It is 9am. The sun’s rays are dancing on the grass, licking off the last dew in the fields of Shavihiga Salvation Army Special School, as the heavens threaten to open up in loyalty to the season.
The gentle chirping of the birds in trees and the scrape of teachers’ shoes on the cemented floors of the school block built through the Constituency Development Fund mute the voices of the three children who have already arrived for the occasion.
It’s a special moment: A mobile telephone company is just about to hand over a water tank to the school and so the tent standing on the left as you walk through the gate is decorated in green.
One after the other, children walk into the school. A pair enters. These two are clearly in their teens. They are communicating in sign language.
Behind them, an old man enters, carrying a child in his arms. He is visibly feeble. A few metres from the gate, he stops, lifts his head and inhales a lungful of fresh morning air from Ikolomani Hills. He then turns his attention to the beautifully arranged seats under the tent that is decorated in green, white and black.
He is obviously tired but he proceeds to the tent, careful not to drop the child.
The man, who we later learnt is Elija Serete Shikundi, 90, places the boy dressed in a red T-shirt with the name of his school on one of the seats.
The boy’s legs are immobile and his bare feet are hosts to jiggers.
Mr Shikundi is one of the oldest guardians in the school. There are 22 others whose ages range between 72 and 89.
In their sunset years, these men and women who keep trooping into this school for the occasion, should be at home being taken of by their children. But the younger generation has chosen otherwise. It has burdened the old with disabled children they are ashamed of being seen with.
“This is my grandson,” Mr Shikundi introduces the child. “When my son’s wife discovered that he was unable to walk, she brought him to my house and left him with my now departed wife.”
“When my son came back from the city and found the child with me, he was very angry, saying he was not his biological father yet I could see from the facial resemblance that he was his child!”
He said that after he insisted that the child was his, his son left, telling him to take care of the child if he wanted to. “He works at a flower farm in Naivasha.”
That was nine years ago and the child was only one year old. Two years later, Mr Shikundi lost his daughter to Aids, leaving another child with him. He takes care of both.
Since 2008, Mr Shikundi has borne the burden of raising a disabled child; cooking for him, bathing him, feeding him, taking him to school and back, dressing him, taking him to the toilet…
“I have to take care of the child. I am caged because there are occasions I cannot join my age mates. I do not travel far because I have to always keep watch over him,” says Mr Shikundi as his shaky hand rests on the child’s right shoulder.
He says sometimes when he is unwell, the child, whose speech is also impaired, has to crawl alone to school.
“It takes a long time for him to arrive. Sometimes he gets tired and lies by the road until a Good Samaritan appears. Woe unto him if it rains,” he says, gently massaging the boy’s unevenly shaved head mottled with a powdery ringworm infection.
Mr Shikundi, his second wife aged 70 and their 10-year-old grandson live in a mud house, just like many other residents of Idakho East. Area nominated MCA Lucy Mukhalla says the biggest challenge disabled children in the area face is being abandoned and left in the care of old people.
“We are glad that disabled children are no longer being hidden in their homes. The parents and guardians are now taking them to school after years of sensitisation,” says Ms Mukhalla.
The problem, she says, was caused by the community’s belief about disability being caused by curses.
At Shavihiga Salvation Army Special School, which was started in 2013, the children are taught basic skills depending on their abilities, among them, expressing feelings, personal identity, socialisation, speech therapy and even physiotherapy.
A resident of the village, Enos Shitsukane, says the burden of taking care of the disabled children will be eased if the government supplies them with equipment such as wheelchairs and hearing aids, and if boarding facilities are set aside for them in schools.
Shavihiga Special School headteacher Damary Otieno said the institution is integrated to accommodate extremely poor children and a few disabled ones who come from far-flung areas.
“Since these children’s needs are different, they are divided in classes that suit them. This kind of integration helps them in socialisation. With time, the physically challenged children learn a few skills from the other children,” says Mrs Otieno.
Apart from offering the 8-4-4 curriculum, the school teaches the physically challenged ones using the physical disability syllabus, which includes the Kenya Sign Language, and the mental disability syllabus, among others.
“The school has eased our burden to some extent and we hope their plan of having all the children on board will help most of the old parents who bear the burden of taking care of these special children,” says Mr Shikundi.
“This will also be good for the children because they develop skills faster,” he says, adding that all his eight children have refused to live with his grandson.
Apart from the Sh200 paid by each parent per term, the school receives Sh8,000 from the government per term.
“That money is not enough to run the school at all. We just depend on well-wishers like Safaricom. The Sh472 per child per term does not really help much,” says Mrs Otieno.The school that has 105 pupils and needs a medical section, as stipulated by the government.