I took the opportunity to spend this weekend with a very special Kenyan friend of mine in Mombasa after visiting our water projects in Nairobi.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been to Kenya. Just over five years ago, I lived with a local family in Malindi and volunteered for a youth-theatre group who used to perform songs, dances and plays in rural communities. Once they had attracted a crowd, we would then facilitate discussions on sexual health, drug use, clean water and condom use – educating thousands of people who may not have been to school or would not travel to the nearest town to see a doctor or seek help.
During this time, I was matched up with a Kenyan counterpart – and this is how I met my best Kenyan rafiki Elvis (yes that is his real name!). We shared a room together and a lot of extraordinary new experiences over half a year, three months volunteering and living with a local family in Birmingham and three months doing the same in Malindi.
One of the highlights of this experience was bringing Elvis back to my family home for a traditional English Christmas. A very different Christmas that both my family and Elvis will never forget. You can read about it here.
So needless to say, I could not wait to see Elvis again after five years and hear about how his life is now. I arranged to meet Elvis in my hotel bar the evening I arrived in Mombasa (his home town). After waiting for a few minutes, I looked up to see that same huge smile that I knew so well five years ago. I couldn’t help but do the same as he ran over to me and gave me the biggest hug with tears in his eyes. I actually couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear for the whole weekend that I spent with my Kenyan friend. He couldn’t have been happier, and neither could I.
We then spent hours talking about old times and what we were up to nowadays and laughing over a few Kenyan beers. It was the perfect reunion. His sister Tamara joined us later. I also hadn’t seen her since I stayed with Elvis, his mum and his sister at their family home for a week – so it was great to catch up with her as well.
I instantly knew that Elvis had not changed a bit. Not only did he look the same (I wonder what his anti-aging secret is!) but he also hasn’t changed as a person. I was back in Mombasa with the same best friend I said goodbye to five years ago. Unfortunately his situation hasn’t changed much since I last saw him either.
Elvis is now 30 years old and still hasn’t been able to get a job because of his disability. After suffering from a severe episode of Malaria as a baby, which paralysed one half of his body at the time, he was left with Cerebral Palsy. Years of physiotherapy and support from his incredible mum helped him to gain control of most of his movements and the independence that he has today – although the episode has still left him with learning and communication difficulties, hearing impairment and some restricted muscle control.
He explained how tough life is being a disabled person in Kenya. There certainly isn’t the level of equal opportunities that there are back in England (even though I think we’ve still got a long way to go too) and many people are poorly educated about the subject, so he finds it hard to be accepted as normal in everyday life. He also said how lucky he’s been to have such a supportive mum who has empowered him to become the inspiring young man he is today. There have been several cases of other disabled people in the area who are left in chains when their parents go to work because they don’t know how to look after them and fear that they’d hurt themselves if they were left free. I can’t begin to imagine (or even want to start thinking about) what a life like this must be like.
As Elvis hasn’t been able to find a job, he told me about how he walks the beach every day looking for small tasks or things to sell. If he’s lucky he can make up to £4 on a really good day (over half of which he gives to his mum), so he can cook ugali to eat. On days he doesn’t make anything, he doesn’t eat. He was looking a lot skinner than last time I saw him (after spending several months eating fried and jerk chicken with our Jamaican host family in Birmingham) and I found this incredibly upsetting.
I wanted to spend the weekend reconnecting with Elvis, but I also wanted to spend a lot of time talking to him to find out how I could help – from getting a job or work experience to building relationships with others, something he finds hard to do. I wanted to help inject the same level confidence and empowerment that he got from volunteering in Birmingham and Malindi five years ago. This meant we spent a lot of quality time just enjoying being together over the last few days. We raced on the beach, swam in the sea, took selfies and shared a few soft-drinks in the day and beers at night. He introduced me to everyone he knew on the beach and I spoke to nearly all of his relatives and friends on the phone – and people wouldn’t believe me when I told them that we lived together in England!
My absolute highlight of the weekend though was taking Elvis out for meals. Nothing fancy, just some good quality food. I’d sit there and watch him devour a whole pizza, chicken curry or fish, leaving nothing on the bone and an immaculate plate. We’d drink ice-cold beers in the evenings and ginger beer in the daytime and I couldn’t help but smile as we sat having an ice cream on the beach – I could tell he was in his element, enjoying every single lick.
It was emotional saying goodbye at the end of the weekend. We embraced each other for a long time and promised to always stay in touch, always be friends and to see each other again one day. I will keep that promise. I’ll also see what I can do to help him get a job or some work experience and support his family in other ways.
I still consider Elvis one of my best friends, even though we live over 4,500 miles away, and a personal inspiration. A young man who has overcome the physical and social boundaries and everyday struggles of having a disability in Kenya to become the remarkable person he is today.
There are many, many issues around the world that still have to be resolved. But equal opportunity and access to clean water are the two that are closest to my heart. If we’re going to achieve the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development by 2030, including Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation and Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, we’re all going to have to play our part. If successful, we’ll create a world free from extreme poverty, inequality and climate change. And that’s a world I want my future children to grow up in.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’ve experienced by having such a great friend like Elvis as I flew out from Mombasa airport. I find writing helps me reflect on these moments and deal with the tough ones – and I had plenty of time on my delayed flight. So here’s a short tribute to my best Kenyan rafiki Elvis:
The dreams of our brothers, disabled
I am a young man, who likes to watch life go by,
A garden calmly growing, crystal birds in the sky.
Every day I gaze at this beautiful land,
A spectrum of colours, the picture never bland.
But all of this beauty is a mirage in my mind,
Ever since I was born, I have been blind.
I am a young man, who keeps his ears to the ground,
The earth is a symphony, a heart-stopping sound.
Laughter, excitement, a beautiful lady starts to sing,
An old man behind her, strums his guitar string.
But sound, music to me, is eternally unclear,
Ever since I was a young child, I have not been able to hear.
Now this poem may seem like continuous lies,
As it’s quite clear that I can use both my ears and my eyes.
I am a young man, born lucky; enabled,
Taking for granted, like many, the dreams of our brothers, disabled.