Maria Njeri, 24, has cerebral palsy. It is a condition caused by injury to the parts of the brain that control our ability to use our muscles and bodies. Njeri has difficulty walking due to the condition which affected the movement of her legs, hands, coordination and speech. She suffered brain damage due to lack of oxygen at birth during her mother’s prolonged labour.
It was not until primary school that Njeri realised she was different. Having grown up in her family farm in Kikuyu, Kiambu, surrounded by a loving family, in a homestead full of cousins to play with, grandparents who doted over and uncles and aunties who took care of her, Njeri never felt special.
Her bubble of oblivion was busted when she enrolled in primary school. Suddenly, Njeri was bombarded with all these prying questions from her fellow pupils. “Why do you talk like that?” “Why do you walk like that?” Some were genuinely shocked and gave her confused looks while some out rightly mocked her.
“I didn’t understand why I looked like ‘that’ and could not understand what the fuss was about.” says Njeri.
“I couldn’t breathe. You know how babies cry when they are born, my mum told me that I didn’t cry,” says Njeri, with a sad look on her face, reliving a moment she couldn’t possibly remember.
As reality dawned on her with this seemingly new realisation, her life changed and so did her parents.
She remembers during her high school days how her father would drop her about 500 metres from the school. “This forced me quickly learn to make my way to school on my own, unlike in the past where he dropped me off at school,” she remembers.
On the other hand, her mother who before would drop her off and pick her up every day through primary school, started letting go slowly. Gradually, her mother started asking her to meet her halfway and eventually started directing her to bus stops to get transport back home. Njeri felt dejected and struggled with the process of moving around on her own.
Although it was very difficult for her to understand then, her parents wanted her to be independent. “I thought they were fed up of assisting me but they wanted me to learn to hold my own in this world,” she says fondly of her parents. She soon found her way around Nairobi, with her parents urging her to go visit relatives living across the capital.
“For the longest time people would randomly stop me and ask - where are you going alone? - when I am walking in town,” said Njeri with a glow of pride.
After completing high school education, Njeri struggled to get into university. No tertiary institution was willing to accept her with her physical challenges, she explained. Most institutions are inexperienced on training people with cerebral palsy.
Eventually, after several visits to the Africa Nazarene University followed by a pre-university course she was able to enroll for a degree in Community Development with a major in Human Displacement, which she is about to complete. “I am optimistic about the future,” she says.
It was in university that Njeri finally understood what her parents were doing when they encouraged her to go places by herself. She realised that she had become very self-reliant.
“I am a very independent person,” beams Njeri.
She felt very independent and liberated when she took her first trip outside Kenya. Braving through 28 hours bus ride to Rwanda and rushing across the border checks which was very taxing physically but I eventually managed with some assistance, says Njeri.
“My friends had to pull me across the border. The bus dropped us on the Kenyan border and we had to rush through the checks and run to the other side of the Rwandese border where the bus was waiting,” she says.
Although Rwanda was an exhilarating experience, it was an opportunity to travel to Norway then across Europe and Asia for a year that awoke the travelling spirit within Njeri.
“If you would have asked me if I would go back packing across Europe and Asia, I would have said no way!” says Njeri, adding “the trip to Norway was such a big deal. I can’t imagine what my parents went through. Being worried because it was far from them and they could not monitor my progress.”
Flying was easier than the bus ride to Rwanda, since most airlines today are doing their best to accommodate people with special needs. In addition, airports offer support as well, such as wheel chairs instead of walking the long way which is a major inconvenience for someone with physical disabilities.
Throughout her international trips, Njeri managed to get support from the group of students together with her on the exchange programme.
However, she had to improvise to keep up with the others, so she opted to using a wheel chair while on the trip due to demanding logistics.
“I tried not to feel sorry for myself in the wheel chair, I wanted to walk unaided but it was not possible.”
Her mother was in constant communication with her to keep tabs on her wellbeing.
On her international trip, Njeri learnt about world atrocities such as the concentration camps in Europe, Vietnam – American war, Cambodia genocide among others. This exposure inspired her resolution to work with refugees at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.