The graduation at the Orione Community Centre in Ongata Rongai was unique, peculiar, unusual and, to some point, unbelievable. It broke all usual patterns of today’s utilitarian standards.
It was difficult to believe these sixteen young (and not so young) men and women were graduating. They were all severely mentally impaired, most of them suffering from Down syndrome.
They had completed years of training and they were ready to survive on their own, and had learnt to fend for themselves, to cultivate the land, and to administer their small businesses. They could now be useful in their own ways.
It seemed surreal, and I had to pinch myself to believe it. It was not a dream; it was happening. It defeated our modern logic of profit maximisation, optimum results, genetic engineering…
No one remains untouched or impartial when faced with a child suffering from Down syndrome. In some families, this condition brings out the best of humanity, as parents and siblings grow close and knit together around that special child who needs special care.
A child with Down syndrome is one of the biggest trials parents can possibly imagine. Chris Kaposy, an associate professor of bioethics in Canada, and his wife experienced this challenge at their family home. Prenatal tests confirmed that their unborn son, Aaron, had Down syndrome.
In an article Dr Kaposy wrote for The New York Times in April this year, he explains that he and his wife asked themselves all the tough questions. How will we cope? Should we abort Aaron? Is Aaron the son we wanted? Why do we have children at all?
Kaposy argues that most parents would agree that they do not have children simply to ''replicate a conventional arc of a successful middle-class life: college, marriage, real estate, grandchildren. If those are the reasons to abort foetuses with Down syndrome, they seem disappointing — they are either self-centred or empty in their narrow-minded conventionality.''
As Dr Chris Kaposy wrestled with the implications of such a decision, and the changes in lifestyle that Aaron would bring to his family, he concluded that ''If you value acceptance, empathy and unconditional love, you, too, should welcome a child with Down syndrome into your life.''
This is easier said than done.
Claire Adionyi is a brilliant young lawyer and lecturer. She excelled in her law degree and went on to do a postgraduate in international criminal law in The Netherlands. She now directs several research projects at Strathmore Law School.
Claire also attended the Orione graduation, and she explained to me why. She comes from a closely-knit Teso family in Busia County. Her father is an important bishop. She has no doubt that the source of her family love and unity is her youngest sister, who suffers from Down syndrome. She brought them together, parents and siblings.
ABANDONED OR NEGLECTED
This is not always the case. There are sharp contrasts in our modern society. Some of the children graduating at Orione had been abandoned by their families. Others had been chained (literally) in their homes; they were not allowed to show themselves to the neighbours, and were expected to keep silent when a visitor came calling.
In many instances, our self-centred and utilitarian approach to life sees a Down syndrome child as a curse, an embarrassment, a burden to the family and to society. They are rejected for they are the scrap of society. What a contrast!
Each of the graduating students at Orione had been assigned a mentor. A young law student who will walk hand-in-hand with them, and guide them. During the function, Sharon Amisi, a fourth-year law student, introduced me to her mentee, Wairimu.Wairimu can hardly speak. She is mentally disabled, though she has an amazing and amusing common sense and sense of humour. She was abused and cheated ten years ago.
Today, Wairimu has a ten-year-old son, who is perfectly normal, clever and astute. He is the love of her life, and for him she is a superwoman, a super mother. They are deeply in love and they are best friends.
What has made us lose our compassion? Why are we so selfish? Why do societies look down on the less physically or mentally able… and able of what? Why do we classify people according to external, material and superfluous parameters?
Our Constitution set the tone for social change. It mentions the term ''disability/disabilities'' at least 15 times. It is defined to include ''any physical, sensory, mental, psychological or other impairment, condition or illness that has, or is perceived by significant sectors of the community to have, a substantial or long-term effect on an individual’s ability to carry out ordinary day-to-day activities.''
The Constitution also imposes a duty on all State organs and public officers to address the needs of vulnerable groups within society, including the disabled.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) Jitolee, one in every ten Kenyans below the age of 21 years is disabled, and almost 20 percent of them are out of school.
The Orione graduation was an incredible show of humanity. The effort of many years (some of the students had been in class for over 13 years), the love and care of teachers and administrators and the support of some relatives and friends had made it possible to show love and humanity to those who our modern society often considers less human.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi