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ordinary heroes

(an exercise in new journalism)

November, 2006

We live in a society that has come to expect superstars who can perform miracles, changing the world for the better. A conscious effort in schools and otherwise to make people aware of everything around them is producing a new breed of 'miracle workers', a generation brought up to believe that they alone hold the keys to a brighter future. They are smarter, work harder, and need to be more aware of the world around them than ever before if they are to carry forward with the hopes that have been handed to them.

Perhaps this is part of the reasoning behind the structure of the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) Diploma Programme. As one of the options available to students who have completed their 'O' Levels (or equivalent), the I.B. is fast gaining ground in schools around the world. Its main focus is on giving students a well-rounded education by requiring them to do six subjects, one from each 'Area of Knowledge', including compulsory subjects such as English and Mathematics. A subject called 'Theory of Knowledge', as well as an extended essay of about 4000 words, provides training in skills necessary for university.

There is also a movement to help a student develop in areas other than academia, with the Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) requirement. As its name suggests, the student takes part in extracurricular activities that fall into one of the three broad categories defined by CAS. It carries no marks, but is considered one of the strengths of the programme since it helps a student develop in areas other than academia. Fifty is the magic number, the number of hours a student has to complete in each section of the programme as they work towards the I.B. diploma.

Fifty was the number that haunted my dreams in my first term of I.B. I had just joined the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi, the only person from my secondary school to do so. I was initially attracted to the I.B. because of its number of subjects, its promise to open doors where I thought none had existed. It felt like the perfect programme for an overachiever like me, and the CAS activities promised an extension of the learning process.

Creativity was simple enough. I joined the school newspaper as an editor, and wrote the occasional article or poem to get extra hours. Action required a lot more; I tried out for the basketball team but didn’t quite make the cut, and ended up hanging around at the practices hoping to be taken on as a sub. Still, I was confident I could make the fifty hours needed in each requirement somehow.

Service, the school took it upon itself to organise. We were given choices: coach the school teams, help in the classrooms, or go out and visit various charity institutions. I immediately put myself down for the outside option, ignoring the surprised look from the co-ordinator and the smirks from the older students. I knew what they were saying: She has no idea what she’s getting into…

I thought I did. I was sixteen, and hell-bent on ‘making a difference’. Idealistic? Perhaps. I envisioned myself as a crusader for the underprivileged, a ‘voice for the voiceless’, as I wrote in an editorial. I had done my fair share of writing on 'worthy' topics such as AIDS and child abuse, and a stint as a peer counsellor had left me convinced I had a duty to fulfil.

That, and like any teenager, I thought I was invincible.

Our first assignment was to visit Nairobi Children’s Home, a Government-sponsored orphanage in Lower Kabete. We were to be taken there every week to spend a couple of hours playing with the children and helping out at the orphanage before coming back to school.

Simple enough.


On our first visit, about twenty of us crammed into the school van. Most people chattered away, more relieved to be out of school than focusing on what we were meant to do. It was Friday, and people were discussing their plans for the weekend. A few people started up a singing game. Very soon, almost everyone had joined in. It seemed almost as if we were going on a school picnic.

The jovial atmosphere dissipated, however, as we drove up to the orphanage. Those of us who were next to the windows saw it first, falling silent. By the time the bus stopped, everyone was quiet, not sure what to make of dilapidated place before us.

My first impression was that of an overrun homestead. The walls around the lot were crumbling, the gate old and rusty. Children ran about like chickens, heels kicking up dust and indiscernible noise coming from every direction. And the smell… a stench hung over the place, something between old urine and decaying vegetable matter, and perhaps a rotten egg or two thrown in for good measure.

The smirks of the older students came back to me, then, and I wondered for a second what I had been thinking when I signed up for this.

But only for a second. Like most self-proclaimed miracle workers, I thought there should be no room for doubt as to what my mission was. I berated myself for even thinking of backing down. I knew that if I wanted to change things, I’d have to get involved, and it was clear the whole point of the Service programme was exactly that: to get involved. Still, I was uneasy, not sure of what I was supposed to do now that I was here.

“Is this it?” someone asked. A girl whose name I didn’t know then, but would eventually come to know as Selma. She was busy filing her nails, barely glancing up at the place.

“No, duh.”

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?”

I pointed to the sign that hung beside the gate. It proudly proclaimed that we were at ‘Nai obi Chi dren Home’. Selma looked at it with disdain before pocketing her nail file. Behind us, the van started up. The driver had other responsibilities to attend to and would be back for us in two hours, but until then we were to try and see what we could do here. A couple of students made half-hearted steps towards the van before it drove off, but stopped when they realised no one else was coming.

"Let's go in, then."

We moved towards the gate, a collective wave of green and grey uniforms pushing through to this strange world.


