Sunday, October 26, 2008

Disabled Kenyans and their families struggle at displacement camps

From The Standard in Kenya. In the picture, Lidya Mwihaki, 60, carries her disabled daughter Anna Njeri outside their tent at the Yamumbi camp in Eldoret, Kenya.

Disabled persons who fell victim to post-election violence have broken their silence over the suffering they encountered and are now seeking compensation.

Beneath the seemingly successful idea of ‘Operation Rudi Nyumbani’ is the tale of the disabled yet to recover from torments of the chaos.

For many, lack of awareness of the political tensions and danger that loomed exposed them to shock.

"I just saw people running and took to my heels without a hint of what I was running from," said Gladys Chemutai who is deaf.

At a time when people feigned disability to cheat death at the various checkpoints that lurked at every nook of the North Rift, the genuinely handicapped became so vulnerable.

With the violence taking on a tribal dimension, the lynch mobs sorted out their victims through their complexions. Gladys did not carry her identity card.

"As I was fleeing with three of my friends, we reached a ‘checkpoint’ where we were sorted out on account of colour. I was ordered to flee the area and today I don’t know what happened to the rest," she said.

Chemutai’s experience is synonymous with those of other disabled persons who suddenly found themselves in the thick of things with little means of saving themselves.

Among them are the physically challenged who could not respond to the warning cries of the murderous gangs fast enough to save themselves.

But it was particularly trying for mothers of disabled children whose husbands had fled the violence, got killed or left to join the band of attackers.

Ms Lidya Mwihaki (pictured) is a mother to a disabled girl of 14. She had to carry the girl on her back when the violence broke out. They now live at the Yamumbi displacement camp, Eldoret where she says life is rough. Mwihaki’s daughter, Anna Njeri, cannot sit, walk, talk, or eat on her own.

"The only thing she does without my support is breathing and staring, and so moving with her from one displacement camp to another has been difficult," said Mwihaki.

The family is holed up at the displacement camp where every morning the 60-year-old mother carries her daughter to bask outside and returns her in the evening.

The home her husband built before deserting the family years ago was burnt and now the Yamumbi displacement camp remains the only home she knows even after it was officially closed.

Life became worse when she was not included in the second phase of the compensation, meaning she has to contend with the Sh10,000, most of which has been spent on her other children.

"For now I have no idea where to go, but what I am sure of is that the days ahead are difficult because I lost all I had during the skirmishes," she added.

Some families had concealed their disabled children from public view for years to avoid stigma that accompanies disability.

When violence displaced them, lifestyle at the camps exposed their secrets, forcing those who could not contend with the stigma to desert their families.

Ms Rachael Wanjiku languishes at the camp with her two children, one of whom is disabled. When the violence broke out, her husband whisked his household to the safety of the displacement camp. But his courage failed when it came to facing the world with a disabled daughter. He then vanished into thin air.

"My husband never wanted to be associated with our disabled daughter and I believe that was one reason why he deserted us soon afterwards," said Wanjiku.

Her nine-year-old daughter Maureen Wairimu was born healthy, but suddenly started growing weak physically and mentally.

"The doctors say it has to do with her nervous system. Nursing her is expensive and I have to start thinking of where to relocate since I am almost remaining alone in this camp," said Wanjiku.

Wanjiku is distraught because her daughter howls all day inside their tent at the Eldoret Show Ground camp.

This has stigmatised her household to the extent that few dare associate with her and so for the better part of the day mother and daughter stay put inside their tent.

"I am on my own, I cannot move out of this tent to fend for the two of us because no volunteer would put up with the needs of my daughter," she says.

Even in torment Wanjiku holds onto her daughter, fearing what could have happened had the militia swooped on her family with a vengeance and found her disabled daughter alone.

"They could have molested her in very dehumanising ways thinking that she was putting up a show," she said.

When the disabled met at the Anglican Church of Kenya in Eldoret early this month, their message was they were forgotten during the violence, resettlement and compensation to victims. The case of Ms Mary Wambui, a wheelchair bound woman, became a metaphor of the plight they suffered.

The twisted metal of her burnt wheelchair at the ruins of the church still torments many even as it is alleged she may not have died in the Eldoret church, but was abducted for ransom.

Reverend Maritim Rirei of the Anglican Church of Kenya has taken to counselling disabled victims of the violence.

"The Government and civic bodies have traversed this region on bonding missions, but little has been done for the disabled," he said.

The physically impaired appealed to the Government to reduce the prices of wheelchairs. In the orgy of looting and vandalism that accompanied the violence, many lost their implements of support.

Also in the meeting were the blind and the deaf who sent out a petition to the Government to empower them economically.

"We wish to be enabled to handle the crises, not to be the beggars at every turn of a crisis," said Mr Michael Manyonje, a disabled civic leader who spoke on their behalf.

Many disabled persons still live in displacement camps because they lack facilities to help restart their lives.