Pembroke House, our children’s school, is a little slice of England set in Kenya’s Rift Valley. In the shadow of extinct volcanoes they play cricket on extensive grounds. They learn Latin within miles of soda lakes swarming with pink flamingos. The pioneering, resourceful spirit of Pembroke is symbolised in the school’s Christina chapel, with owls in the bell tower, built entirely by a former generation of under-13s. Our son Rider and daughter Eve are enjoying a privileged, magical upbringing.
This week children from a rather different, impoverished background joined them for carol singing and mince pies out under the tropical night sky. These are the kids from the Restart Centre, located only a mile or so from Pembroke. When they play each other at football, the Restart teams always win. They recently joined forces to clean up rubbish around Gilgil town. They make friends and they like each other. Last week they put on competing acts in a talent show.
The Restart stood up to perform an
a capella gospel song. One of the group was a little girl with glittering eyes who smiled as she sang:
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down!
To see her so happy was truly a miracle — because only months ago she was in hospital after her father tried to kill her with poison. He had already murdered her four sisters. Another little Restart girl did not have the strength to sing because she has full-blown Aids after 30 men gang-raped her. She says she’s 13 years old, but the Restart staff believe she’s 11.
Down at the Restart, we met a small boy who turned up one day pleading for sanctuary after he had to rescue his toddler brother from drowning in a pit latrine down which their mother had thrown him. And then there are three siblings, aged about three, five and seven, who were put on a matatu bus by a mother who told them to stay on until the vehicle came to the end of its journey. They were found crying in a Gilgil street, with no idea where they were.
Mary Coulson, a long-term resident of Gilgil, established the Restart Centre after the violence of Kenya’s last elections during which hundreds were butchered and thousands made into refugees. ‘Suddenly there were children washed up on Gilgil’s streets, sifting through garbage. I felt their hopelessness.’ At first, the children were mainly boys — since girls could be used as prostitutes. But then widowed mothers began turning both boys and girls into the street. Families broke up. After the terrible violence, Mary found children sleeping in plastic bags in ditches. ‘We can’t leave them,’ she said. ‘No, we can’t,’ agreed her late husband Terry. ‘We started in a ramshackle, disgusting place,’ Mary recalls. ‘We scrubbed it and made it habitable. We started with five children but they were banging on the door. It was terrifying.’
Today the Restart Centre has 70 children. ‘We take in the worst of the worst — the ones who are dying and will die if they’re not rescued.’ The government’s Child Welfare Office refers them to Mary, but she says she does not want ever to turn away a child who needs a home. The youngest residents are one-month-old foundlings — a boy dumped in a nearby town and a girl abandoned in the bush. The Centre’s staff clothe the children and feed them and prepare them for school — but some are too mentally damaged or too old to attend school, so lessons are given, too. ‘I never make a child leave,’ says Mary. ‘They have no family. So we let them stay and give them a training in something and then they make their own way.’
The Restart is a grim little grey building next to a disused church. The dormitories are like something out of Dickens: iron bunk beds with single blankets against the cold. It’s a charity on a shoestring. ‘I know it’s not very glamorous, but what we need is to cover their basics: food, medicines, school uniforms — and shoes.’ Shoes are a big challenge. Once the stunted children recover health they grow fast and Mary can’t keep up with their feet. ‘It costs a fortune to keep them in shoes!’ I quite often notice Eve and Rider’s cast-offs being worn at the Restart — but they need clothes, pens, footballs, books…
Most of all the Restart children need love. Mary describes a Scottish lady who visited and sang a lullaby. Several children grabbed her skirt and wouldn’t let go. Mary realised they had never known the love of a mother.
Next year the children will move to a new compound with a capacity for 140 residents in a beautiful green valley nearby, where they have gardens and fresh air. I have never approved of aid, but charity is another thing, and I have never seen children who needed help as much as those at the Restart. If you want to donate to the Restart Centre, you can send a cheque made out to the Sanata Charitable Trust, to Linden Cottage, Astley, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY4 4BP.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012