught, he expected a beating. The aim then, was not to avoid trouble in the first place but not to get caught and hence the ‘furtive’ look. Here, again, I have to take a good look at myself. Where was my empathy, my understanding? The first time I went out with Sister Mary and told Pete about it afterwards I wept and wept with the shock of it all, the deprivation and injustice I’d seen unlocking the floodgates. Obviously that was no help to anyone and I certainly didn’t come home after my mornings at St Marians and cry. But my hardness towards Stephen puzzled me and I didn’t like myself for it at all.
He was preternaturally silent, with me at least. He barely spoke to me and I assumed his English or his confidence was lacking. The latter may have been true but on the rare occasion he spoke, his English was perfect and he understood everything I said very well – especially when it came to counting games using the pink ball! But most of the time he would gaze up at me in wonder as though I was some alien creature (and probably I was) and ignore anything I said completely, often leading Dennis astray and the two of them sitting under the dining table playing some secret game.
Two things changed my mind and my attitude, thankfully. The first was our outing to Mamba Village. We had been talking in the car about what they each wanted to do when they grew up. The girls were fiercely ambitious, almost to a man wanting to be doctors or lawyers. Very commendable! But Stephen, sat in the front seat on Lynet’s lap, said very quietly (and in English!) that he wanted to be ‘a driver’. My heart and my head seemed literally to click into place. It was perfectly natural in my world to aspire to be a lawyer or a doctor, but to meet a young boy who wants ‘nothing more’ than to be a driver, to have that as his highest aspiration and dearest dream and to know that even that ambition could be way beyond his means, no matter if he worked a lifetime, brought me up short and gave me a glimpse into Stephen’s world. To say I saw him in a different light is an understatement.
Once we turned off the highway to our destination, the road was gravel once again and I stopped the car. Stephen, come sit with me and help me drive the car I asked. He did, gravely holding on to the steering wheel while I coasted at a slow 10mph for 200m or so. I instructed him quietly as we went, warning him to start turning the wheel for the car park a bit earlier and looking for a spot we could easily glide into – luckily the car park was empty. His smile, usually so fleeting and unsure, was like a ray of light and my heart bounced and my head sang and in that moment I loved him so much.
The other kids were clamouring of course, wanting to know when it was their turn and who could drive next but on this I was firm. No, it was Stephen’s treat and his alone. Later, I relented a little and took photographs of them all in the driver’s seat as we waited for the taxi home so they could see what they looked like behind the wheel. But I only ever let Stephen ‘drive’ and it felt right.
Stephen and studies were like two magnets designed always to repel each other. He had no interest in anything I tried, from arts and crafts to puzzles and card games. He loved Alfie’s story book which I brought in every day but only if left alone with it, any attempt by me to read it and he would slope off disinterestedly. On one of my last days I had stocked up with some small treats, as mentioned above, but how was I to know that the key to Stephen’s heart was stickers? Oh my, those stickers were like buried treasure to Stephen and he would to ANYTHING to get a sticker in his book. Including, not only finishing an exercise but racing through it and clamouring for another! The change was unbelievable and I cursed myself for not thinking of stickers before. These had come along with a note book I had bought and I’d briefly toyed with the idea of giving them to Alfie, what a waste that would have been! Stickers it was and stickers it still is, as far as I can tell from my updates from the centre.
And Stephen is, oddly and naturally, the child I carry with me in my mind’s eye to this day. Not that we got on fantastically well or that I felt I had somehow ‘got through’ to him; I’m not even sure he’d remember me except as someone else interrupting his play and making him focus on lessons, no doubt a daily occurrence. I guess it’s more that Stephen was the key for me and I was able to tap into that elusive empathy at last. I am not at all ashamed to say he is my favourite.