In the past, critics of the I.B. programme have slammed the system as being exclusive, only catering to "rich kids". Given that it is taught mostly in private schools, it is understandable that most of the teenagers who go through it come from middle- to upper-class backgrounds. For a person who has never seen real poverty, then, the Service activities make sense. They are meant to foster a sense of responsibility as a whole, especially towards the less fortunate.

It is meant to open their eyes.

Unfortunately, living in a place like Kenya meant being overwhelmed the moment you even dared to peep.

Cushioned by our sheltered upbringing, most of us hadn’t even heard of the home before, let alone seen it. It felt like a completely different world, and one that was a little more than awkward to step into. There we were, dolled up in our private-school uniforms, looking completely out of place next to these children. Their clothes hung off them, the various patches and tears making them look like walking rag dolls. They followed every movement we made; anyone's watch or bracelet immediately became a magnet for their eyes. Our shoes left patterns in the dust that they found incredible; they took turns at placing their bare feet in the centre of  our shoe-prints, a game that almost hurt to watch.

Where we frowned and looked grim, they smiled, genuinely excited that someone had come to see them.

A woman working at the place took us around, leading us through various rooms, each one shabbier than the next. She spoke so fast that I struggled to understand, and a look around confirmed that everyone else in my class was probably too dazed to follow what she was saying anyway. Her voice became the soundtrack to a series of impossibly cramped rooms. It seemed almost criminal that anyone should have been living there, let alone children. There were obviously not enough beds; a question as to how they all managed to sleep in such cramped quarters was met with stone-lipped silence. A few children lay about, not caring to join in with the games outside. We didn't dare ask about them, why they were so listless and why the door was locked the moment we were all out in the corridor.

Behind the buildings stood a playground of sorts. A rusted slide and an old climbing frame were the main attractions. To one corner, a few girls were taking turns pushing the others on creaking swings. In another, an old merry-go-round dipped precariously to one side as it spun. Again, as in the front, the children were oblivious to our shock; they crowded around us, taking our  reluctant hands, each person in our little group dragged away to play.

I wandered away to look around the place on my own. Everywhere I looked, there was such squalor. To think that this was normal for them was unbelievable to me. And these children were supposedly the 'lucky' ones... in a country where half the population lived below the poverty line, orphans were genuinely lucky if they found themselves in a home and not on the streets. This was the greatest shock to me. I was used to the street urchins who wandered around, sniffing glue and banging on car windows, but I didn't see any difference between them and the children in the orphanage. The only advantage they had, as far as I could tell, was that these children had a roof over their heads, but the ratty clothes and hungry stares were the same. It was enough to make you stare. And it was enough to make you want to just turn away.

That evening, I wrote an entry in my blog, trying to get my head around it all.

The emphasis is on appreciation. Appreciation that you're actually here, and able to see what's going on. Able to help. What they don't tell you is that by the end of it you're going to be numb to the same people you're supposed to be helping.


We soon found that if we pretended nothing was wrong, we could do more than if we showed that we understood that things were not quite right at the orphanage. The helpers would stop watching us so intently and we could move a little more freely, maybe ask the children a few more questions. Each student had their own child to look after for each visit; I was about to meet mine.

I noticed the girl standing in the doorway. She was tiny; I would have guessed she was about three or four. The neck of her dress was too big and had slipped sideways to reveal one of her shoulders. As I approached, she stepped backwards, whipping her hands behind her back. More curious than alarmed, I slowed down, crept towards her, hoping she would not suddenly turn and bolt.

To my relief, she didn't.

“Hi, what’s your name?”

My words sailed straight over her head. She looked up at me, her face impassive, the only indication that she had even heard what I was saying being a slight tilt of the head.


I tried again, this time kneeling down. I reasoned that perhaps if I brought myself down to her level, she might find it easier to talk to me. The little child psychology I had picked up as a peer counsellor had taught me that even standing up could be considered a form of intimidation, and would effectively shut out anyone at a lower level.

“I’m Marziya. And your name is…?”

Nothing. Not even a blink. She just stood there, staring. I wondered what I should do next, racking my brain for some kind of explanation. Maybe she was deaf. Maybe she relied on lip-reading… maybe she was too young to know any language at all (although I doubted that). Maybe she…

“She can’t understand you. These kids don’t speak English at all.”

I turned. One of my classmates, Anthony, stood behind me. He seemed rather amused at my attempts to get some kind of response from the girl.

I cursed myself for not learning Kiswahili in school. I knew a little, but my knowledge was limited to what I needed to haggle with vegetable vendors at the market. Somehow, I doubted that my vocabulary of various numbers, fruits and vegetables would be of any use in this particular situation.

"Can you talk to her?" I asked Anthony. As one of the few African students in our class, he was rather good at Kiswahili, and had even taken it as one of his subjects. I knew that he would probably take it as another sign as to how far removed the South Asian community as a whole was from the average Kenyan, but graciously, he didn't say anything. Instead, he squatted in front of the little girl and began to chatter away.

