One home, many hopes

A former journalist and human rights activist is giving some of Kenya’s abandoned girls a second chance at childhood, writes Judy Bryant.

Mombasa is rightly renowned for its breathtaking coast and welcoming people, but even this slice of paradise has not escaped the effects of Aids and rapid urbanisation.

When her mother died of Aids eight years ago, Gift Hawa, then aged six — with her six-month-old sibling strapped to her back — was left to forage for food in the city’s streets.

Local street children told Anthony Mulongo about Hawa. Mulongo had befriended the children while working as a journalist in the port city.

Selected by the Kenyan government in the early 1990s as one of the 18 brightest students in the country, Mulongo had enrolled in an intensive five-year journalism course. Writing stories about social conditions and meeting street children led him to work for the US International Justice Mission in Nairobi, exploring human rights and power abuse issues.

Mulongo urged the street children to track down Hawa but, by the time they found her two days later, her baby sibling had died. Mulongo arranged for a friend in Mombasa to house Hawa for a month, then he took her to his Nairobi home, enrolled her in a boarding school and employed a housekeeper to care for her during school holidays.

After coming across many more destitute children, Mulongo (37) founded Mudzini Kwetu (“Our Home”) in Kikambala village on the outskirts of Mombasa. Backed by a formidable network of lawyers and other professional friends — including renowned Kenyan human rights lawyer Victor Kamau — he established a loving environment for 31 girls. About 80 children have passed through the home; many were adopted and fostered.

Initially housed in rented premises, Mudzini Kwetu now stands on a one hectare plot of land bought in a trust in the girls’ names. Leaving the 24/7 hubbub of Mtwapa suburb, visitors turn down a dirt road and bump along rutted tracks, past huts, tethered goats and dark green mango trees to reach the walled compound.

The large blue gate is deliberately unmarked to avoid the children being stigmatised as abandoned. The inside of the compound comprises several buildings. There is a staff of 10, a pink and lilac bus nicknamed “Ice-cream”, a donkey, three cows, dogs, vegetable patches and fruit trees.

Tiny paint handprints pressed into the verandah wall, rows and rows of little sandals and dozens of bright toothbrushes clustered together in a simple bathroom all point to a nurturing environment for the children, many of whom spent their earliest years foraging in the streets.

On our visit the children were attending classes at the exclusive English-speaking Bahari Parents Academy, waking up at 4.30 to start school at 6.30.

Under the shady verandah a smiling eight-month-old girl was being fed porridge by lawyer Alice Kingua. The baby — named Margaret by the other girls — was picked up by a friendly policewoman in town the previous night and left in the home’s care.

Mudzini Kwetu works with like-minded people in state departments, such as child welfare and the police; previously these officials had no alternative but to house abandoned children in prisons or reformatories. Mulongo also links police with specialist lawyers to work on individual cases and lawyers volunteer free legal advice on child-related matters to the community every Friday.

“The work is huge,” says Mulongo. “Once you know of a case it’s very difficult to ignore.”

Mudzini Kwetu is the only registered children’s home in the huge Kilifi District. Its administrators are kept busy with all the paperwork needed to become a formal adoption centre.

Monthly running costs, including salaries, amount to between R31 000 and R37 000. School tuition per child is R1 356 a term, excluding books, uniforms and sports equipment.

Food costs rocketed after the post-election civil unrest: cabbages that cost R3,70 in December soared to R37 and have settled now at about R12. A local doctor monitors the children free of charge, but there are still expensive prescriptions to fill.

“When the children first come in they are in bad shape and you have to give them lots of medicine until the body can take care of itself.”

There are day-to-day challenges: last year’s rains meant foundations had to be replaced and a drain dug down to 100m. A cow that delivered 16 litres of milk a day — enough to meet the children’s needs — fell and died.

It can be heartbreaking work but the modest, bespectacled Mulongo keeps pressing on. “I think it’s faith. I am interested in people and life. And when you are interested in people, that drives you to justice.”

Mulongo would like to establish his own kindergarten and school on the property, offering the same high standards of teaching without the travelling time, high fees and intense pressure.

Quietly spoken, dedicated teacher Lillian Njoqu joined the home a month ago to help bring the youngsters up to speed with extra afternoon lessons. Mulongo would like to offer schooling to some of the poor children in the surrounding village; and he’s planning university education for the girls so they can support themselves and be agents to end poverty in the region and beyond.

Mulongo is adamant that children must be removed from the cycle of poverty. “Feeding them is not enough. We have to give them the best and let them develop as leaders who will change the system.”

The support and fundraising network for Mudzini Kwetu extends to Britain, Germany and the US. Some volunteers are locals, others expats who’ve left Kenya but continue to contribute financially or by working at the home during holidays.

Gareth Stephens, from Wales, took early retirement to fundraise full-time and also set up a link between his former local high school and Mudzini Kwetu, with programmes such as teacher swaps.

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