How early evaluation and detection is helping children with dyslexia in Kenya

They say knowledge is power. This is certainly true for dyslexic children and their parents in Kenya. The country is waking up to the fact that there are children who are unable to read; not because they are stupid but because they just learn in a different manner than most children.

Dyslexia is a learning disability in which children who often are quite gifted have unexpected difficulty in reading. According to the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development,  such children have all the intelligence, motivation and adequate instruction most children need, but they struggle to read. Often called an “invisible” disability, dyslexia has profound effects on children who have it. Their difficulty and the inappropriately harsh reaction of adults to it can cause them great shame and anxiety.

Developmental dyslexia was first reported in 1896, by a British physician, W. Pringle Morgan, who described Percy F., a young student who was bright in every way, except for his inability to read. Today, over a century later, we continue to see bright children who struggle to read, a situation that has caused them untold suffering all the way into their adulthood.

Take Kendi Kamanja Oketch, a gifted woman who owns a design and landscaping company for instance. Mrs Oketch says that when growing up in rural Meru, her education started with her drawing and writing on the ground, then onto books. At the early childhood phase, not much is expected of children anyway and she managed to sail through the earlier classes albeit in a blur of sorts.

When Kendi got to the upper classes, things became much difficult as it was becoming more difficult for her to read.

“When exams came I would read through the multiple questions and what do I do? I just guess,” explained Kendi of her predicament in upper primary school

Although the multiple exams questions came to her rescue, her performance was still poor and paled in comparison to that of her siblings who were high achievers. Kendi comes from a family of nine siblings with three of them being engineers and one of them a pilot. The rest are also doing exceptionally well including a farmer. Kendi suspects that the latter also had a severe case of dyslexia because his experience in school was worse and he just became a farmer.

Still ignorant of her condition, Kendi was labelled a lazy-bone by parents and off she was shipped to boarding school together with her siblings. She was just 11 years old.

“Even at boarding school my frustration kept piling up and when I couldn’t take it anymore I ran away from school which was 20km away from home. Since I had to get a good excuse, I feigned a toothache which resulted in the extraction of a perfectly healthy molar, ”

In rural Meru the only answer to every tooth problem was extraction and Kendi was ready to go through the painful procedure if only it could buy her some days away from school.

Kendi narrates an incident where she was asked to preach in front of a Christian Union congregation which was an uphill task since she could not read the scripture. She paints the picture of a panicking girl before many pairs of eyes staring back at her and she could feel a cold sweat break on her back. She just had to sit down feeling so embarrassed that she never attended CU again.

She did not perform well in primary school and was, therefore; taken to a private secondary school where the situation deteriorated.

“My compositions were so bad that the teacher read them to the whole class and also copied what I had written on the board. Chemistry, math, physics, and biology were better for me as I could grasp the concepts as the teacher taught in class. Since I performed well in those subjects and dismally in the others, the teacher thought I was cheating and would persecute me. Set books, which were mandatory in school, were a real pain as well,” said Kendi

In form two, Kendi was taken to a provincial school, Kaaga Girls High School, where it occurred to her that she wasn’t ready for form three. She instinctively knew that she had to get better results as she was maturing. Apart from not being able to read, Kendi was also not able to get people’s names, a problem that has persisted to this day. If you give her a set of instructions she will only grasp the last one or last two.

She cannot read with distractions and has to go over a particular page around five times to understand what it is all about. If you talk to her in a club with music she will not understand what you are saying. At a concert, she is unable to discriminate between the music and the sound and eventually, it all becomes noise. Kendi also gets lost when you use many words.

“People like us don’t cram, we read to understand and if you don’t get it you are done. Have an idea as you will need to build on something to grasp the whole concept. This helped whenever we had continuous assessments tests where I was a top performer. We also went to school earlier than everybody else,” explained Kendi

Kendi Kamanja Oketch

Once in college, the mother of two went for a Diploma in Banking course and the delivery of one of her one of the lecturers there really helped her. She scored an A and furthered her education at the university where she studied a Bachelor in Commerce course although her passion was in designing things. She confesses Architecture would have been a piece of cake for her.

