“I have never felt the need to blend in because for me, standing out is always going to be inevitable.” – Jackie
Jackline Ndungwa Waiharo describes herself as a proactive, self-motivated, responsible, creative, team leader/player, good communicator, resourceful and quick to adapt to new environments. Her uniqueness as a person comes from her ability to be vocal about her wants and needs.
She was born with Kyphosis Thoracic Spine, a condition that causes an abnormal curve in the spine. This has also led to her right leg being shorter than the left one. Even though this condition is treatable and can be rectified if addressed early, Jackie states that she never had a good support system growing up and much of this was due to the fact that she was disabled and her family was not accepting of her.
Jackie was born and raised in the sprawling slums of Kayole Nairobi, Kenya. She fondly remembers being a happy child and being brought up in a pretty normal family setup.
“My fondest moments as a child was how I was still able to make friends despite having a disability and I would always find myself in positions of leadership because I have always had a lot of confidence in myself.”
The broad smiling Jackie attended an inclusive school where she was integrated with able-bodied children. As opposed to special schools which are only designed for disabled children, inclusive or integrated schools mix disabled with able-bodied children in a system that promotes inclusion and promotes the idea that all children can coexist and learn together.
“At school, I remember getting a lot of stares but as time progressed, the other children got used to me being around. On some occasions, I was bullied and that’s how I learnt my karate moves. In high school, I almost led a strike though it was not something to be proud of.”
Talking about her disability, Jackie explains that having a curved spine does not hinder her from performing normal duties like doing laundry and cooking. She is completely independent and experiences no health issues or preexisting conditions that could be a result of her disability.
“I only feel discomfort when I stand for long or overwork myself. I experience some pain on my right side and thus I have to be careful not to carry heavy things or push myself too hard.”
Curious to find out when it became apparent to her that she was different from her friends, Jackie explained that the first time she came to this realization was when she was in class five. At the time, one of her legs was thinner than the other and this made her self conscious about how she looked. “I didn’t even want to take walks during the day because people would really stare.”
“Jackie, are you happy at this point in your life?” I asked randomly.
“Very happy…I can’t change anything for now. I don’t regret my past because no mistake is a mistake, every mistake is an experience. So I guess this is the best time for me to be happy and accepting who I am. I have come from far and those struggles are the ones that have made me who I am today.”
I met Jackie back in 2019 after she had been posted to Nakuru to work as a teacher in a nearby school. We had connected on Facebook and shortly after met in person. I remember being so proud of what she had achieved and wondering how and why she decided to pursue the teaching profession.
“After completing my secondary level, I left for Mombasa to do house manager jobs but having a disability, people were very apprehensive about my ability to work efficiently. My family decided to take me to a teaching college but even after graduating, getting a job proved to be difficult. I applied so many times and after several months I got a job in Kinoo where I worked for 5 months until I got employed by the government.”
Jackie adds that employers, especially those in the private sector, aren’t inclusive and therefore so many people with disabilities go unemployed because of the judgemental and discriminatory nature of these workplaces.
“I am a P1 teacher meaning I can teach all subjects at a primary level but I major in English, religious education and social studies. Now that we have shifted to CBC, I teach the lower grades and I teach all subjects there. I love my job because of the fact that I wake up every morning to go and impact a child in a positive way. Entering the class every morning and getting those curious stares from the children is something else. I love that they are expectant of what I have for them every day.”
Aside from being a teacher and an advocate for the disability community, Jackie is also committed to making real changes in the community. A couple of weeks ago I was a guest at the launch of her organization which seeks to offer support to disabled children and their families.
“Safe Haven Community (SHC) is a start-up youth-led organization started by myself in September 2021 after I completed the Mandela Washington Foundation (MWF) that targets children with disabilities who are facing challenges that hinder them from going or enrolling in schools. We have already started our first project of advocacy on the importance of education for people with disabilities. With a membership of 40-50 members ranging from parents to children with disabilities, we are working on getting assistive devices and the children enrolled in schools. It is my goal to have a future generation that is disability elite and friendly. Having a disability-inclusive society is the number one fight against any form of discrimination facing PWDs and its starts with the young generation.”
Jackie is breaking glass ceilings and crossing borders as is evident from her recent accomplishments of becoming a Mandela Washington Fellow. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a prestigious and global program that brings together 700 young African leaders to reciprocate and exchange knowledge on cultural diversity and leadership. Jackie applied for this fellowship and got accepted, she went on to participate in the program virtually in 2021. This summer, Jackie will be travelling to the states as a follow-up to the fellowship. She will be part of the 12 Kenyans who will be attending MWF Alumni Enrichment Institute Program at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire this July.
“I am also an alumnus of Young African Leaders Initiative Regional Leadership Community East Africa (YALI RL EA) was also another program that I have attended. Joining different organizations and programs would be a lifetime opportunity whereby I will continue gaining and leveraging knowledge and skills on inclusivity and advocacy.”
Jackie is a dreamer who is determined to reach for the stars and there’s no indication that she will be slowing down anytime soon. Hers is a story of encouragement and resilience. A strong message is that the process works if you put your heart and soul into everything you do.
“It is my dream to mentor over 50 mothers of children living with special needs per year. I want to ensure that policymakers put in mind the needs of these children when it comes to accessing quality education. By the end of five years, I want to have 500 children with disabilities admitted to different inclusive schools rather than special schools. I will also build Safe Haven to greater heights and get donors, and partners to get assistive devices for these children to make their lives very comfortable. This I believe, is my life’s purpose.”
Here are the social media handles for Jackline Waiharo- Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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