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Where people with small heads are outcasts

People living with microcephaly, a condition which leads children to be born with tiny heads, are considered a curse, but a local school is saving them from cruelty

From a glimpse, Kazungu Charo’s tiny physique, coupled with the cheeky stunts he pulls seems to belie his age.

But looks can be deceiving because Charo who looks 14 years is actually a 35-year-old adult.

Standing way under four feet tall, Charo’s appearance is largely characterised by tiny features; most conspicuously his abnormally small head that equals the size of an average human being’s clenched fist. He suffers from microcephaly— a rare neurological condition where the brain does not develop properly resulting in a smaller than normal head.

Although Charo knows his name and recalls his home village, it is clear he has intellectual disability as he cannot communicate well. Charo’s friend, Karama Kalama is 53, but it is difficult to notice, as he is equally tiny.

These two are among tens of other adults and children with similar condition who are seeking refuge at The Sahajanand Special School in Mtwapa Township after they were rescued from their homes by Mombasa Cement, a donor who has volunteered to take care of them. Because of their unusual size, they tend to attract huge attention of most people who visit the school.

Personnel at Sahajanand Special School say most visitors seek their attention perhaps to get to understand them better.

“Most people who come here are usually awed and normally they don’t hide their excitement. They try to engage them in conversation and even take photos and record them,” says a cook at the school. The special school hosts over 1,000 children with variety of other special needs ranging from hearing and visual impairment, cerebral palsy, autism to Down syndrome, but Charo and close to 50 others with microcephaly are at the school mostly because they have been ostracised by the society as “bad omen”.

In remote villages of Kilifi, people with microcephaly are reportedly shunned and treated as outcasts and it is said at times they are secretly and quietly strangled to death shortly after birth. “Where they come from, they are regarded as bad omen, in fact some believe they are the cause of long droughts in parts of Kilifi. They are, therefore, regarded as angels of starvation, which has ravaged parts of Ganze and Bamba.

“However, looking at it critically, these are unfounded beliefs, which have no scientific connections to climatic conditions,” the school’s principal Patrick Muzungu, who is also a local resident says.

According to the school boss, following the negative belief attached to people with microcephaly condition in the region, majority of those who survive past the teenage stage end up wallowing in severe marginalisation throughout their life time.

“When left in the villages, most of them  die prematurely because of the unfair life they live. Some of them are exposed to excessive consumption of palm wine and are subjected to serial sexual abuse by sex pests,” he says.

Deputy school head John Barisa says it is against the above backdrop that Mombasa Cement embarked on a door-to-door mission to help them.

“When we started in 2006 our unit just had 17 children and so we started going door-to-door, village to village searching for these children and then we started holding barazas and that was when parents started bringing their children here,” Barisa says.

Barisa says they require 24/7 close monitoring since some of them fall sick easily.

Mombasa Cement and Corrugated Group human resource manager, Akram Mohammed, says caring for the disadvantaged is part of the corporate social responsibility programme.

But what’s most puzzling even to the school administration is the high concentration of people with microcephaly condition in the remote parts of lower side of the Coast, predominantly Kilifi.  

Some locals believe increased cases of incest could be responsible for expanding population of people born with microcephaly.

“We have cases of families intermarrying amongst themselves and fathers getting children with their own daughters…now such things are both culturally and religiously incorrect and we believe they are the reason why we have such cases growing by the day,” says James Katana, an elder in Garashi, Magarini constituency in Kilifi.

However, World Health Organisation website states that there are many potential causes of microcephaly, but often the cause remains unknown. 

The most common causes include- infections during pregnancy: toxoplasmosis (caused by a parasite found in undercooked meat), Campylobacter pylori, rubella, herpes, syphilis, cytomegalovirus, HIV and Zika viruses.

Maternal exposure to heavy metals like arsenic and mercury, alcohol, radiation, smoking and severe malnutrition have also been singled out by WHO as some of the possible causes of the abnormality.

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