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.