by Samuel Mwangi

I listened through the key-hole of the door made of steel, whose dull grey paint had peeled at the bottom. A television droned away. A child was…was that moaning? I gave the door a slight push, with a loud creak. It was open, and through the small opening, I saw a figure running towards me. That was totally unexpected. So I backed up, and if I had gone a little too far, two or three steps behind me, I would have fallen down the small flight of stairs that led to the veranda. A child who looked the age of seven ran into me with a tight hug. Ooh! More surprises. After that slight scare, I was now disconcerted, wondering whether I should reciprocate with the same affectionate gesture. My hands were still limp at my sides. Still hugging. So I patted her back saying, “There, there. How are you?…What is your name?” She then looked up at me. It looked like she had taken some porridge a while back as indicated by the dried powdery bits around her mouth. She was drooling. She uttered something incoherently. “What?” I asked. She said it again. Tracy? Stacey? Triza? Huh?

“Tracy! Leave the guest alone!” someone barked from behind me. Okay, I had had enough startling for a day. They were experts at it. Tracy ran back in the house. Terrified. “Come in. come in.” That was Teresia, the manager of the Total Rehab Centre for Disabled Children. I had spoken to her on the phone because I needed directions to the place. When I walked in, I was hit by an acrid smell. Ammonic. Probably urine. The room had around 15 children and they were all staring at me. I was consumed with the very strong overwhelming urge to walk out. One was making what seemed to be involuntary twitches with his head. Another kept pounding his head with his hand. I then figured out who was relentlessly making the moaning sound. He seemed to be crying. Some, completely unable to move; lay on a couple of beds. Others sat in these makeshift chairs that gave them upper body support. This was all completely new to me, and I just stood there helplessly.

The television had some music show on, and Sauti Sol was telling us to Shake Our Bam Bams. I had my eyes transfixed on the tellie, but I wasn’t really watching it. How do you give adequate care to all these helpless children? Their mothers must have been psychologically overcome. Where do you even begin? Right next to the television was a case and in it were all sorts of bottles of medicine, pills and tablets. All the children seemed to by saying something, but it was just cacophony of illogical, mute sounds. Now it hit me why so students drop out of the program. It can be a little too much to take in all at once.

“Don’t just stand there.” Teresia said. She had this wry smile on her face. She was probably thinking that was the first and the last time she was going to see me. They all cannot handle all this. “They need to be fed…come.” I followed her into what seemed to be the kitchen. The room had a door leading to the outside. She led me to a large sufuria that had a mushy mixture of beans and rice. It looked like someone had intentionally mashed the food, and I realized that the kids probably would choke if they ate it solid. A stone’s throw away was what seemed to be where all the water that drained from the kitchen sink had pooled, stagnant and putrid.

That’s when I noticed some of the kids peeking through the window curtains, and it seemed like they wanted us to play some sort of peek-a-boo game. Once they noticed I had gotten their attention, they would quickly move away from the window cackling. I decided to play along. I first pretended that I was not looking, and suddenly, I dramatically turned and looked them in the eyes. I popped my eyes out, snarling through jagged teeth. “Aaaarggr!” And I lifted my hands, like a predator attacking its prey, contorting my fingers like that of a folklore witch- arthritic and bonny. They screamed with delight backing away from the curtain. This went on for a couple of minutes and it got me thinking. They were happy. They could laugh. Despite their mental disorder, they expressed joy and were carefree. They needn’t worry about paying bills, working late, terrorism and all other worldly burdens I would normally bear. That made me smile.