"Sasa?" Hey, what's up? How are you?

The corner of the girl's mouth twitched.

"Fit." Good.

"Huyu ni nani?" What's your name?


When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper, but at least she was saying something. Anthony's easy smile probably helped, and the girl began to relax visibly. She moved slightly, and it was then I saw it. The reason she had held her hands behind her behind her back. I had assumed she was holding something that she didn't want anyone to see, but she wasn't holding anything.

She couldn't. From where I stood, I could see the burn that covered one of her forearms, raw and shiny. Older marks ran up her arms, the skin puckered. One of her hands was twisted, fingers claw-like, while the other was clenched in a fist.

I couldn't say a word, but I must have made some kind of sound, because I was suddenly aware of Anthony asking me what was wrong. I couldn't say anything, so I simply pointed at Wambui's arms. He looked in the direction I was pointing, and let out a shout.

"What is... Jesus! What happened to her?"

Probably realising what we were looking at, Wambui tried to hide her arms from us again. Anthony reached for her, but she began to scream. He immediately recoiled. She stopped screaming, but surprisingly, didn't run away as I had expected her to. I stretched out my arm, but again she began screaming and I froze. As soon as I moved back to my original position, she stopped.

Something clicked. I had seen the same behaviour before, in children who had been victims of some form of abuse. They often could not stand being touched because they associated it with being hurt. But words... words didn't hurt... and children were more likely to talk about their experiences...

"Ask her what happened," I demanded.

"What if she - "

"She only screams if you try to touch her."

Anthony nodded. I could tell that he was shaken by the sight, his voice lacking confidence, but he began to question little Wambui. She spoke quietly, the fear in her voice obvious even though I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I could tell he was trying to build up some kind of trust, because she kept on shaking her head, but each time was more feeble than the last. I knew he had broken through when she brought her arms out in front of her, stretched them towards us, but we didn't move, knowing that she could start screaming again.

Again, I found myself staring in horror. This time, though, I had Anthony's translated narration to the scene and my horror gave way to anger. Wambui had been suffering from diarrhoea and had been unable to get to the bathroom in time. As a punishment for dirtying the grounds, one of the helpers had forced the girl to put her arm into a pot of boiling water. And this wasn't the first time she had been punished in such a manner.

I was shocked, but not surprised. I had heard the horror stories before, but I hadn't wanted to believe them. That wasn't an option anymore. Anthony was grim, accepting; the story had touched a nerve with him but before I could ask him anything, he stood up and walked away. I was left with Wambui staring at me, her face as blank as when I had first seen her. I continued talking to her, even though I knew she didn't understand. I wanted her to know that she could trust me. My classmates told me later that I was babbling. I don't recall what I said. I suppose I was still in shock to a certain extent, not knowing what to do, or say. Through it all, she did not react, and it amazed me that she could be so indifferent. Even though we found her story horrific, she had absolutely no reaction.

No reaction, that is, until I got up to leave. I heard her shout, and I turned around again. She was saying something in Kiswahili, walking towards me, but then walking back, as if she didn't know what to do. I took a few steps towards her, and as expected, she backed away. When I stopped, however, she came towards me. She looked distressed, and her arms were outstretched. Before I could say anything, she had reached out with her good arm, and grabbed a fistful of my trousers.

I understood. Cautiously, I reached down and put my hand over hers.

She didn't scream. But she cried. I had to pry her away, although I didn't want to... the bus was waiting. She cried, and I was scared that her tears would only get her into more trouble. Already, the helpers were glaring at me, and some of my classmates had come back to see what the trouble was. They sympathised with me; the children they had been looking after had cried too.

"Tell her you'll come back."

"How do I say that?"

Someone told me. I knelt down in front of Wambui and made her a promise, hoping it would be enough.

"Nitarudi baadaye."

I will return.


I have always thought that when people are faced with extreme adversity or extreme poverty, they react either with heroics or cowardice. The CAS programme probably aimed to make heroes out of us by exposing us to how the other half lived.

But we weren't heroes. Far from it. We had seen what was going on but didn't know what to do. It was a feeling I would get used to very quickly. I only managed a few more visits to the home; every time I went, I had to make the same promise but never knew if I could keep it. We had started to question, to grow that little bit bolder in our attempts to make some sense of life at the home, but nothing ever happened. Our questions only brought the increasingly hostile stares of the helpers, and we eventually were banned from the orphanage.

My time at Aga Khan Academy was short; I transferred to another school at the end of the term. Another school, another set of CAS activities. This time, the choices were made for us, and ironically I ended up at another orphanage.

But this time, I was ready for it. I understood. Yes, they wanted us to be heroes... but also, to know that even heroes are only human.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013