While she was teaching at Esegiri Primary School in Baringo, Naomi Ndung’u watched helplessly as local business people misused a mentally challenged young man.
The young man would be asked to off-load a whole lorry of timber offcuts as people watched.
His pay? “A plate of githeri,” says Ms Ndung’u
She was helpless though, she says.
In the eyes of everyone else, the mentally challenged man was fit for the job.
After all, he was being paid for his job.
So when Ms Ndungu was transferred to Gogar Primary School in Rongai, Nakuru County, she felt a sigh of relief.
She would not only join her husband who was teaching at a nearby school, but she would also never again have to watch as the mentally challenged man was being overworked.
However, she was to face the worst.
At her new place of work, children with challenges were integrated with the ‘normal’ ones.
“Unfortunately, most teachers either did not care or could not understand that the children needed special attention,” says Ms Ndungu.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), children with hearing, seeing or intellectual disabilities do worse than those with physical disabilities.
WHO further indicates that people with mental health problems have intellectual problems.
It is these problems that made ignorant teachers to be harsh to such children in this school.
WHO states that people lack information on how different things can affect persons living with disabilities.
Some of the parents in the neighbourhood, Ms Ndung’u says, were forced to withdraw their children from school.
Most of the children with mental challenges were seen as a bother to parents and as she would discover, they were locked in cages while their parents went to work.
In 1991, Ms Ndungu decided enough was enough.
Though she was not trained in special education, she volunteered to start a special education department within the school.
From an initial five children, over 200 children with various mental and physical challenges have so far passed through Ndungu’s hands.
While some of them have already been reintegrated to their parents, others have unfortunately died.
From taking care of five children in a two-room-mud house, she has spearheaded the establishment of Vanessa Grant Special School in Rongai, Nakuru.
Currently, the school has a population of 100 students, 45 of whom are in primary school while the others are in a technical institute affiliated to the school.
But for Ms Ndungu, it was not a smooth ride.
She started teaching children with mental challenges yet she was not trained in special education.
She only enrolled at the Kenya Institute of Special Education for a Diploma in Special Education four years after her initiative.
“Other teachers would openly mock me saying I would not manage to deal with the special children,” she says.
Others, would tell her that she would fail simply because she was a woman while others would say she had a mental challenge just as the children she cared for.
When the number of children with special needs reached 21, Naomi found the two rooms were too small.
She approached a neighbour who donated land for construction of a bigger school.
“Mr Hamish Grant donated land and the new school was named Vanessa Grant, after his late wife,” says Ms Ndungu, who is the principal of the government-owned institution.
The results of Ms Ndungu’s efforts can now be seen.
At Gone Fishing Industries, 17-year-old Joseph Njuguna is as busy as everyone else.
His infectious smile does not prepare you that he is actually deaf.
Njuguna’s mother Ms Judy Mwangi had been forced to lock him up especially when she was away from home.
“He used to disappear mysteriously and sometimes I searched for him for many hours in the night,” says Ms Mwangi.
Her attempt to make her son socialise with other children were futile as he was often violent towards them.
“I had given up on him becoming a resourceful member of the society until I brought him to Vanessa Grant Special School 11 years ago.
From a violent, anti-social and rebellious child, Njuguna now makes fish flies and is soon likely to be employed when he is of age.
Had her son not been enrolled here, Judy believes he would have been lost as he sometime travelled long distances when he was not locked in his cage.
“Sometime he boarded motorbikes and vehicles and just alighted at some point only for me to find him after a long tiring search,” she says.
16-year-old Margaret Njoki can now weave and make beaded handbags, thanks to her stay at Vanessa Grant Primary School.
Currently she is at Rongai Vocational Training Institute.
Born in Eldoret, Njoki’s mother also has mental challenges and often abandoned her daughter.
Her relatives, according to Ms Ndungu, locked her in a cage because her temperaments were unpredictable and she was often violent when she became angry.
“But today her life is seen from the creative and active side though she still has a problem with her temper,” says Ms Ndungu.
Her best moment is when she integrates children back with their families where they can do something to support themselves rather than staying idle in cages.
He saddest moments, she says is when she loses a mentally challenged child, with whom she had interacted.
“Last year, two children drowned in a nearby river while one was burnt to death after he was locked in his mother’s house in Naivasha,” says Ndungu
She has a challenge in the number of teachers trained in special education.
Food is another challenge as the mentally challenged children, according to Ndungu, feed more than other children yet the government supplies so little.
The UNHCR estimates that 1 in every 20 children aged below 14 years globally live with some kind of disability.
According to WHO, there are more disabled children from poor families as well as from minority ethnic group.