By Dennis Musyoki
As I walk into a classroom in Kizurini Primary School located in Kaloleni Sub County in the expansive Kilifi County, my attention is drawn to a group of pupils seated in a circle.
“What have we agreed to do during today’s session?” asks the teacher who is also part of the circle.
“Respect, no fighting, keeping quiet when one is talking, loving one another, and maintaining confidentiality,” the pupils respond in chorus.
I find out that sitting in a circle is meant to serve the purpose of symbolizing equality of the group. A circle has no beginning nor end therefore, all pupils and their teacher are all linked and connected to each other. The environment creates room for all pupils to participate openly and equally.
I further find out that these pupils in the circle are between 12 and 13 years of age and are all from the Kizurini Primary School special unit for pupils with various forms of disabilities ranging from conditions such as attention deficit disorder and cerebral palsy among many others.
The session between the teacher and the pupils is part of an initiative dubbed Youth First Kenya which works through creating social support groups for pupils, and through these groups, they undergo a number of learner-centered sessions geared towards building their resilience. In this part of the county, which is primarily rural, resilience is a much-needed quality that will help these pupils overcome the various hurdles they face in their day to day academic and social life.
With guidance from the teacher who is facilitating the sessions, the pupils acquire the skills of building resilience and how this resilience will help them in their quest to overcome their individual challenges such as stigma and discouragement that can potentially negatively impact their ability to live to their full potential, if they go unaddressed.
These lessons they are learning, will give them the much-needed internal support in terms of abilities and skills such as communication, problem-solving, behavioral and emotional regulation, hope, and a positive view of oneself, which are meant to help them fight for their space in society and learn independence.
It is refreshing to see the pupils say their goals in life out loud with a lot of positivity. Some would wish to take up weaving others knitting and others art. They are confident that with such skills, they may be able to propel themselves towards financial freedom provided they are able to monetize the skills.
I find myself concurring with the adage, “disability is not inability.”
My next stop is Chalani Primary School also in Kaloleni Sub County, about eight Kilometers from Kizurini Primary School. The first thing that catches my eyes is the enormous population of pupils. It is a beehive of activities as most of the pupils prepare to head home after a busy day of schooling.
Here, I notice three groups of pupils about to get into their respective classes. One of the groups is composed of both male and female pupils, whereas the other two groups are composed of boys and girls separately. The three groups will have their sessions simultaneously albeit in separate classrooms.
Upon enquiry, I find out that the different groupings are deliberate, as they are meant to address the respective pre-adolescent and adolescent needs of the pupils in each of the groups. Whereas all the pupils are from the seventh grade, the groups signify commonly shared needs among the pupils.
I peer into the classroom composed of the all-boys group, and find the teacher who is facilitating the session, in the process of setting the group norms.
As the session starts, today’s focus is on helping the boys learn how to handle their emotions and how to express themselves in a positive way. This is an important session because these boys are currently being brought up in a typical traditional African society that continues to hold the strong belief that men, and by extension boys, should not cry or express strong emotions. However, Kilifi County and Kenya as a country have recently witnessed increasing reports of men dying by suicide, with depression highlighted as the leading cause.
It is evident that men need to learn to speak up when faced with everyday stressors as failure to do so leads to compounding of their situation as they continue to hurt, stay broken and unable to communicate and even address the challenges they are going through. Therefore, helping these young boys to learn to express themselves and that it is perfectly okay to express themselves, will be of tremendous value to their lives.
As I peer into the classroom composed of the all-girls group, the session for the day is already in progress. The girls are learning the importance of championing for their space in the society, how to develop the resilience necessary to overcome the male dominated society they are being brought up in. Their society is traditionally African, which is patriarchal and thus holds self-limiting aspects towards women. This has often resulted in women not equally taking part in education, leadership and other spheres of society with their male counterparts. It’s therefore refreshing to see these young girls learning how to claim their space.
As I conclude my visit to these two schools, I am intrigued by the approach of the YFK program in proactively addressing mental health. Through building the resilience of these boys and girls at such a young age, the program essentially seeks to address some of the various predisposing factors to mental health conditions while at the same time giving these young ones the necessary tools to build their mental wellbeing. Without a doubt, such a program would be very beneficial if implemented not only throughout the entire Kilifi County but also nationwide.
The Youth First Kenya program is an initiative that is a collaboration by Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya, CBM Global Disability Inclusion, Corstone and the Ministry of Education – State Department of Early Learning & Basic Education, with funding from Fondation d’Harcourt.
Story compiled by Dennis Musyoki, a healthcare worker and community member residing in Kilifi County, as part of an initiative by the Inclusive Communities Program to give community members an opportunity to self-document the program’s progress and impact.