I always try to give examples, and here’s one that ought to inspire a few of us to go that little bit further.
ANTIGONISH — Mary Wambui Gatama will board an airplane Dec. 15 destined for her home in Kenya, where she helps child sex-trade workers in the coastal city of Mombasa.
She’s going back with new insights, having spent the past six months studying for a diploma in leadership development at the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
Ms. Gatama was one of 40 Coady International students representing 19 countries who received diplomas in leadership development, a postgraduate program, during Saturday’s fall convocation at St. Francis Xavier University. She also has a bachelor’s degree in community development.
Ms. Gatama, 26, said she’ll be a better communicator and advocate for children caught up in the sex trade, which is fuelled by tourists who flock to her city. She’ll also approach some of her clients a bit differently.
“I’m seeing the glass half full now,” she said of her clients’ potentials.
Ms. Gatama said she could get bogged down in seeing the glass half empty, given all of the hardships and challenges her clients — girls aged 12 to 18 — endured on the streets.
“These people have so much potential, so we just need to tap that. I’m seeing that potential, the energy they have, and what they can utilize for their benefit and the benefit of the community as a whole.”
She’ll be beside them along the way through her work as a field co-ordinator with the Mombasa Beach Girls organization, which offers a drop-in centre, support, vocational and life skills training, education, counselling and more to the girls.
Kenya has an estimated 250,000 children living in the streets.
“This makes them vulnerable to sexual exploitation,” Ms. Gatama said.
Homelessness, poverty, loss of parents to AIDS, expensive drug addictions and peer pressure are just some of the reasons children turn to the sex trade or crime for money.
For some girls, the trade can seem glamorous as they see other girls drive around in cars and meet well-dressed men.
“There’s a feeling that there’s so much money involved,” she said.
But it’s a dangerous lifestyle, she said, and it’s fortunate that many girls have successfully turned their lives around.
Ms. Gatama readily shared a story about a girl who started working in the sex trade at 13 because she was pregnant and her impoverished family could not afford to support them.
Staff recognized her interest and skills in cooking and catering. She trained and is now working in a large Mombasa hotel, supporting her child.
Ms. Gatama said reaching the youngsters is a challenge, but more non-government organizations are getting involved and have formed “a very strong network.”
The university also graduated 225 students during the afternoon ceremony and conferred doctor of laws honoris causa degrees upon Jesus Tecu Osorio, a human rights and development leader from Guatemala, and Alice Hoskins, an artist, author, teacher and philanthropist from Antigonish.
© 2007 The Halifax Herald Limited