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Climbing Mt Kenya on a wheelchair

Sunday July 21 2019

Members of L’Arche Kenya

Members of L’Arche Kenya, an organisation that takes care of people with intellectual disability, prepare for the planned September expedition of scaling Mt Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY 

ELVIS ONDIEKI
By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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One ambition: To carry a man with cerebral palsy to one of the peaks of Mt Kenya in the first week of September.

Two devices: A normal wheelchair and a special one-called a joëlette, will help a team of about 16 carry the man called Musa – who cannot walk – to the Lenana peak using the Naro Moru entrance.

Three days: The journey starts on September 4 and on the third day, the team that will accompany Musa is confident that it will reach Point Lenana with him. While there, they plan to take countless photos and shout their lungs off in celebration.

Numerous problems: Will the man persevere the biting cold and laborious, rocky climb? Will the team manage to take him 4,985 metres up and will the devices at their disposal cooperate?

Those are among the issues a Nyahururu-based group called L’Arche Kenya, which is organising the climb, is grappling with in preparation for the challenge – their first of that sort.

PHYSICAL DISABILITIES

In an interview with the Sunday Nation last week, L’Arche Kenya director Maurice Muthiga sounded confident.

“We are the first to try something like this and, why not? Does it mean people with physical disabilities cannot discover the beauty of their country?” he posed. “We know that it is possible. What we are not sure about is the terrain of Mt Kenya.”

Mr Muthiga and his team have been practising hard for the hike since May.

In the afternoons on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you will find them at the Nyahururu Stadium, being trained by athletes based in the town.

They have also been engaging a nutritionist, experienced mountain climbers, a veteran marathoner, Kenya Wildlife Service staff and porters at Mt Kenya, among other individuals, as they strategise for the historic climb.

On July 24, they will have a mock climbing to gauge their level of preparedness. When the D-Day nears, they will start carrying backpacks during rehearsals to simulate the conditions they will encounter during the expedition. Thomson Falls that is near their base is currently providing an ideal rehearsal area.

The idea of climbing a mountain with people with intellectual disabilities and also on a wheelchair is out of this world. It is something that may have happened but not here in Kenya,” says Mr Joseph Kamau, a resource mobilisation officer at L’Arche Kenya.

RAISE FUNDS

The main drive of the mountain climb is to raise funds. The team plans to raise Sh7.2 million that they will use to initiate income-generating activities for their organisation that currently takes care of 25 persons with intellectual disabilities. A good number of them live with Down’s syndrome, with some also battling epilepsy, psychiatric conditions or learning problems.

Started in 2008, L’Arche Kenya has made a name in Nyahururu for the care it provides to a category of people often ignored. Of the 25 adults under their care, 12 live with them while 13 are picked by vans from their homes in the morning and driven back in the evening.

L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is an interconnected group of individuals in 38 countries spread around five continents. The communities, currently 154 across the globe, aim to have people with intellectual disabilities live together with everyone else.

L'Arche Kenya members

L'Arche Kenya members rehearse for the September event. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The Nyahururu team is the only L’Arche community in Kenya. It started out with four beneficiaries, with Mr Muthiga as the founding director. The dependants have now grown to 25.

The direct beneficiaries of L’Arche Kenya are individuals above 18 who are intellectually challenged, though children with disabilties also benefit from their outreach programme.

Mr Muthiga explained that the group under their care is usually discharged from special schools and left on their own. Among the 25 is a man called Allan Muteshi, who was taken from Getathuru Rehabilitation School in Kabete, Kiambu County, which is meant to be a correctional facility for children declared delinquent by Kenyan courts.

VIOLENCE

“The reason Mr Muteshi was in that school was not that he had challenging behaviour,” said Mr Muthiga. “He was found on the streets of Kapsabet and the law courts committed him to Getathuru, where they were trying to find placement for him. He was not able to say where he came from.”

