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Art project unlocks children's hidden talents for a cause.

By GAKIHA WERUAt 13, John is well dressed, articulate and makes friends easily. In his smart blue uniform, you can't pick him out among his colleagues in Standard Seven at St Mary's Catholic Primary School in Garissa town.

Yet, unlike his classmates, he can't spell or write his name. The written word doesn't mean anything to him.

He can't wrap his mind around numbers either. He has a condition that makes learning impossible.

In the words of his mother, Nancy Wanjira, everyone had given up on him as far as formal education was concerned. She couldn't see him ever making anything out of his life, a confession that is followed by a flitting smile.

And she has every reason to smile. Two years ago, John got the opportunity to work on a school project to make mosaic artworks for Garissa County Referral Hospital under a programme of the Juhudi Children's Club.

In a matter of days, the unexpected happened. John came up with beautiful and imaginative sketches for the murals.

And now that he had access to art paper, he began drawing, revealing a talent nobody knew he had.In the project, Juhudi has been partnering with schools to make mosaic pieces to decorate walls in public hospitals around the country.

The success of the club has seen some children get invitations to make art pieces for two hospitals in Britain.MOSAICS PROJECTJohn is among other pupils around the country who have found themselves in new frontiers through the Juhudi mosaics project.

The young artist's new lease on life traces its roots to a time before he was born. It all began on January 2, 2000, on a clear bright day as Nairobi struggled back to routine after the end of the year festivities.

John and his mother Nancy Wanjira stand by a mural he has created. PHOTO | GAKIHA WERU| NATION MEDIA GROUPA young man was nervously waiting at the reception outside the office of the passenger services manager at the Kenya Railways headquarters.

The time was just past 10am.He was eventually ushered into the carpeted office and he explained to the manager what he needed.

The manager laughed out loud and waved him out of his office. Even as he walked past the reception, he could still hear the manager laughing.

The young man wanted to hire a train. It was the first time the manager was hearing of somebody wanting to hire a train.

It just didn't happen. Why on earth would anyone want to hire a train?On January 2 the following year, the young man, David Kimani, was back in the manager's office with the same request.

The manager made it clear that what the young man was requesting was impossible, but offered to buy him lunch as a consolation.TEACHING JOBFor the rest of the year, Kimani wrote letters to the commercial services manager, and each time, his request was turned down.

Desperation was setting in. Three years earlier, he had quit a well-paying teaching job at Strathmore School against the advice of his family and friends.

Everybody thought he was not thinking straight. And with the way things were turning out, it appeared they were right, he thought.

In January 2002, he made what was now becoming a New Year's ritual. This time he found the manager had left and his replacement was a woman who had been the deputy manager.

Unlike her boss, the new manager had secretly been sympathetic to Kimani's idea. It was simple.

He would hire a train with six coaches and sell tickets to schools willing to take children for an excursion to Naivasha.Juhudi Children's Club Director Kimani Juhudi (left) and Ali Hussein Daud listen as Fatuma Abdullah takes them through artwork.

PHOTO | GAKIHA WERU | NATION MEDIA GROUThe then youthful teacher was ahead of his time. He had taught for a decade, but something bothered him.

He had come across many pupils who were normal in every respect, but were always at the bottom of the class in exams."In particular, I was bothered about a Standard Two boy who could name all the capital cities of the world yet his performance in class was dismal.

I began to think about what in my mind I called the 'alternative school'."SEEN A TRAINHe had also made another discovery while teaching in a rural school in Kiambu.

During a discussion in class, he discovered that none of his pupils had ever seen a train."I was startled.

Here we were, just less than 50 kilometres from a railway line and these children had never seen a train. We might as well have been talking about a spaceship," he told Lifestyle.

At that point, he began to seriously think about the irony of his career. Here he was teaching children about some alien concepts yet they hardly interacted with the world just outside the door.

Neither did they have the opportunity to explore talents that were beyond the scope of the classroom.The idea of the train rides for children was to expose them to something that was so near yet so far.

The first trip was a hit, and to date, more than 50,000 schoolchildren have been on the tour."The excitement is always palpable as the children experience things we have always taken for granted.

There is always something new and different every few minutes of the ride. There is Kibera, the one-kilometre tunnels, the evergreen tea estates all crowned by the descent down the escarpment.

"The train ride was running in tandem with another idea to unlock hidden artistic talents and at the same time use them to positively impact society in the long term.Over the years, and during visits to hospitals for various reasons, Kimani had always found the atmosphere depressing.

