“I’m obliged to give back”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - /cover - In­ter­view by AN­GELA MOLLARD

She’s 11 years old, a skinny lit­tle strap of a girl whose thick, long lashes frame eyes that have seen too much. Her shoul­ders are squared and her voice is soft, but there’s no mis­tak­ing what she is say­ing. “My dad held me down and then he had sex with me,” she tells the very tall man with dread­locks who has flown half way round the world to hear her story. Ann, whose sur­name we can­not share, is the face of a child pro­tec­tion cri­sis in Kenya that World Vi­sion and their new­est am­bas­sador, AFL star Nic Nai­tanui, want the rest of the globe to know about. We may as­so­ciate this African coun­try with breath­tak­ing landscapes and cap­ti­vat­ing wildlife, but it is also a place where chil­dren are abused, traf­ficked, or­phaned young, sac­ri­ficed into mar­riage and pushed into pros­ti­tu­tion – robbed of an in­no­cence they barely ever had.

A neigh­bour told Ann’s school they sus­pected her fa­ther had raped her and the teach­ers quickly swooped, re­hous­ing her in their res­cue cen­tre, which cur­rently ac­com­mo­dates 46 boys and 37 girls. Her mother had died, she tells Stel­lar, and her fa­ther turned on her after un­suc­cess­fully at­tempt­ing to sex­u­ally as­sault her elder sis­ter, who also now lives at the res­cue cen­tre. Her fa­ther awaits sen­tenc­ing.

Her teach­ers don’t have the re­sources to ad­dress her trauma; for now – thanks to World Vi­sion’s ed­u­ca­tion and pro­tec­tion pro­grams – safety is enough. But she’s do­ing well. “Since I came to board­ing school, I am po­si­tion three in class,” she says with pride. “I love sci­ence and I teach the other kids. I want to be a pi­lot when I grow up, so I can take peo­ple up into the air.”

Some­times, where you are born means you are in a place where life is a con­stant bat­tle against cir­cum­stance. Ann and her class­mates live on the edge of the high­way that runs from Nairobi to Mom­basa. There, rain rarely falls, wa­ter is scarce, crops don’t grow, ele­phants and mon­keys de­stroy the few that do, and the truck driv­ers who trans­port their cargo along the high­way use the lo­cal lodg­ings for overnight stops. Sex is both a cur­rency and a means to an end.

For head teacher Winifred Sila, get­ting chil­dren to school is her pri­mary goal. There she can feed them, teach them and show them an al­ter­na­tive way of life. Her staff, who are ed­u­cated in World Vi­sion’s pro­grams, ex­plain the dif­fer­ence be­tween “dirty money”

Stel­lar trav­els to Kenya with AFL player Nic Nai­tanui as he joins forces with World Vi­sion to help chil­dren trau­ma­tised by war, vi­o­lence and sex­ual as­sault re­build their lives and look to the fu­ture with hope

and “clean money”, and en­cour­age them to make good choices and to con­fide in those they trust.

As Nai­tanui, 29, lis­tens in­tently, Winifred ex­plains to him that “they have not healed, they still have wounds. We want them to feel there are peo­ple in this world who still ap­pre­ci­ate them. It’s not im­por­tant where you come from, but where you are head­ing, that de­ter­mines your fu­ture.”

Her sto­ries are heart­break­ing: girls as young as nine forced by their par­ents to sell them­selves to the truck driv­ers so the fam­ily can eat; a teenage boy rap­ing a friend’s sis­ter after his friend did like­wise to his own sis­ter, leav­ing her preg­nant; chil­dren late to school be­cause their mother locks them in the house overnight while she ser­vices the pass­ing trade; mums who go miss­ing for weeks while they take to the road with a man who’s of­fered money and a flicker of love.

A tiny eight-year-old boy called Sila tells Nai­tanui how he spent weeks liv­ing in a mar­ket­place where he was sodomised, and sold soft-drink bot­tles to buy food. For the West Coast Ea­gles player, har­row­ing tales such as Sila’s are all the more rea­son to be here. He has trav­elled to Kenya after the end of the team’s lat­est sea­son; he be­lieves it’s not enough just to play footy and en­joy the trap­pings of suc­cess. “I come from a chal­leng­ing back­ground so I can re­late to some of these kids,” he tells Stel­lar. “I al­ways thought if I did make some­thing of my­self, I’d be obliged to give back.”

Nai­tanui was born in Pen­rith, NSW, and raised with his twin brother by a sin­gle mum after his dad died when the boys were two. He tells Stel­lar that hear­ing the chil­dren’s sto­ries first­hand was con­fronting, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they were the same age as his neph­ews and nieces. But ed­u­ca­tion, he says, is key. “The more ed­u­ca­tion these chil­dren get, the less likely they’ll fall into these traps, and the more likely they’ll get good jobs so they don’t have to live in poverty. They’re not just go­ing to be­come smart kids but good peo­ple as well.”

Over a week that saw him in­tro­duced to World Vi­sion­sup­ported ini­tia­tives, such as a women’s food-pro­duc­tion group, a wa­ter-man­age­ment project, a com­mu­nity-led sav­ings co­op­er­a­tive, goat farm­ing pro­grams – as well as nearly 1500 ea­ger school­child­ren – in the end it was footy that won him a new le­gion of fans. The old women might’ve chuck­led at his 201cm frame and his size 15 feet, but for the kids, it was all about the sport. “You can travel this far across the globe and a funny-shaped ball brings ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one to­gether,” he tells Stel­lar with a grin.

At one point dur­ing his visit, Nai­tanui played for more than an hour on the red dirt field, but as he was leav­ing a lit­tle boy ner­vously re­minded his teacher he’d been promised a pri­vate les­son. Turns out Sila, with his bro­ken shoes and bro­ken life, had told the big man his story in re­turn for a few kicks. And so it was that as the sun went down, a lit­tle boy with noth­ing felt he was ev­ery­thing. Help change the life of a child and the peo­ple around them this Christ­mas by spon­sor­ing a child or giv­ing a gift that will trans­form their world. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit world­vi­sion.com.au/ways-to-give.

ON THE MARK (clock­wise from op­po­site left) AFL star Nic Nai­tanui vis­it­ing school chil­dren in Kenya; the foot­baller mak­ing two new fans; lis­ten­ing to a child’s story in a res­cue cen­tre with a worker from World Vi­sion; the lo­cal women found his tow­er­ing frame amus­ing; Nai­tanui shar­ing his time, and love of footy, with the kids; (be­low) play­ing for the West Coast Ea­gles this year.

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