Sustaining a spinal cord injury can turn anybody’s life upside down. Now imagine dealing with an SCI in a country with limited medical care, no government assistance and rare access to even a basic manual wheelchair. When Kennedy Nganga became a C3-4 incomplete quad after a diving mishap in 1992, he spent over two years in an orthopedic hospital ward before coming home. In the years after his accident, he would go on to become an accomplished painter. But his true calling may be his philanthropic work through the Momma Kennedy Mission, which empowers, educates, and helps Kenyans with disabilities find mobility equipment, food and clothing.
Nganga’s story began near the coastal metropolis of Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city. He grew up near the beach and quickly developed a passion for swimming that would carry him to becoming a decorated high school swimming champion. But a diving accident when preparing for a swim meet left him in critical need of immediate care. “In our country we still only have one hospital that takes care of spinal cord injuries,” he says, “and it’s in Nairobi, 600 kilometers from here.” He was sent instead to a nearby orthopedic ward.
In the hospital, Nganga developed severe pressure wounds that went down to the bone. His health was in significant decline until his mother, Sethi, stepped in and learned how to care for her son. “When I came home she was there for me 24/7,” he says.
Nganga was able to be mobile in his wheelchair until 1998, when he moved with his mother to a small house with an earthen floor. He’s rarely been out of bed since because there is very little room to maneuver his wheelchair and there are two large steps to reach the outside. When he needs to leave his home, it takes three strong men to carry him and his wheelchair outside. This limitation has done little to stop him from pursuing a fulfilling life that has given much to many people around him.
His introduction to painting came during his hospital stay when a missionary brought him a magazine article about Joni Eareckson Tada, the noted Christian author and disability advocate. “Joni had a diving accident just like me and she was painting and helping other people,“ he says. “I said if she can paint using her mouth, why couldn’t I paint with my hands?“
He experimented with various paints and colored pencils but had trouble holding the brush. In time he managed to develop a technique holding the brush between his right index and middle fingers. It wasn’t long before he was turning out many works of art. Sketching was an outlet for Nganga’s considerable stress after the accident. It was a form of therapy that grew into a way of living, he says. He began painting the landscapes of Mombasa and various types of African wildlife.
Scarce Resources, Abundant Vision
In 2002, Nganga wrote a letter to Hubert Seifert, the director of Kenya’s Association for Persons Living with Disabilities, requesting assistance for an art teacher to visit his home. Seifert himself visited and encouraged him with his art. Later an art teacher began teaching him seven lessons on the basic elements of art. “That was the foundation for my art, and from there I’ve never looked back,” he says.
He developed into a skilled artist and soon had a growing Facebook following with his vibrant and colorful paintings. The income generated from selling his paintings on Facebook is Nganga’s main source of earnings. Proceeds also help fund his philanthropic efforts. And this was just the beginning. “Because of my customers, I had to keep on learning,” he says. “People bring me everything that they want me to paint from — pets, dogs, cats, their houses and portraits of their loved ones, everything.”
Candace Cable was one of his Facebook followers. Cable, 61, purchased a sea turtle painting from Nganga but became more deeply connected to him through his compassionate spirit. His wide smile and willingness to always forge ahead spoke to her. “He’s very committed to giving back, and he also helps to look after others with disabilities and provide for them when he has so little,” she says. That commitment is something few Americans can grasp. “It’s unimaginable, I think, to those of us living here in our ‘bubble’ to comprehend what it takes to live with SCI where he lives,” she says.
Cable has unique insight into Nganga’s trials. Left a paraplegic by a car accident in 1975 at the age of 21, her life became a depressing purgatory. “I thought my life was over, and I felt isolated,“ she says. Rehabilitation did little to ease her isolation. Nothing changed until she received counseling and enrolled in California State University Long Beach.
Also, Cable is an accredited representative to the United Nations for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Her role is to focus on sustainable global developmental goals, so she understands the plight of people with disabilities in poorer countries. She says 80 percent of children with disabilities don’t attend school. “They don’t go to school because they can’t get to school and their parents don’t know they can go to school,“ she says. Children with disabilities are often told they are worthless or undesirable. “That is what Kennedy is dealing with there, and my limited understanding of that feeling of isolation is magnified a hundredfold for him,” she says.
His work relieves the isolation for people in Bamba, a poor, marginalized area where the need for help is dire. Cakes are an expensive commodity in Kenya, but Nganga has arranged to buy the leftover crumbs cheaply from a major bakery. Cable is amazed at how much his handing out of cake crumbs means to the residents. “He lives in a society where there’s such scarcity, but there’s abundance in his vision that everything counts,” she says.
Birth of the Momma Kennedy Mission
In June 2011, Nganga’s life came crashing down when his mother passed away. As she was both mother and sole caregiver, Sethi’s death was a crushing blow to his spirit and future. “I thought it was the end of me,” he says. “The biggest problem was how to heal.” Luckily, one of his younger brothers abandoned working and stepped into the role of caregiver.
After a traditional 40-day period of mourning, Nganga wanted to remember his mother, but he only had a small amount of money left from her burial. He told his Facebook friends that he wanted to help his brothers and sisters with disabilities living in Bamba.
The money raised for the destitute village marked the beginning of the Momma Kennedy Mission. Nganga coordinated a drive to collect clothes, shoes, bedding, books, school bags and kitchen utensils. Many disabled people in the village were hidden away by their families, but that changed when they came out to register for assistance.
