Friday, August 19, 2011

Reflections on Makeni

After nearly three weeks, my time in Makeni is drawing to a close. It has been a three weeks well spent—something of which I am reminded when I hear people yelling “Hello Fatmata [my Sierra Leonean name]” as I walk through different neighborhoods, when I return home and can’t imagine a better way to spend my evening than chatting with my house mates and increasingly close friends for hours, or when I look back on my notes of all the organizations and individuals with whom I’ve talked. Yes, Makeni has been a good home and the last few days have been especially fruitful…

One of the things I am trying to personally improve on is becoming more flexible. This past weekend was a great exercise in remaining flexible and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. Friday evening, for instance, at a local hangout spot near my house, my housemate introduced me to his close friend, who works as a human rights monitor for the National Commission on Human Rights. The next day, I was riding with my new friend on his motorbike—the preferred means of transportation here—when he abruptly pulled over to visit some friends at a newly constructed residence center for 100 polio survivors. He introduced me to the Secretary General of the center, chairwoman, and some of the other residents. They invited me back on Monday and I spent the better part of the day there talking with the residents, observing their skills training courses (they learn paper bead making, tailoring, shoe making, and mechanics), getting fitted for a custom pair of sandals, and even being interviewed myself! The Secretary General, as it turns out, has a national radio show called “Voice of the Voiceless.” He interviews different, mainly disabled peoples organizations and discusses topics they raise, such as inclusive education or employment opportunities. Well, he wanted to interview me for the show. I was hesitant at first, but allowed him and it was a lot of fun. We talked about the organizations I’ve been working with, my key findings, what I see as the future of Sierra Leone’s disability rights movement, and opportunities for people with disabilities in the United States.

The other spontaneous and positive experience of my weekend occurred Sunday morning. I was out walking and got terribly lost looking for a church I promised to attend with a friend. I ran into the Chairman of the Bombali Amputee Association, whom I’d met last week. On his motorbike—of course—he offered to give me a ride to try and find the place. When we had absolutely no luck, he offered to take me to another church in Panlap, just outside of the Makeni city limits. The church was a fun and incredibly long experience, but had good music and dancing. Afterwards, he introduced me to the Paramount Chief and took me to his home, which is located in one of Panlap’s two camps for the war-wounded and amputee community. He showed me around and invited me to attend the practice of two of the camps groups he’s involved in this Saturday: the amputee football association and the drama troupe. It was a lucky and completely unplanned day.

Of all that I am learning and being exposed to here, there are two things that continue to astound me more than anything else: the absolute lack of educational opportunities and the astronomically large population of blind people and polio survivors, the junction of the two being the people with disabilities and their family members forced to beg on the streets. Since the civil war in Sierra Leone, which ended in 2002, the country has become very well known to the international community for the large number of people left disabled due to the prevalence of amputation as a tactic of war. Coming to Sierra Leone, I expected the war-wounded and amputee population to be the focus of my research here and, while this is no doubt a large population, I have been astounded to see how prevalent blindness and polio are, as well as how neglected these forms of disabilities are in national responses to the needs of the Sierra Leonean people. In one interview I even learned that, although many people were blinded by the civil war, the government refused to register people blinded as a result of conflict for post-war reparations, saying that only amputees were entitled to the money. It took a lot of advocacy by national organizations for the blind to get them included in the post-war assistance plans. Although people with disabilities are identified as one of the most vulnerable populations, services and resources for them are continuously neglected or, at the very most, initially funded, but not maintained. I have seen this over and over, particularly in regards to special schools for children with disabilities or the children of parents with disabilities.

Nationally, education is an enormous problem. Although the government has made education compulsory, there are many children who slip through the cracks due to, for example, obligations to monetarily assist their families. There is also a staggeringly large number of orphans, who do not have anyone to pay their school fees or whose education was interrupted during the war and now lack the necessary education or even the most basic skill training to subsist. People with disabilities are particularly affected by the dearth of educational opportunities and, often lacking a skill or trade, are dependent upon street begging for survival. One of the most common scenes here is a young child guiding their blind parent through the streets, both of their hands outstretched for money. What often happens then, is that the child of the person with a disability cannot afford to attend school and learns only a life of street begging, thus begetting the family’s poverty. As a result, the elimination of street begging, the restoration of the dignity, and the fulfillment of the rights of persons with disabilities are almost always the goals of the disabled persons’ organizations with whom I meet. Through skills training programs for adults with disabilities, lobbying, and community sensitization campaigns the organizations try to build alternatives to street begging. As the Chairman of the Disability Awareness Action Group told me, “I do not want my child to resent me for being disabled.” It is a hopeful beginning to what is becoming a very strong disability rights movement in the country, but that remains humble in the face of the tremendous bounds the country must make before true equality is reached. Just today, I ran into a blind teacher at a school for the blind I recently visited. He was in the streets begging with his son. When I realized that even an education man with a job is forced to take to the streets, I was left speechless. I will be curious to follow-up with decision makers about national priorities. Because I do not yet know that much about the situation facing the state of Sierra Leone, I do not want to immediately point a finger at the government for not doing enough to efficiently assist people with disabilities after the conflict. I am left to wonder, however, if the government is not accountable to the group they have identified as the most vulnerable, to whom are they accountable?

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