Writers' Fortnight 2019: “Flying toilets" and compassion: A lifelong social worker shares what motivates her
By Ran McClean, Grade 9, East Campus
Fiona Herbert shares why she’s devoted her life to helping children in need
When one thinks of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, one usually thinks of safaris. Yet it is also home to millions living in slums and is the resting ground of the thousands who die there. And a little girl named Precious was a hair width away from being among them.
(Left: Image result for nairobi slums: The open sewage in slums encourages disease - http://www.nsspt.org/)
The Nairobi slums, like many, have their sanitation problems. There is no sewage system, and more than a million people are crammed together in them. Hence, the “flying toilets”; water-filled holes into which excrement-filled bags are thrown. When it rains, they float on the filthy surface, thus the name. And there was Precious, a baby also in a bag, facing near-certain death among the filth. It was only when Fiona Herbert, a British child protection officer, was walking by and saw the wriggling bag, that she was rescued and given a fresh shot at life. Precious is now “at school...with lots of friends, and she’s really healthy.”
“It seemed like the most natural thing for me to do.”
Herbert had always been a social worker and had done child protection work in London as well. And episodes like these give Herbert the motivation to continue helping children in need. Hence “when we moved out to Kenya, it seemed like the most natural thing for me to do.” One may assume that she would struggle in Kenya, where she is visibly a foreigner (she is a white woman with a strong English accent), but in fact, Herbert said that living there was quite all right.
This could be partially attributed to the approach she takes to her work. She tries to apply a sustainable and more respectful model wherein she trains local people in child protection, so they can apply those skills and their superior local knowledge to make a long-lasting change. Herbert believes that it is NGOs not listening to those they help that make some projects fail, as the solutions do not exactly apply to the situation.
(Left: Image result for nairobi slums sewers - An open sewer in Kibera slum
She has great hopes for Kenya’s future. Despite the many issues holding children back in the slums, such as high HIV transmission rates, poor sanitation, and child abandonment, she is encouraged by the Kenyan middle-class raising awareness for such issues. Throughout the interview, her voice was quiet but cheerful, and she emphasised progress, such as Kenyan-born technology, a lot.
Whatever small differences you can make
And yet, all of that doesn’t really matter. As she said, “Whatever small differences you can make, it’s worth it, right? For every child’s life acted upon, it’s worth it.” Of course, the endeavour being easier would make us more willing to do it (we hold our personal affairs to high esteem), but that should not be the central point. We should all sacrifice, and be willing to sacrifice so that everyone can have a decent quality of life. It is this courage and morality to put others to that high esteem, and the never-ending push to see the less fortunate as human that makes Herbert quite an incredible person. She would most likely be continuing this incredible work if her husband’s work didn’t move from Kenya. Having decided to follow him to Singapore, she now works as a primary teacher in UWCSEA East. Perhaps she is teaching more future social workers to follow in her footsteps.