Giving Hope to the disadvantaged- The shoemaker and friends’ story
By Martha Wairimu.
Hidden in the uptown area of Kabete, at the intersection, is the little unknown area of Kingeero. Its name translated means ‘a place where throats are cut’, according to residents, but at the Kingeero Holy Eucharist Catholic Church, only the patter of hope can be heard as children receive a second lease to lead a normal life.
“It’s not easy says Mwangi, turning my home into a mini- workshop but my wife and children are very supportive, at times help in making the shoes, he laughs.”
His tape measure draped over his tapered shoulders, on the table is a pen and paper. With the skillful hand of an artist, Joseph Mwangi carefully measures the feet of little Keziah Wanjiru. He meticulously jots down the measurements, and traces the shape of her leg on his plain sheet of paper.
Watching him work, you hardly notice the effort he exerts in doing this task. His albeit petite body leans heavily on the old hard wood dinner table which acts as his examination table for his young patients , his left leg helps create an illusion of a balanced posture . His crutches lean gaily on the cream coloured walls of his office.
In his early thirties, he juggles his time between his day -job at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), where he works as an orthopedic technologist. He is also the chairman of the KNH paraplegic Association.
Married with two children , he spends his free time making orthopedic shoes for children with disabilities, at times working in the wee hours of the night in his home, to ensure that no child will be turned away unattended.
Mwangi is part of a team of volunteers at the Watoto CIAO- Children in Africa Organization, a programme for children with disabilities based at the Kingeero Holy Eucharist Catholic Church. He makes customized orthopedic shoes for his young patients.
He is one of the few Kenyans in the country versed with this skill of an Orthopedic Technologist (O.T). An orthopedic technologist; sets fractures, applies or removes casts, fits and adjusts canes, crutches, walkers and braces, and make splints for different leg problems.
Being a victim of polio, he studied leather work and shoemaking for three years at the Nyandarua Rehabilitation Centre, and later joined Kenya Medical Training Centre (KMTC) to train in orthopedic technology.
The little room provided for free by the church, acts as his consultation room and doubles up as an office and treatment centre for occupational therapy services offered by the centre.
“The programme started in 2008, after an Italian Diego Ottolini, who at the moment was working in the country visited the Nairobi remand home and witnessed the struggle of children with disabilities,” narrates Joseph Ngugi, an occupational therapist at the centre.
“The Programme offers occupational therapy services for a token of ten shillings. The centre provides some of the materials for making the shoes needed to help the children in mobility, and at times the parents chip in to cater for some of the costs at a subsidized rate when needed.”
Keziah Wanjiru is on her second visit to the centre, one of her legs is laced with a cast. “At four months, Keziah was taken ill, now at one and half years she struggles to talk and walk, she has what doctors call delayed milestones, says her mother.”
She is one of the many children visiting the centre. “Her legs, says Mwangi, have lateral (cross) sides, a condition observed in children with rickets. The plaster on her leg is meant to aid the leg to grow normally. “
Rickets is the softening and weakening of bones in children usually because of a deficiency in vitamin D, which helps promote the absorption of calcium.
According to Dr. Terry Wefwafa, head of Nutrition in the Ministry of public health and sanitation, the combination of cereals and tubers in a diet causes the body to have too much vitage which binds the calcium, making it hard for the body to absorb it.
Rickets results in delayed growth in the spine, pelvis and leg muscle weakness. The softening by rickets of the growth plates at the end of a child’s bones can cause skeletal deformities such as bowed legs, abnormally curved spine, thickened wrists and ankles and breastbone projection.
The Kenya Demographic Health Survey-KDHS 2009 show that an estimated 33percent of children in Kenya are malnourished with 35percent of this children experiencing stunted growth.
“If detected early deformities caused by rickets can be cured, using a combination of therapy and orthopedic materials, such as lateral braces, mermaid splint, innersole to help set the legs into the right size and give it balance” explains Mwangi.
In situations where the child has rickets, the most common condition is knock knees and bow legs , that can also be seen in children that are slightly heavier which causes weakness in the leg muscle to support the weight of the child . If spotted earlier bow legs can be treated using mermaid splint to set the back into the right position.
“A normal leg usually has a well formed arch, to aid in walking and posture but when one leg is shorter, an inner sole is made for the shoes, and the sole has a slightly raised arch, to help the legs grow straight.”
Like a cherry on ice, Albert Nyamu stands out from the crowd of women gathered at the centre. His twelve year old son, the first born from his second marriage, has mild cerebral palsy. The disease affects his mobility and talking skills, and at eight years he was affected by rickets, causing his legs to have lateral sides.
“It has not being easy, sighs Nyamu, especially since my other children do not have any disabilities. The centre offers us an affordable alternative, since there are no consultation fees, and the cost sharing makes it easy, not to mention that it is easier to access the doctor anytime, in case you need help. “
Clapperton Wafula is among the few men that volunteers at the centre. A night security officer, he spends his day doing follow up with children he has introduced to the centre and also looks out for children to help in his area.
“Poverty and shame prevents most families having children with disabilities from accessing health facilities, with most hiding such children, notes Wafula, acceptance remains a big challenge as many relate the disability to a curse and in some cases the father’s assume the mother may have cheated on them since in their family lineage there are no cases of disability.”
Jovial and confident, at 49 years of age, Grace Njeri had done her duty as a parent and was looking for something to fill her free time. She joined the children centre in its inception and is one of the pioneers of the volunteers ‘movement’.
“Hostility is not new, says Grace, I have at times been forced to play hide and seek with some of the parents so that I can offer assistance to the children after neighbors bring it to my attention. “
“ Tact is important in approaching families having children with disabilities and only in extreme situation are we forced to involve the authorities after all approaches fail, notes Grace; You have to diverse clever ways of reaching these children and parents, if not directly maybe through the neighbours or friends as most parents are nervous when strangers hang around.”
“At one point, I had to ask the area chief to intervene when a father refused to allow his son get medical treatment for a leg problem, he complied when the chief threatened to imprison him, we are now great friends and his son is doing great now.”
“ Being a volunteer has its challenges but the change that we see in the children after receiving therapy and treatment is fulfilling to care whether there is any monetary payment, we do have to sacrifice at times using the little we have to access the children, says Grace.”
Her work at the centre is to follow up on parents who have visited the centre so that they adhere to therapy visits and to identify situations where a child needs help.
The centre continues to act as a beacon of hope, with over 300 children having benefited so far.
To increase its visibility in the areas within, they hold awareness events in the area and partner with local churches to pass on messages to parents to bring in children affected with disabilities to get treatment.
His shoes may never be displayed on the streets of Nairobi, Cairo or New York nor will celebrities scramble to put on his shoes but Joseph Mwangi is not your everyday cobbler.
For the many children that have passed through the centre, Mwangi and his friends are their best hope to leading a normal life.
“It requires sacrifice and great commitment, says Mwangi, but the sense of satisfaction when a parent calls you and tells you of the progress made after treatment, is a feeling you cannot trade.”