Forgotten Kwanjora Special School where children live on one meal a day
The wobbly and rusty gate prepares you for what to expect at the Kwanjora Special School, tucked inside Ndaragwa constituency in Nyandarua County.
The special school for children with cerebral palsy and other forms of disabilities, located some 25 kilometres from Nyahururu town and three-and-a-half kilometres off the Nyeri-Nyahururu Road, is crying for food aid and other basics.
A fading Safaricom signage on the gate forms part of the fondest memory of the day when a benefactor visited the institution. The Safaricom Foundation in 2016, donated the gate that now badly needs reinforcement and a new coat of paint if it is to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the semi-arid area.
Once inside the U-shaped school, signs of past donors’ presence are evident. Five meters from the old gate, a fading board shows details of a physiotherapy class fitted with equipment, courtesy of the Japanese government.
The cemented pathways that make it easier for children with special needs to navigate were also funded by Japan.
The special school that sits on a two-acre piece of land is dotted with water tanks donated by the National Government Constituency Development Fund, donors from the United Kingdom and National Fund for Disability, while some of the classes were built by the county government.
As you go deeper into the well-planned infrastructure, you may be forgiven to think it is a paradise with plenty of food for the handicapped children.
"Headteacher amekuja (the headteacher is here),” say the children excitedly as they make their way towards Ms Esther Wambui, almost blocking her way. Some with speech challenges struggle to say ‘head teacher’. But Ms Wambui quickly adapts to the pitch and simplicity of their language and is quick to respond appropriately to their signals.
Those in wheelchairs want to catch her attention and greet her. Others walk with great difficulty, owing to various forms of disability. Theirs is a determination to overcome their own limitations, to show their inner strength even in small acts like giving their teacher a grand reception.
“When I’m with them, I look past their disability and see them like my own children. You have to be patient because their speech may be hard to understand, but I keep on carrying on a conversation. Just because they’re difficult to understand doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say,” Ms Wambui says, as we settle into the interview.
I ask her about the heartwarming reception and she says it’s a norm. “The grand reception gives me joy that I can’t find anywhere in this world,” she says as she takes one of the little children into her arms. Happy with the attention, he buries his head into the crook of her neck.
Many of the children at Kwanjora come from the neighbouring counties of Laikipia, Nyeri and others come from far-flung areas such as Narok. The youngest is seven years while the oldest is 20.
“Teachers here play two roles; one of a teacher and a caregiver at the same time. We’re sensitive to the physical state of these children, to judge whether they are hungry, tired, need toileting, or are becoming sick. We monitor their movements, expressions, and temperature. By continuously taking account of the children's responses, we’re able to comfort the fretful ones, put another to sleep, and encourage yet another one to feed when ill,” says the headteacher.
“I don’t see it as a struggle but a daily exercise that gives them hope to continue pushing because I strongly believe they will one day walk and enjoy their childhood and adulthood like the rest of their peers,” she adds.
Ms Wambui is a symbol of hope and love, putting a smile on the faces of the intellectually and physically challenged children.
“The children have shown me that there is strength in the weak. Children with cerebral palsy can live active and fulfilling lives by utilising different types of therapies, assistive devices, and more,” she explains.
Like a good shepherd, she knows all the children by their names.
“This intimacy is crucial for the survival and healthy development of these young children. Some children came here while they could not walk but today they can walk,” says Ms Wambui.
“Emotional support is key for these children to heal. I miss them a lot when I’m out of the school compound,” she says.
However, the lack of a steady supply of food to complete the affection and responsiveness triangle of their emotional needs is a major challenge facing the school.
She says the situation could get worse if the well-wishers don’t respond. The children sometimes get only one meal a day, threatening their survival in the harsh, cold Nyahururu weather.
“Lack of food for these children is my biggest daily headache. I go to bed heartbroken when we don’t have enough food. There are times when I get afraid to face the future, but I don’t ever give up the struggle. I wonder what their lives could have been if they were not here,” Ms Wambui offers.
“One week ago, I was forced to make distress calls on social media as the food in the stores was getting depleted. The parents who bring their children here pay Sh8,000 per term, but the majority can’t raise the amount because of poverty,” she adds.
Following her post on social media, a number of netizens donated foodstuff.
The school used to get sufficient food before, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many donors pulled out and the population of learners dropped.
“We can’t get out of this crisis by depending on food aid. We need a long-term solution,” says Ms Wambui, adding that the school board of management is looking at robust programmes to help them grow their own food.
“We’re thinking of leasing land to keep dairy animals but our finances are limited,” she says. “Kwanjora is a public boarding school. It has about 58 learners but currently, we have about 30 because some are in hospitals and others at home due to lack of school fees.”
When it opened in January, the school collected Sh62,000 . Their wage bill for three subordinate staff alone is about Sh36,000.
“What remains is not enough to buy food. We spend more than Sh500,000 per year on food and that is about Sh40,000 per month,” Ms Wambui notes.
The government sends Sh1,200 annually per child as part of the Free Primary Education capitation. This money is disbursed to the school according to the number of registered children.
“In our case, we’re about 58 and that translates to about Sh69,600, which is topped up with Sh100,000 as part of the special need education. Those are our finances at a glance to keep us going for a whole year.”
Besides food challenges, the school is also struggling to meet other overhead costs like electricity bills and other items like adult diapers, blankets and special wheelchairs for children with severe spinal difficulties. They also need a perimeter wall to boost security. The school is heavily understaffed and has four teachers instead of the required 20. Besides, it lacks a physiotherapist.
“The latest electricity bill is Sh40,000, which we cannot manage with the kind of finances we have. We’re thinking of installing solar panels to reduce the high power bills,” says Ms Wambui.