In addition to the suffering of patients, anything that might be termed as a painting, he noted, was always centred on the suffering of the human body.ART PROGRAM"Through our Mosaic Art Program, we sought to debunk the myth that hospital environments are 'all gloom and doom', by using art to create warm, colourful and life-affirming environments," he says.

Over the past 15 years, the club has produced breathtaking mosaic artworks for Gertrude's Garden Children's Hospital, the Drug Rehabilitation Centre at Mathari Referral and Teaching Hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital and Coast General Hospital.Other hospitals that have benefited from the programme are Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu, Embu Referral Hospital and Nakuru General Hospital.

Mosaic pieces made by schoolchildren decorate the walls of these facilities.With time, the project that has so far involved more than 20,000 children across the country, producing some 356 pieces, attracted international attention.

"In partnership with Jim Anderson of Architectural Mosaics United Kingdom, we were able fly six children to the UK where we produced artworks for the Royal London Hospital in 2003. In 2005, we took another five children to work with the Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge."Garissa Sub-County Referral Hospital CEO Salah Hassan (left, in glasses), Safaricom Team Leader Garissa Shop Yusuf Abdi Bare (centre) and Garissa County Health Director Abdullahi Daud (second right) are joined by students to view some of the mosaic artwork.

PHOTO | GAKIHA WERU | NATION MEDIA GROUPMosaic is a form of art that is easy to make and can last for hundreds of years. It involves creation of artworks using broken ceramic tiles mounted on medium-density fibreboard (MDF) using normal tile glue.

"Through this programme, we encourage and develop the creative and imaginative faculties of child participants, creating a vivid display of artworks in hospitals that is not only therapeutic to patients, but also uplifting to them, their families, friends and the hospital staff," says Mr Kimani.DISABILITIESLast Saturday, the club handed over 34 pieces to Mathari Referral and Teaching Hospital.

These particular pieces were made by the Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL). The school off Thika Road serves children with various disabilities.

KCCL is among 20 institutions that have been working on the mosaic project sponsored by the Safaricom Foundation. The foundation has been funding the project since 2006.Kimani, the director of Juhudi, says they picked on Mathari because the institution has over the years been shrouded in negative perception.

"When we distributed artworks to Mathari, we hoped to deliver some warmth, not only to the patients but also to members of staff and visitors alike. We go out of our way to work with children with special needs because it gives them an opportunity to creatively contribute to the society," says Kimani.

He adds that the project will help to change the narrative that children with special needs can only be beneficiaries of help from well wishers."This project gives children with disabilities a chance to reach out and touch the lives of other members of the society.

"POSITIVE IMPACTThe project has had such a positive impact in the school that the principal off KCCL, Esther Wamae, says they plan to continue with the creative venture, even with the exit of Juhudi last week.She says the project has fostered social inclusion and teamwork among both the students and members of staff, because everybody wants to be part of the creative piece of art unfolding before their eyes.

"The project has been an eye-opener. As it took shape, the children and teachers became more motivated.

I have noticed some brightness, which was lacking before, among the children."As they continue working on the project, some children have emerged as natural leaders in division of tasks and formulating the order of specific activities.

The project also involves planning, which has taught the children to work towards deadlines. It has also given them a sense of initiative.

"The most powerful aspect of the project is that we have discovered that some children with serious physical challenges are now on the way to making careers as artists. They can make a living out of art," says Ms Wamae.

ADVENTURESBesides making murals, the club arranges fun adventures for children. These range from camping trips, rock climbing, train rides and tree planting.

"When we travel we make sure children have the opportunity to interact and make friends with people from all walks of life. Some of them have made lifelong friends from different parts of the country.

"The club places emphasis on the maxim that there is a genius in every child and all activities are geared towards creativity and innovation. This, in turn, helps solve community and society problems.

Besides trips and camps, the club also organises visits to places that are ordinarily out of reach of children mainly because of where they live and religious grounding."For example, we visit churches, mosques and temples.

This gives children the opportunity to experience different forms of worship. It also helps build tolerance towards other religions and cultures," says Kimani.

The club also takes children to workshops and factories of various companies in an effort to expose them to the importance of science and technology in human development.As for John, the sky is the limit.

He hopes that one day the system will allow him to study art at university. In the meantime, he hopes to participate in local and international children's art exhibitions.
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Publication:Daily Nation, Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:Mar 24, 2018
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