‘Perhaps our eyes need to be washed by our tears once in a while, so that we can see life with a clearer view again’
– ALEX TAN –
Restart Africa was founded by Mary Coulson in 2007, in response to the growing problem of homeless children she saw living in the streets of her home town of Gilgil in Kenya. When it was set up, the Restart Centre began with six boys. I visited the original centre as part of a tour of the local area and I found it so different from the current buildings as it was run down and very basic. However, I reminded myself that this centre was a refuge for the boys it sheltered in the first years of the charity, and it offered safety and comfort in antithesis their horrendous backgrounds. The original building was located next to an orphanage, which I was told frequently complained about the behaviour of the boys.
This reinforced the fact that these boys had had such difficult childhoods, as their violent and disruptive behaviour came as a result of their abusive backgrounds, and this was highlighted by their juxtaposition with orphaned children, who have had relatively normal upbringings. The second centre was much larger, housing 97 children from 2009 until 2014. The charity had introduced girls to the centre in 2009, although I was told that there was a much smaller number of girls than boys, as they were more difficult to rescue because they are considered the property of the family and used as a form of income through prostitution. Seeing the two previous buildings made me realise how well equipped and beautiful the current building is.
Mary Coulson, the founder of the charity, was concerned with the appearance of the new centre as she strongly believes that beautiful surroundings provide a calm and happy atmosphere which augments the rehabilitation process for the children, and gives them a childhood experience as close to what we in the first world have and take for granted.
Restart Africa was set up to save the lives of the street children, who have been forced out of their families and abused in all ways, and who otherwise would have likely died. The charity strongly values volunteers, as they recognise the importance of the relationships formed between the children and the volunteers in helping to rehabilitate the children and help them feel a sense of normality.
These children have never experienced affection of any kind, only rejection and abuse, so I felt so privileged to be able to give up my time in order to be part of their long journey to recovery. As a volunteer I had the opportunity to help in all parts of life at Restart – the kitchen, helping clean the dormitories and do the washing, helping in the classroom, or working in the vegetable garden – but volunteers are primarily there to spend time with the children, so that is what I mainly did on a day to day basis.
My arrival in Gilgil after a long journey was quite a culture shock, as the very rural area was so different from the luxury of the more modern and built up Nairobi.
I found it so interesting and valuable, however, to experience such a different culture and it made me appreciate the first world luxuries that we take for granted. It was a completely different way of life from that in England, yet by the end of my time there I had grown accustomed to the noise, dust, torrential rain and culture and grew to really appreciate and respect it.
I did not expect to find the children so warm, generous and affectionate as they have never experienced any warmth towards them, but I was surprised to find them some of the most genuine and caring children I have ever met. The whole community at Restart feels like a large happy family, as the children care for each other as they would brothers and sisters, and I immediately felt included in this community from the outset. The toddlers were at the centre in the day, as they attended a preschool run by Restart, so this is the age group that I got to know best. I played with the children in the playground, organized craft activities with them such as mask making, drawing or paper crafts (which were always very popular), or just held their hand.
I gave them all the attention, affection and friendship that I could, and in the time that I was there really felt that some of the children had become more confident and outgoing through my relationship with them. One of the girls who I particularly bonded with, had only recently been taken in by the centre, so was traumatised by her recent abuse and as a result was shy and introverted. I spent a lot of time with her, as she was clearly more desperate for attention than some of the other children who had begun to recover. She really enjoyed playing on the swings, but I felt that even when I was just holding her hand and sitting with her it was helping towards her improvement as she was learning how to be loved for the first time in her life. By the end of my time there I saw her laughing and smiling and interacting much more with the other children in the centre, so felt so privileged to have been able to witness such a transformation in a relatively short period of time.
This personal experience with one of the children, and the day-to-day improvement which I witnessed, made me really understand the importance of volunteers to this charity’s work. Volunteers are able to offer their complete attention in a way that the staff at the centre cannot, as the staff are concerned with the admin side of the centre as well as the wellbeing of the children.
Half way through my time at Restart, the rest of the children finished school for the holidays, therefore I was able to get to know a whole new group of children. These children were older – ranging from 8 to 18 – so they required a different sort of attention. The older children all really enjoyed dancing and music, so I spent a lot of time leading dance sessions and was lucky enough to learn how to dance in the traditional Kenyan style, as they were all so keen to teach me! The older children had a better grasp of English, as they attended local schools, so I was able to talk to them more than I could the toddlers. I was interested to hear that all of the children had aspirations to go to university, in order to make the best possible future for themselves, and was told that four boys rescued by Restart are currently in university. Talking to these older children, I began to see parallels between them and myself, and it made it difficult as it acted as a foil to and thus made me more aware of their unbelievably cruel backgrounds in contrast to my own white privilege. I spent some time tutoring one of the older boys in English, so got to know him on a more personal level and help him in a more specific way.
It was so easy to ignore the difficult backgrounds of the children, but I felt that knowing the hardships that they had experienced gave me a more rounded perspective on their journeys and made me see more clearly the importance of the charity to their improvement.
The children had experienced sexual abuse, rape, violence, starvation and neglect. Some of the children had been so malnourished that their growth had been stunted, and some so severely abused that they needed medical attention and even surgery. I found it incredibly difficult to comprehend the unjust abuse that all of the children had experienced in some form, as I had never been exposed to such vulnerable individuals before. These horrendous backgrounds made the volunteer work so immensely rewarding as I could see how greatly all of the staff appreciated my time and attention and how it positively affected all of the children.
I feel so lucky to have been able to get to know so many amazing children and to feel that I have contributed to their recovery during my summer, as well as experiencing such an exciting and different culture. The resilience of the children and their generosity and kindness despite their terrible backgrounds and the complete lack of affection in their lives before their rescue, gave me such great respect and admiration for them. They lived in the present moment, thinking of their future and refusing to be defined by their past, which was such an inspiring way of dealing with their situation. The children’s admirable behaviour in the face of cruelty made me consider our own behaviour in the first world. Petty arguments seem so unnecessary when I consider what these children have been through, and cruelty towards anyone seems so unjustified after seeing so many innocent victims who have been rescued by Restart. The children have nothing other than the basic means to survive, but they have each other and they cherish their relationships with each other so dearly that it serves as such an inspiration for us to be grateful for what we have and to value those relationships with the people who love us for who we are. The children have an immense love of life and are so happy and positive despite their backgrounds, which I considered a lesson to us all to find joy in everything and make the best of every situation through our own positive outlook on life. I felt that personally I learnt so much from these amazing children, and my experience at Restart has completely altered my outlook on life, despite a few tears along the way.
I would recommend this experience to everyone, as I feel that there is so much to learn from the charity, and it is such an inspirational place that it deserves to have amazing volunteers.
I look forward to returning to the charity in the future to see how the children have developed and to give them the attention and affection they so desperately need and deserve.