A country of contrasts: Kenya's forgotten children

Written by Tom

Arriving at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya you could almost be mistaken for thinking that you are in Europe. This modern and shiny international transport hub is a world away from Ndola Airport in Zambia – with its handwritten departure boards and ten seat ‘departure lounge’. This is where we’ve come from, via a brief touch-down in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, at which a handful of people leave the plane laden with new phones, tablets and laptops presumably purchased on a weekend shopping trip over the border. 

In Nairobi, smartly dressed people sip expensive coffee and tap away at smartphones. The coffee is good, and the Wi-Fi is fast. There are info-desks everywhere - too many - all eager to guide passengers through the airport with a smile. Kenya is emerging as East Africa’s economic powerhouse and it’s desperate to let you know it. 

But Kenya is a country of contrasts. Compared to the chilly central highlands, among which Nairobi is located, Mombasa, Kenya’s hot and humid second city on the Indian Ocean coast, can feel like a different country – indeed, there are many that would insist that it is. The region has a distinct heritage, owing to centuries of Arab trade and influence and a large minority of its population are Muslim. 

As we drive out of Mombasa on our way to the small town of Kilifi we are caught in traffic.
‘It’s much busier here during the night than during the day’ explains our driver, as if to hint at something.

‘Why’s that?’ 

‘Let me just say that…this is where a lot of…immorality happens’

We are crawling through Mtwapa – the so-called village that never sleeps – a cut-price holiday resort that has become notorious for cheap booze and prostitution . Probably developed with foreign tourists in mind, now its customers are overwhelmingly young Kenyans.  

Outside of Kenya, this coastline has been best known as a tourist destination, conjuring images of palm trees and white sands. But in recent years, the conflict in Somalia has spilled over the border, with high-profile attacks at a shopping mall in Nairobi and a university in Garissa. The security forces’ robust response has sowed division along ethnoreligious lines and popular resentment. Revenue from tourism plummeted; smarter hotels further up the coast at places like Watamu lie empty and many have closed.  

The gates of these man-made ‘paradises’ open to reveal the reality that their owners, often foreign nationals or ‘up country’ Kenyans, would probably rather the tourists didn’t see. Around 70% of the roughly one million people in Kilifi County live in poverty, on less than dollar a day. It is one Kenya’s poorest counties but also ranks, unsurprisingly, as one of its most unequal.

In Kilifi town, the level of inequality and societal division presents itself in many ways. A multi-million-dollar medical research facility stands adjacent to an under-resourced public hospital which has a malnutrition ward. Numerous primary schools that teach seventy to a class surround a vast, leafy, modern university campus that only its staff and students have the privilege of being permitted to enter – the result of an inflated security presence here seems only to have exacerbated the marginalised’s suspicion of the powerful. 

But perhaps the greatest contrast is between the some of the relatively affluent areas in the coastal towns and the rural interior. An hour’s drive on dirt roads through the Arabuko-Sokoke forest from Kilifi town is Malanga. Here houses are exclusively built from mud, with earth floors and roofs of makuti or grass. Sanitation is extremely limited, a covered pit latrine representing a relative luxury. What’s more, it is dry. Along the road from the coast the ground visibly fades from a rich red to a sandy light brown. Drilling for water here is hopeless, it is said that you can drill to a depth of more than 100m and find none; so it is collected from open air sources, and there aren’t many.  Most people attempt to farm this unforgiving land for their livelihoods, or simply their survival – life here is not easy. The limited, urban-based, services in healthcare and education for disabled children, have not reached Malanga. Access to any support is constrained not only by distance (some 40km to the nearest hospital) but also an absence of information and unnavigable bureaucracy. 

In this context, where only about half the local population have received primary education, it is not surprising that traditional negative superstitions and attitudes surrounding disability prevail. Poverty and the inability to access services, education and information surely plays a part in crystallising such beliefs, which are so destructive to the life chances of disabled young people. The result is that people who live in poverty are more likely to be disabled and people who are disabled are more likely to live in poverty. A vicious cycle of poverty, attitude and disability exists. Of course, to an extent, this is true everywhere, but it is magnified here. 

So just imagine, for a second, the challenge of caring for a disabled child in a community like Malanga. Life has never been easy, but soon after your child is born, your marriage ends with your husband and his family accusing you of adultery. You have little understanding your child’s impairment and no means of accessing information. Your neighbours, who were so loving and supportive during your pregnancy and when your other four children were small, stop visiting your house. A good friend quietly advises you to ‘get rid of that one’. Your confusion turns into shame, and you start to think that maybe you are cursed. So your child stays hidden at home, confined to a single room, never visited by the community health worker, deprived of social interaction, undernourished, left behind and forgotten.  

Kenya’s legislation concerning disability rights is actually impressive and robust. But just as a stroll through Nairobi’s 21st century international airport gives no picture of the reality of everyday life for most Kenyans, a skim through Kenya’s legislative commitments on disability rights in no way reflects the situations that the majority of disabled young people and their families face. Nowhere is this truer than in isolated rural areas like Malanga. 

Disability Africa is putting together plans for a project in Malanga which aims to radically improve the lives of disabled children and young people. If you would like to hear more about this project, then please enter your email address in the box below.