Initially, the Momma Kennedy Mission gave away a goat and chicken to 10 families living in Bamba. Goats are valuable assets for the village. “The goats provide nourishing milk, and goat’s milk is regarded as medicinal here,” he says. “Once you give someone a goat, the goat will reproduce and you’ll be getting milk.” The chicken eggs are an excellent source of protein, and chickens require much less maintenance. “Chickens here just roam and you don’t have to feed them,” he says. To date, the mission has given away over 400 goats and chickens.
The response from the citizens of Bamba during the first year was so great that Nganga decided to start a Mbazizo community-based organization that now assists about 750 members with varying disabilities.
Four years ago, Nganga’s attention was brought to three blind girls living in Bamba. Nuru, Amina and Kwekwe weren’t doing well and needed help desperately. Facebook followers once again came to the rescue, helping to place the girls in a quality boarding school.
Nuru and Amina were not only blind, they were also born with albinism — lack of pigment in the eyes, skin, hair, and nail cuticles. The girls had lived a tough life and never had access to something as simple as sunblock. “I thought the best way is to move them from the village, bring them to town, where they joined a special boarding school where they get lotions, food and education,” he says. “Now they are in a very good school, they are doing very well and they are the best in their classes.”
The non-albino girl, Kwekwe, dropped out of school for three years because she couldn’t pay the school fees. Nganga made sure she got back to school. She’s supposed to be in high school but is in grade six. That isn’t stopping Kwekwe from achieving her goals. “She’s very confident and her dream is to become a teacher,” he says. “She wants to prove to our community and to our family that blind people are ordinary people and can achieve more than other people.“
Helping the girls puts a huge smile on Nganga’s face. “It makes me feel excellent,” he says. “It gives me a purpose to live.” The support of his Facebook family for the girls has been amazing. “I don’t call them my girls, I call them our girls on Facebook because they belong to many people,” he says.
Growth and Gratefulness
Nganga’s artistic talent has evolved considerably during the past three years, thanks to his friendship with artist and missionary Michael Lang’at. A member of the Kalenjin tribe from Nakuru, Lang’at began teaching Nganga art daily for two hours, but it was difficult because Nganga had a weak grip and low confidence in his ability. However, over time, his ability soared, and he only needed lessons twice a week. According to Lang’at, it has been a fun challenge for the both of them. “We have come a long way,” he says. “It’s fun because he is not a boring person to be with, he’s really outgoing and down to earth.”
When they began their partnership, Lang’at admits he pitied Nganga and wasn’t hoping for great achievement. But Nganga surprised his new friend. “Little did I know the potential he had in him,” he says. “He went on to challenge me a great deal. He humbled me tremendously.” He also loved that Nganga thinks big and isn’t afraid of looking beyond his own community.
As Nganga’s art flourished, Lang’at became active in the work of the Momma Kennedy Mission. Almost every day, Lang’at hops the ferry for the three-hour trip to the other side of the island where Nganga lives.
By networking with people on Facebook, Nganga discovers many children and adults with disabilities who are in dire need of assistance. They may need financial help, clothing, food or basic mobility devices like crutches and wheelchairs. Since Nganga often can’t get out of bed, Lang’at travels to carry out missionary work on his friend’s behalf. “He would send me to go check on the situation and then bring feedback to him if there is a need,” he says.
One of Nganga’s many accomplishments includes getting a small health clinic built for the poor living in Bamba. He received vital help with the project through his friends at the Love and Light Ministry in Singapore. These efforts astound Lang’at. “The greatest miracle of all is that he does all this from his bed,” he says. “It’s unbelievable.“
Lang’at has greatly enjoyed watching his friend succeed. “His talent has really grown and it’s the main part of his life,” he says. “I don’t think he would enjoy life without it.”
The Momma Kennedy Mission has achieved much, but Nganga’s proudest accomplishment is the disability awareness that he has been able to foster. “In that area, most families keep their disabled persons hidden in houses, and they don’t expose them to outsiders,” he says. “We managed to make them bring the disabled persons outside.”
Last August, the Rotary Club of Mombasa North Coast partnered with Nganga by setting up a large medical camp in Bamba. Rotary has provided tremendous assistance with the medical needs of the village. They also made Nganga an honorary member of the organization.
Meanwhile, his painting skills continue to improve. “I’ve gotten better, and I keep on getting better,“ he says. The vibrant paints that he uses lend more realism in every painting he does. Once the canvas is prepared by his brother, it doesn’t take long for him to complete a painting. The more complicated paintings with intricate details can take over a week to complete.
He estimates he has completed nearly 150 paintings. He encourages people to contact him via Facebook to commission a painting, He sells his work directly to clients through his PayPal account. A portion of each painting benefits the Momma Kennedy Mission.
Kenya is a poor country, and Nganga hopes to soon improve his living conditions. Currently, he lives in a small house with inadequate wheelchair access. He’s hoping to move into a wheelchair-friendly home, which has been under construction for nearly three years, financed mostly by his art sales and a few friends. The new accommodations will boast electricity, running water, a studio and art gallery and small boardroom where he can meet with people. “It will also be a mission center where people can bring stuff, and I’ll be finding where to take it for the needy people,” he says.
Twenty-three years after his accident, Nganga says he’s still adjusting to life with a spinal cord injury. The hardest part of his life is that the Kenyan government gives no assistance to people with disabilities. Wheelchairs are extremely rare. “We have people who have never accessed a wheelchair in their life,” he says. “To access a mobility aide sometimes is a miracle, and it’s taken as a luxury.”
Life for Kennedy Nganga has been a series of small and large miracles. Helping others is more than a physical act to Nganga, who says he has so many people to thank for making his life fulfilling. “First is to thank God — and to thank each and every individual who has stood by me, my Facebook family and friends,“ he says. “They have made me who I am.”