Dr Wanjiku Kironyo has been transforming the lives of many mentally and/or physically challenged children for decades. Her whole life is dedicated to working with and for the people from the humblest backgrounds in our society. She talked to ESTHER KIRAGU about her selfless devotion to humanity.
Dr Wanjiku Kironyo is the founder of the Maji Mazuri Children’s Centre in Mwiki, Kasarani in Nairobi County. She has committed her entire life to the centre. Hers is simply a heart of gold and for years, Wanjiku has played a role in transforming the lives of the vulnerable and often forgotten lives in society.
“While studying psychology in the US, I became aware of the plight of children with special needs and resolved to play my role in improving their lives,” reveals Wanjiku.
Her return to Kenya in the 70s as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s department of social services was at a time when the university didn’t offer a degree programme in social work. This, however, changed with time and Wanjiku was tasked with finding places where students taking the course would go for attachment.
“There were only two popular children’s home in Nairobi County at the time and I wanted my students to have a wider exposure. Since I had heard of a feeding programme at Mathare Valley, I decided to send some of them there to research on the needs of the local community,” she explains.
To her disappointment, many of the students couldn’t adjust to the community’s needs after experiencing the horrendous living conditions in the slums. As a result, some students quit the course all together. This didn’t discourage Wanjiku one bit and every Wednesday, she visited Mathare Valley by herself to assess the needs and find a way to empower the community.
Problems in the slums…
One time during a visit to the slum, she overheard a conversation between residents of a child who had perished after a fire broke out in the slum. On enquiring further, she learnt that the child was physically challenged and had been locked in the house when the fire broke out. She came to learn that such incidences were a common occurrence in the slums and they were neither highlighted in the media nor reported to the local authority. Moved to do something about this, she took into her home five physically challenged children from the slum after finding out that their parents or guardians used to hide or lock them up in their houses.
However, Wanjiku realised this wasn’t a permanent solution as the problems in the slum were cyclic. “I found out a lot of information such as mistreatment of women and children with disabilities. Some of the women had found themselves in the slums after suffering from marital issues such as domestic violence. Others had unplanned pregnancies and hence forced into illicit activities such as selling illicit brew and engaging in prostitution to earn a livelihood,” she says.
This prompted Wanjiku to introduce a microfinance scheme for a group of women in Mathare Valley dubbedMavuno Micro-Enterprise Project to help alleviate poverty by empowering the women through borrowing loans and starting businesses. The scheme has since become a Sacco and has economically empowered hundreds of women from the locality.
At the same time, she hoped to change the attitude of children and this led to the genesis of a programme – head start –where children from the age of three to teenage undergo different series of events in different stages to equip them with necessary life skills and knowledge to survive in life.
Hope renewed for children with special needs…
At one time, Wanjiku sought to house a woman from Mathare Valley and her children after the woman was arrested for brewing Chang’aa and upon her release swore to return to the trade as it was the only way she knew of fending for her children.
“I knew this would be a cyclic problem and so I took her in, housed her, gave her a job of caring for the five children with special needs I had taken into my home. My idea was that with time, she could learn skills such as baking to enable her run a business and in the meantime I would go in search of an educational institution that could take in the five children,” she recounts, adding that her search for an institution took too long as many institutions were unwilling to take up the children. This led her to establish the Maji Mazuri Centre in 1984 to accommodate these and other children.
Local authorities and Good Samaritans brought and continue to bring vulnerable children to the centre. Initially, the centre used to take in orphans and children with special needs, but it has since evolved into a centre that cares for only the physically and mentally challenged children. Since movement for most of the children at the centre is an uphill task, the centre has teachers who provide basic Special Needs Education and caregivers to ensure that the social and education needs of the children are met.
An emotional Wanjiku recalls the turmoil she has endured over the years, especially in her search for educational institutions that can accommodate the children under her care. One case that particularly stands out is that of a man she fondly refers to Oiko, who she was finally able to enroll in a school after a three-year search.
“Despite being physically challenged, Oiko was very bright. He joined Joy Town School in Thika in class three and when he sat his Kenya certificate of Primary education (KCPE), he was not only the top student in the school but also top student in English in Thika locality,” she explains amidst tears of joy.
“Oiko enrolled at Thika High School for his secondary education where he performed well and gained university admission. Today he is a high school teacher, married and a father of two,” she adds with obvious pride of his achievements.
Maji Mazuri Centre relies on donations from well-wishers since it has no sponsors. Their biggest burden currently is paying the caregivers in the Centre, providing medical care to the children including physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy and daily supplies of basic needs like food and diapers. Some of the physically challenged children who have passed through the centre have successfully undergone life-changing surgical operations through the help of sponsors.
Wanjiku feels the biggest battle facing our society when it comes to dealing with children with special needs is the belief that disability is a curse and a life sentence. She is saddened by the many incidences of exploitation of children with special needs where they are sent to the streets to seek public sympathy and earn a living for their families in form of handouts.
“I am glad that today a lot of students from local universities studying social work come to the centre for their practical training. My hope is that eventually society will freely embrace integration of children with special needs in all institutions in the country, rather than isolating them as is the case today,” she says.
Wanjiku wishes people were more sensitive about making buildings and public transport friendly to people with special needs. She would also like to see people with special needs treated with dignity.
Dr. Kironyo’s contacts: Phone number: 0724-787115 or 0716 179304 Email: [email protected]
Published in May 2015