THE MAGIC OF EMPATHY

I cannot remember the exact route Mustafa took to reach the Kasarani Sector in Nairobi, I just remember looking through the window and seeing a panoramic view of the city with tall buildings in the distance. The car drove off the main route, entered a muddy street and went straight until we came to a blue gate. From here, I saw an incredible green landscape and at first thought, we had arrived at a farm. But, actually, the fresh air, garden full of vegetables and songs of the birds had welcomed us to Total Rehab Center for Disabled Children.

The Total Rehab Center for Disabled Children is a community-based, nonprofit organization, registered with the Office of the District Gender and Social Development Officer (Kenya’s Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Development) since July of 2010. Dedicated to providing holistic care for children with physical, cognitive and social impairments, the Center primarily cares for those living with cerebral palsy.

We were greeted by Oris, a social worker who has been at the center for three years and 25 smiling boys and girls. While each child suffers from a different brain disability, they looked happy in this family environment. Women, like Oris, have taken care of them over many days and weeks, even months and years, making the Center a place where the children feel safe and part of a group.

During our visit, I observed Millie, an Africa Yoga Project teacher, lead four children through muscular therapy sessions. Millie visits the Center once a week to do therapy sessions with a small group of children. Depending on the children’s moods and health, some weeks she works with more children while other weeks it’s less. During these sessions, Millie treats each child individually, trying to put herself in their shoes and bring them happiness. While some of the children felt stressed by the therapy during this visit, I could see them become more satisfied and comfortable when Millie hugged them and stretched their arms and legs – their eyes would meet our eyes and sometimes they even smiled back at us.

I keep their faces, their gestures, their movements, in my mind and in my heart. Purity, a seventeen-year-old girl living with cerebral palsy, really sticks with me. Despite being young, Purity is one of the only children in the group who can speak fluently. Her challenge that day with Millie tried to walk straight through the Center’s living room. I remember watching as she, with some assistance and a big smile, stood up from her wheelchair and walked step-by-step. Purity was so happy that she asked Millie to be the first one to receive therapy during the next session. As I watched the therapy sessions and Purity’s joy, I came to see how much this time with Millie and AYP helps the children and also how much they enjoy it!

Every so often, I also remember their pain, and their frustration and helplessness when they could not express themselves. Despite these challenges, the children are still happy and calm. I suppose this is because they are still treated with dignity, live in a house, and have someone who looks after them, gives them affection, and feeds them fresh and healthy food from the garden.

After the therapy sessions finished, we also shared some time in the general room with the children. I remember it didn’t matter that we spoke different languages, as we could still engage with them in play. It’s true that when you really connect in empathy with others, magic arises… communicating, enjoying, sharing, all happens naturally.

Afterward the quality time and lunch, we left the children’s house. The time spent smiling, playing and connecting, and the opportunity to place ourselves in their shoes meant as much to them as to us. We experienced moments of deep recognition and appreciation of the other end of life itself. We have an opportunity in life to inspire, to learn, to teach and above all, to build a fairer world where we allow empathy to work its own magic.