Her name is Mary Wanderi, but everybody calls her Mum. That’s because Mary is a mother to every woman who has come through the doors of Living Positive Kenya. She cares for them and loves them as if they were her own.
This love and compassion for the women of her community was instilled in her at a very young age. “My mother was able to somehow make her way and take us to school,” she says. “But a lot of my friends didn’t have the opportunity. They were not able to go to school.
“Being in the slums, I grew up seeing so many social challenges among the women. I grew up watching so many struggle to bring up their children. My desire was always to work with the women and support them.
“I often saw a lot of social workers coming in to support people. Those were the people I wanted to be like. Since I was a kid, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Mum pursued her passion, and went on to study Social Work and Community Development in Western Kenya.
The inspiration for LPK came from her hard-working mother, who moved to the slums after divorcing her husband. She worked herself to the bone, creating small businesses here and there in order to provide for her eight children all on her own. “That’s why I really believe in the strength of these women,” she says. “They can’t give up on their lives, and they must take responsibility for bringing up their children so that they are not brought up in institutions.”
As a Social Worker, Mum saw firsthand what happens to children who are placed in childcare institutions. Prior to creating LPK, she worked as a Social Worker, taking children from parents who were either dead or suffering through illness or substance abuse, and placing them in childcare centres. “A lot of times, the child would cling to their mother. It didn’t matter how intoxicated or sick they were, the child wanted their mom. That’s why I felt the best way to bring up a child was with the mother. Having worked in the institution, and being brought up by a single mother in the slums, I knew how much power that gives a child, to live with their mom.
“I would always think, ‘What would happen if somebody was pulling me from my mother?’ To take me to a place I don’t know, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see my mother again. I could see what the children were crying about.”
Mary knew that both the parents and their children suffered from being torn apart. “It always bothered me–what happened to that mother? How did she react afterwards? I always found myself going back during my free time to see the mother and find out how she felt. If she was sick, sometimes I’d take her to the hospital.”
In order to help the children stay with their parents, Mum figured out a way to help keep the children off the streets. After all, she realized that many of the children she was picking up off the streets were only out there because they were looking for food for themselves and their sick mothers. Her solution was to create a soup kitchen and drop-in centre where children could come and pick up fresh cooked food for their mothers. Friends from the community and from church began contributing food as well. “That kitchen became SO popular,” she says. “There were so many people eating there. That’s how LPK started.”
Mum spent all of her free time at the drop-in centre, talking to the women, and she quickly identified two problems:
1) Even though they were sick, the women weren’t taking themselves to the hospital.
2) There was so much stigma around them in the community that nobody wanted to help them or even be associated with them.
Her solution? To do what Mums do best: Take care of her children, no matter the cost to herself. “I started making appointments for them and taking them to their appointments. Remember, this was not part of my job. My boss was not very happy, because they didn’t know why I was taking so much time off work.”
That nurturing feeling grew and grew, until she realized she didn’t want to do anything else but take care of her children. “One day, I thought, ‘This is it. I want to do this.’ I felt so much for that group. They were sick people who didn’t know what to do with their lives, what to eat, how to go to the hospital–and they had no idea about HIV. I thought, ‘I will stay here, I will teach these people about HIV. I will take them to hospitals with my salary, and I will see what happens after that.”
What happened after that was that Living Positive Kenya grew and grew and grew. In ten years, Mum has watched her beautiful daughters grow into beautiful women. She has helped countless women battle the stigma around their HIV status, taught them to love themselves again and forgive those who rejected them, and given them the tools, skills, and knowledge necessary to support themselves and their families. She has given children the opportunity to go to school. She’s given families the opportunity to grow together.
What happened is that Mum took care of her family.