Written by Cabral Opiyo

Maryam has never been afraid of responsibility and the spirit of helping others burns bright in her. At twenty-two, she made the brave decision to start working at Umulkheir Girls  Centre in Garissa, a centre for girls who had been abused, trafficked, orphans, were running away from conflict, early child marriages or who were vulnerable in various other ways. She sought to make the centre a safe haven and took the girls to heart, that was the beginning of a topsy- turvy life in caregiving for Maryam, she’s never regretted it once.

“I started as an untrained teacher and moved to Umulkheir girls’ centre in 2012. The centre was created via a committal order from the court and is funded by the Ekman foundation, various sponsors and the African Muslim Agency. I have always had a passion for taking care of the vulnerable children in society and the post was a big chance to live my passion.”

Being a caregiver was a natural consequence of being around the vulnerable, unplanned as it might have been. Maryam reflects on starting the job untrained but gradually getting the necessary training to counsel the children and knowing how to deal with each individual as they came with different backgrounds and traumas attached. She played the dual role of counsellor and nurse to the ill ones as well.

“I was almost always called to school during the night to attend to the girls who fell ill, I would get them medical assistance and stay with them throughout the ordeal to make sure that they were well taken care of and calm. Over time, the girls came to trust me and we developed a bond.

There was a girl whose name I won’t mention who used to faint when nervous, mostly during exam time. I had to learn about her background and associated traumas and I would speak to her continuously during the exam period, reassuring her and encouraging her that she should own her results and work harder to improve them.”

When I ask her about any specific girls who were seriously ill during her time at the school, she sighs sadly and recalls two cases.

“There was a girl who was seriously ill and it affected her legs so she could not walk, we really tried to make her feel at home and keep her spirits up. She was the most bubbly and forthcoming girl at the centre and she always had a happy demeanour. Her leg was amputated and we made sure to make her comfortable, bringing her meals to her room and catering to her every need but she was no longer the happy-go-lucky girl she was before. She refused to use the wheelchair and I had to gently speak to her and encourage her through therapy until she got a prosthetic limb.

Only later to find out that she now felt very different from the other girls because of the special treatment she was receiving. One day I asked her whether she would like to join the other girls in the dining hall and she jumped at the opportunity, afterwards we reintegrated her into the hustle and bustle of the centre much faster.

 Though she never really got back that bubbly persona due to not being able to do the things she could previously do physically, she did well and of her own volition decided to go to boarding school even though she could have remained in the bubble of the girl’s centre and is now in college doing a course in nutrition.”

Maryam stresses that to be a caregiver to vulnerable children she had to learn how to communicate with individuals, understand the verbal and non-verbal cues, be empathetic and always have solutions to problems.

She had to balance various aspects of her life as well; she was doing distance learning in her free time and supervising remedial lessons for the girls even after hours alongside the caregiving she provided for the girls. Her life was full as it is and it was about to get fuller as she got married in 2014 and now she had a home life to juggle too.

Again she stops before she continues, “there was another girl who was ill but I left for home in the evening when she was feeling much better. Only to be called back in the middle of the night that she had taken a turn for the worse and had been rushed to the hospital. She had a high fever and she passed on shortly after.

I refused to accept the death and for weeks I felt lost and like I could have done better. Going back to the centre brought me to tears each and every time and a place that had previously brought me joy was now a source of great sadness. I couldn’t talk, I isolated myself and of course, it affected my relationships. That was the most difficult period of my time as a caregiver until a colleague convinced me to accept my feelings and move on. It took me a month of grieving.”

The one phrase that keeps coming up in my conversation with Maryam is, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” She says it with conviction and for someone so young to have that bit of self-awareness is perhaps the only thing that allowed her to survive as a caregiver who was expected to sacrifice and give day and night, she found balance.

A grim tale of the attachment she has with the girls follows. Umulkheir Girl’s Centre shares a fence with Garissa University, the centre of the gruesome terrorist attack in April 2015.

“I was going back to school after three months of maternity leave when a colleague called and told me that there was an ongoing attack at the neighbouring Garissa University. My first thought was for the safety of the girls and I had to be convinced not to go, that the girls had been evacuated to safety already and that there was nothing I could do.

I didn’t believe it and I had to stop myself from going when I thought about my baby and my barely healed body, I was convinced that nobody could take care of the girls like I could and I wanted to move back to the centre after that.

Even when I was up for promotion, I almost declined it until my boss told me to take it. I always felt that my purpose in life was to be a caregiver but I realised that the girls deserved other people too as I can’t be there forever. In the end, I took the promotion and though I don’t work with the girls directly, I still take time off and visit to counsel them before exams and catch up with them.”

I ask Maryam what her future holds and she predictably says that she wishes to open a centre for the vulnerable girls in Tana River where cases of children exposed to conflict, abuse, trafficking, violence and neglect are very high.

Any regrets?

“If there’s anything like a positive regret, it’s taking things too personally and holding the job too dearly, but that’s not really regret is it?”

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