“We met Mr Muteshi after having been in Getathuru for almost 14 years. All the children used to come and go but he couldn’t leave because he had no place to go,” he added.

Another person being housed there is Jane Mwihaki, who was separated from her family at the height of the 2007 post-election violence.

“She used to live with her family in Eldoret and during the post-election violence when people were running left, right and centre, she was not able to trace her family. So, she found herself in an internally displaced persons’ camp in Nyahururu,” Mr Muthiga explained.

“Someone asked us if we could welcome Ms Mwihaki. The idea was to welcome her as we tried to find a family that could host her,” he added.

Mr Muteshi and Ms Mwihaki are among the 12 living with L’Arche in Nyahururu.

“Those who live in the houses are adults with intellectual disabilities who come from very vulnerable backgrounds,” said Mr Muthiga.

DONATIONS

During daytime, those living there are joined by those staying with their loved ones. They are then engaged in various activities that are aimed at making them productive members of the society. These include farm work, baking, making candles and making items from paper. These activities, the team told the Sunday Nation, are a way of administering occupational therapy to the beneficiaries and have been happening on a low scale, hence the need to raise funds to expand them.

Those activities have been bringing them funds alongside a gift shop in Nyahururu and donations from well-wishers across the globe.

With the cash from the fundraiser, they plan to install a laundry facility, a bakery, a greenhouse and a poultry farm.

According to Ms Gathoni Njenga, the resource mobiliser at L’Arche, the Mt Kenya climb is an effort to wean the community from regular pleas for funding.

“We are not asking Kenyans to give us food or clothes. We are asking them to give us a sustainable way through which we can generate our own income so that we’ll not be coming back to ask for money,” she said.

L'Arche Kenya

L'Arche Kenya members (from left) Gathoni Njenga, Maurice Muthiga, Rachael Wangui and Joseph Kamau go through a brochure on July 17, 2019. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The team started its fundraising campaign in April and has been selling T-shirts and hoodies, among other merchandise, to raise funds. They have also been approaching various organisations to sign up as sponsors of the climb.

“This will be an opportunity for Kenyans to provide a platform for these people to feel for once that they are accepted in the society,” said Mr Kamau.

DISABILITIES

And according to Ms Rachael Wangui, the community facilitator at the organisation, the climb will also present another side of the intellectually challenged Kenyans.

“It will be an opportunity for my fellow Kenyans to see the possibilities or to see what people with intellectual disabilities are capable of,” she said.

“Mostly, we see them as different beings. But maybe they’re not very different from us. They are people who are able to enrich us in different ways,” added Ms Wangui.

Proper assessment

While not all intellectually challenged beings are able to reach Point Lenana, the team plans to have all of them walk at least nine kilometres on the first day to the meteorological station at the base of the mountain.

Musa, the man who will be on a wheelchair for the hike, has the most promising health condition among the beneficiaries there — according to the L’Arche director.

“In terms of health, he is well. His heart is good,” said Mr Muthiga. “We’re going to schedule a proper assessment at the hospital. We are in conversation so that the people we take up the mountain will not be risking their lives for the sake of a campaign.”

WHEELCHAIR

“One person on a wheelchair requires almost 16 people to get to the top of Mt Kenya. So, a team will be ensuring that Musa goes up,” he added, noting that for sentimental reasons, the man’s wheelchair will be taken to the peak so that he is photographed on it.

He noted that the joëlette to be used for the climb had arrived in Kenya from France from where it had been sent by “a friend of L’Arche”. By Wednesday, they were preparing to receive it from the customs offices.

Ms Gathoni said ahead of the September climb, they plan a rehearsal with the Mt Kenya National Park and the Porters and Guides Association with the joëlette to see how it handles altitude change.

“Altitude change could be very challenging for people with intellectual disabilities,” she reasoned.

“We are really trying to prepare so that we take care of any eventualities. We are working with an international climber who is based in Nanyuki who is also advising us on the best way to do it and the best route to take,” added Ms Gathoni.