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Kathy Flatoff, waiting with Catherine for her therapy session

Working at St. Patrick’s Dispensary in the Bangla neighborhood of Mombasa, I have been learning about people who live in poverty, the culture here in Kenya, and the complex needs of the people I am here to serve. I have also been learning about the “hidden children”—those with disabilities.

Three-year-old Catherine is one of those children. She was the second child born to a young couple living in poverty. Her mother did not go for routine prenatal care, and when it was time to deliver, Catherine was not in the correct position, complicating her birth. As a result, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and has multiple disabilities. She cannot sit, stand or eat solid foods. She has severe developmental challenges.

Here in Kenya there is a stigma with having a child who is “not normal.” Sometimes the child is abandoned at the hospital and never taken home. The shameful father may leave his family, claiming the child is not his. A mother who keeps a disabled child may be viewed as cursed and called a devil worshipper. The children are often hidden away in their homes.

They are taken out only for important reasons such as sickness, as was the case with Catherine. Her mother carried her the usual Kenyan way—in a sling on her back, and brought her to our dispensary. She was sick, and we treated her infection. A few days later, I went with our social worker to check on her. Their small one-room house with mud walls and a tin roof was very close to our dispensary, but we had not known that she was living there with her mom, dad and two brothers.

Catherine isn’t sure what to think of her new chair!

Catherine needs total care and was spending her days lying on a bed or on an old, tattered couch. There was no chair to accommodate her, and she was getting too big for her mom to continue carrying her on her back. She needed a chair—a wheelchair. Her mother agreed. We got Catherine measured and a custom-made wheelchair was finished a few weeks later. Thanks to generous donors, Catherine can now sit in a chair that supports her.

We are encouraging her mother to take her outside in her new chair to enjoy the sunshine and to let children in the nearby homes visit with her. But the stigma of being cursed persists—because of her disabilities, Catherine is not a “normal” child, and I could sense her mother’s shame as she continues to struggle with this.

Catherine’s mother wheeling her home in her new, custom-fitted wheelchair.

Change takes time, but it has begun. In recent months an organization called Wezesha has come to the Bangla area. They want to find children with disabilities, provide therapy, counsel the parents, and most importantly, they are educating people at churches and schools and at public forums about disabilities. They are striving to mainstream these children. Some of them have physical disabilities but are intelligent and should be attending school.

Changing a culture and long-held beliefs will be a long process. We are starting with Catherine and a few others, but there are more children out there who still need to be found. Wezesha is looking for them. I am looking for them. Wezesha has the therapists and teachers and educators to provide the services. For those who cannot afford their help, I have some ministry funds that can be used for wheelchairs, therapies and school fees, if appropriate.

Together we can work on getting rid of the stigma—we can help the “hidden children.”

View Kathy Flatoff’s profile here. 

Kathy Flatoff
Kathy Flatoff serves as a Maryknoll lay missioner nurse at Nyota ya Asubuhi, a ministry of the Daughters of Charity in Kitale in western Kenya. She previously worked at St. Patrick's Dispensary, a health clinic in a poor, informal settlement in Mombasa, Kenya.