A mosaic called Ruben. With Kurt Fearnley in Nairobi.

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Anne Doyle.

Making mosaics is the art of crafting broken pieces into a work of beauty. In her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams writes: ‘Mosaic celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together’.

Kurt Fearnley with some of the disabled children in the Ruben Centre in Nairobi.

In late February, I flew into Nairobi with a group of people associated with the Edmund Rice Foundation, to spend a week visiting the Ruben Centre and the Mary Rice Centre, two oases of hope transforming lives in the Mukuru and Kibera Slums. Flying over this city of six million people provides a startling sight. The gracious homes and extravagant gardens of the very wealthy stand behind their hedged boundaries seemingly unaware of the grey scars that stretch across the city.

These scars, a mosaic of corrugated iron shanties, house sixty percent of the city’s population on six percent of its land. The people who live there carve out their lives with piecemeal employment, ‘on the hustle’, struggling to feed their families in huge communities largely unserviced by the government, many without reliable water or electricity, in ‘ten by tens’ with dirt floors.

Disability & brokenness

Education and medical services are scant here, and opportunities for advancement rare without a benefactor’s sponsorship. Death is a frequent reminder of the fragility of life. People die young, sick and exhausted. The interwoven laneways and streets of the slums are uneven, unsurfaced, and disorderly, where animals scavenge, and people perform daily tasks in a dirty, unhealthy environment. It does indeed seem like a broken world.

In the culture of the slum, disability is viewed as shameful. It is seen as brokenness. Mothers of disabled children are shunned, and the children are hidden away in the dark corners of their shanties. Many fathers leave their families when a disabled child is born, imposing increased hardship.  

And yet there are places where mothers can stand tall and proud, meeting others with the same experience. Places where they are welcomed with care and understanding. Places where generous people work in solidarity with them. The Ruben and Mary Rice Centres are havens of comfort for families of disabled children.

Kurt Fearnley & his Mum

Kurt Fearnley & Alison Chartres, Australian High Commissioner to East Africa, at the opening of the
Special Needs Unit named after him.

Travelling with us to Nairobi was Australian champion wheelchair athlete, Kurt Fearnley, and his mother. We were there for the official opening of the Kurt Fearnley Special Needs Unit at the Ruben Centre. In comfortable classrooms, well equipped with materials for learning and therapy, it now educates over fifty disabled children from the Mukuru Slum. Kurt’s dream is that some children will be able to integrate into the regular classes of the Ruben School, just as he integrated into his school, eventually graduating as a teacher.

After the opening ceremony, Kurt joined the children in their classrooms. He slipped out of his wheelchair and joined half a dozen severely disabled children on their play mat, laughing and playing with them. Earlier, he spoke directly to the mothers of these children: “When I see you, I see my Mum, and when I see your children, I see myself”. Surely, a perfect statement of solidarity and understanding.

Kurt’s brokenness was clear for all to see on that mat, as clearly as that of the children. Yet, in joining them, he created connections, and demonstrated that we share our humanity.

He spoke about the importance of education to empower people. He emphasised the gifts we all have, saying “your kids may just be able to surprise you as much as I’ve been able to surprise my Mum”.

Empowerment & the Ruben Centre

The mothers gained hope and confidence from those words, hope that they shared with Brother Frank O’Shea, the Director of the Ruben Centre a few weeks later:

  • There is no shame in having a child with disabilities.
  • Seeing Kurt and his mother and listening to them has shed a great light on us, especially how his mother refused to be defined and contained by others’ expectations.
  • We have seen power in weakness. We now have hopes and plans for our children.
Some of the able bodied students in
the new Ruben School of 3000 students.

Yes, there is indeed power in weakness. At Ruben, power and hope abound, as broken lives of thousands who live in the slum have been transformed, despite government negligence, through compassion, creativity, dedication, and determination.

Indeed, the Ruben Centre is a mosaic of many programs which bring together the people of the Mukuru Slum. The services available are described by Brother Frank as “a one-stop shop, providing womb to tomb care”.

Over 3000 children attend the primary school and special needs unit, and their families benefit from the medical centre, child welfare clinic, a birthing unit, baby care centre, an AIDS support centre, employment training, an organic farm, FM radio station, and recycling projects. Social and economic empowerment are products of these programs, as well as of networking and advocacy to improve social structures, and increase government and public awareness of the needs of the people in the slum.

All this is possible with the dedication of Brother Frank and his team, together with the support of the Edmund Rice Foundation and generous benefactors.

In the Mukuru Slum, broken lives have been brought together to form a mosaic of people and projects powered by love and enthusiasm. They celebrate the beauty and energy of the Ruben Centre, created in a broken world.

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