After passing with upper second class honours she went on to get her masters degree under the same conditions. Kendi eventually got a job at the Commercial Bank of Africa and during that time she still walked around with insecurities such as not being able to punctuate sentences or write properly. By then she already knew there was something wrong with her and was sure someone would find out that she is stupid

Her breaking point came when a position became vacant in her organisation but when she went for the interview she was unable to get it. The built-up insecurities within her made her unable to express herself well during the interview and when the interviewers posed questions using many words she got lost and that cost her the new job.

“I was so crushed and was unable to recover and knew her job was coming to an end. My attitude changed, frustrations kicked in and I became rude and unmanageable,” said Kendi

Kendi could not leave her job because she had a Ksh. 14million mortgage hanging over her head. Her husband thought it was not a good idea to leave as well because the mortgage was given 6% and not as for 17% for non-staff members.

It was then that Kendi decided to Google her symptoms and discovered she had dyslexia a condition that affects 20% of the population. She managed to get help from Dr John Onala, an expert in dyslexia who helped in her treatment. She now owns Equatorial Office Plus Ltd a company that helps organizations get services such as potted plants, stationery, fresh flowers and cleaning services under one roof.

The former banker is a gifted landscaper and she confesses that while she does not know some of the names of the plants, she trusts her instincts and her clients trust her work as seen from previous engagements. An online course has also helped her in her work. She is also into events management and although she is not a good planner like her partner, she uses her gift to come up with the best decorations for the events.

Although she still confuses her left hand and her right hand at the gym among other issues Kendi is living a better life now.

According to Kendi, parents are now more aware of dyslexia unlike when she was growing up. She added that some schools in the country ask students with learning disabilities to go through an evaluation at Dr Munala ’s clinic. From the assessment, the doctor is able to tell about their learning abilities and advice the school accordingly. The schools, in turn, come up with the ideal system for the kids with learning abilities.

“This means that children will learn according to their pace and will not grow up thinking that they are stupid. Some will be prevented from dropping out as has been the norm for some students when things fail to make sense. Children with dyslexia will also be able to shine and build complicated things as their minds perceive them. Their self –esteem will also not be affected as they will be within their learning abilities and not suffer as I did,” said Kendi.

Also in agreement with Kendi is Mrs Njeri Waweru, who noticed her son has a problem when he was in Kindergarten. It had also taken him a long time to speak as a developing baby. Njeri took her son for assessment and it was discovered that he has a severe form of dyslexia. She is currently supporting him through it.

“You only need to identify your child’s talent and help them pursue it. Like now my son loves dancing and racing. The condition doesn’t bother me so much because it is not visible, said Njeri,”

Shirley Omedo, a teacher at Rose of Sharon Academy, says as far as dyslexia is concerned, the teacher explores many different teaching methodologies with various teaching aids just to drive simple concepts home.

“With every learning disability comes a talent so if a good actor has the condition I always cast them as the lead in every play,” said Omedo

Shirley says that in some instances when parents are notified of their children’s condition they go into denial but come around sooner or later. They are normally notified by a teacher, together with the head teacher and special needs teacher and they later come around.

Reading difficulties are highly prevalent (estimates range from 25% to 40%). This is in contrast to the widely held, but incorrect, notion that reading problems in young children represent a developmental lag that will be outgrown.

Since it is a fact that early reading problems persist, there should be a sense of urgency to providing young children with effective reading instruction. Seventy-five percent of children who struggle to read in at the age of eight or nine will continue to struggle throughout school.

The ability to notice and manipulate the sounds of spoken language and letter knowledge are key to developing a foundation for reading, meaning that such skills and awareness can be taught to young children, even before they are expected to read.

Boys and girls who come from disadvantaged backgrounds with less exposure to language often do not have the vocabulary skills or background knowledge necessary to develop strong reading comprehension skills.    Such children can benefit from very early exposure to vocabulary development and to learning about the world around them.

You can get more information on causes, types, and treatment of dyslexia from our earlier post.

For support, you can follow the following pages online

  • Kendi Kamanja Oketch Facebook page
  • https://youtu.be/2SQ-y0RAyPM
  • http://www.dyslexia-africa.com/
  • http://www.dyslexiakenya.org/dyslexia-kenya.php
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