A Place of Sanctuary for Mentally and Physically Handicapped Children

MAF provides transportation for those serving at the Wamba Hospital in remote northern Kenya.

Story and photos by Katie Machell

Imagine this: you are only five years old, and you have been left in charge of your baby brother. But you get distracted, and suddenly realise you don’t know where he is. Imagine your searching, and then finally locating him, too late: he is crawling into the open dung fire in your small hut. Imagine.

Or this. Only six years old, you are asleep on your goatskin, in the small hut fashioned from sticks, rope, and old pieces of plastic, where you live. In the middle of the night you wake in agony. The walls are burning and the fire has begun to melt the plastic above the place where you lay, and it is dripping down and scorching your head, your ear, your arm. Imagine.
Sadly these are far from imaginary situations; they are terrible and tragic realities experienced by two boys encountered last year by long–term MAF passenger Alison Curtis on one of her regular visits to Wamba Hospital, in the remote Samburu district of northern Kenya.

‘Memusi Lelopeta ran into the fire himself,’ Alison told me. ‘He sustained such severe burns, that both feet had to be amputated. And the baby? ‘The baby died.’
The first time I met Alison, I knew nothing about Wamba hospital, but the passion with which she told me stories of the work there captured my interest. Clearly a place that draws people (Alison has been visiting regularly from her home in Switzerland for over 30 years), the hospital has grown from its humble beginnings as a dispensary, to become a 200-bed facility which houses amongst other things operating theatres, X-ray and physiotherapy facilities, a maternity and new-born intensive care unit, as well as pharmacy and out-patient services. When I finally had the opportunity to visit, I was impressed by the modernity of the buildings and the expertise of the staff.

But what touched me most deeply was something entirely different, and completely unexpected.

Tucked away inside the walls of Wamba Hospital is Huruma Home, a place of sanctuary for mentally and physically handicapped children. Run by the Nirmala Sisters, an order of Catholic nuns from India, since the 1980s, Huruma offers love and care for youngsters who have had a very challenging start in life.

The staff, only four in number, tirelessly care for forty children of varying ages; children who have been abandoned by their families as the stigma and fear attached to mental and physical handicap is too difficult for them to cope with. ‘When the parents learn there is something wrong with the child, they leave them in the hospital and run away,’ explained Araman Musa, the hospital administrator. ‘The community believes such children are cursed, and the parents don’t know how to care for them.’ These youngsters face a variety of challenges, ranging from hydrocephalus to cerebral palsy, and other more complex syndromes. Some are in wheelchairs, others completely bed bound; some are able to attend the local school, others never leave the home. Some make eye contact, others seem oblivious to the world around them; some respond to touch and greeting, others are unable to move at all. Yet for all the sadness that necessitated its creation, Huruma itself is not an unhappy place; rather there is a sense of hope. Children who would have otherwise suffered a dreadful fate are secure and protected, with a reasonable quality of life and assurance of the care they need. Huruma is the reminder that those marginalised by circumstance are not forgotten by God.

I hope very much to visit Wamba again, to see the children’s services Alison has developed, and to meet some of the people whose lives she has poured into. Each time she visits, she never knows how many children she will find at the hospital, or what their problems will be, although issues such as TB, wildlife wounds, snake bites, and burns such as those suffered by the two young boys are seen time and time again.
I hope also to go back to Huruma, to spend more time with the children and the women who look after them. To learn their names and hear their stories, so that outside the walls of Wamba, they are known and remembered.