It was ten minutes to eight and our journey began, in the twilight, as we toddled through the villages in Anomabo, Ghana. Under the moon-lit sky, we followed gravel-pitted and pot-holed gullies that meandered through these villages. Were were accompanied by Sister Elizabeth, a passionate nurse who worked at the only clinic in the village of Anomabo.
At the sight of Sister Elizabeth, the villagers began to swarm around her, momentarily forgetting their tasks as well as their sorrows. They hugged her, held her hands, and instantly a bright smile started to emerge from behind the vacant faces of these people as if the presence of Sister Elizabeth radiated a contagious sense of euphoria. The villagers called her Ma Elizabeth and so did we. During the entire stay in Anomabo, she escorted us, serving as our guide and key informant. She took us from one house to another, and stood by while our conversation with the physically challenged resumed around the fire-pit. Our discussion with the disabled continued throughout the night, and against the yellow backdrop of fire-pit fire unfolded the saga of their lives, of unsung heroes and societal negligence.
On our first visit, we meet with Albert, a fifteen year old boy who languidly lay on the corner of a straw covered hut. His skin was covered with bronze colored mud. His mother stood next to him like a Greek statue, with a permanent look of hopelessness etched on her face. My eyes averted from the mother to the boy and began to inspect him from the tip of his paralyzed leg to his inquisitive eyes. The mud covered skin of this child contrasted against the background denied his existence at first glance. But soon my eyes met his and I was immediately drawn to this child as if those eyes were screaming at me, trying to reveal to me an age-long secret.
Albert’s story echoed the sagas of countless other disabled children in Africa: it began with Polio, a disease that seems as distant as the Bubonic Plague to a westerner. Like most babies, he probably amused his parents by taking his first stumbling walks in the yard before his first birthday. But one morning he woke up only to discover that his newfound capability had been snatched away from him.
The rehabilitation doctors examined Albert. They stretched his legs, pressed down on his ankle and feet, and tested the reflexes. My eyes were still on the boy, and I could sense his amusement at doctor’s instructions. After decades of neglect and rejection by friends, families and neighbors, he was certainly enjoying our company. At the end of it all, the doctor diagnosed him with polyradiculopathy. For a moment the students looked at one another, confounded by the new word. Then the doctor explained that polyradiculopathy is a neuromuscular disorder that causes the patient to lose control of the lower extremities. He told us about how providing care early on the disease, giving him a splint and daily exercise could have given Albert more strength in his trunk muscle and his legs. In Albert’s society there is an enormous belief that those with physical disabilities are also mentally deficient and that’s why the doctor explained to the mother about Albert’s functional brain. The doctor looked at the mother and told her about Albert’s potential. He discussed sending Albert to school, explaining how Albert could achieve anything he desired. The mother listened to his ideal talk with a gesture of indifference, and a blank stare of a bored student.
The entire time during our stay with Albert, I saw a weight of burden in the mother’s face. But is Albert a burden? In the United States, children like Albert are readily seen on school grounds, at shopping malls and cinemas. They are rarely, if all, seen tossed in the yard, like fenced animals. However, in a place like Ghana, where stigmas and taboos are still woven into the very framework of the country, giving birth to a child like Albert is not a blessing but a burden.
Venturing through the country and talking to people for three weeks, I was able to comprehend the degree to which cultural taboos infect the Ghanaians. While for most westerners the cause of disability is merely biological, people in Ghana blame this occurrence on black magic or on evil deeds committed by the parents. When I inspected my driver’s view on this issue, he told me that it is the result of a child being conceived in broad daylight. Though this explanation might strike the average westerner as odd, it is well embraced by many in Ghana.
It is believed that the consequence of bad deed can be channeled to next generation, and as a result, people refrain from advancing any relationship with the disabled or their family. A girl might spend the rest of her life unwed because one of her family members is disabled. In Ghana the burden of disability, a seemingly individual problem in the States, becomes a collective predicament. This is why when a child is born disabled, the family refuses to come forward to address the issue for fear of not only shaming the immediate members of the family but of disgracing the entire community. My interview with some members of the community who are sympathetic toward this issue revealed that children with disabilities are sometimes drowned or abandoned in the forest to avoid getting stigmatized and shunned by society. It is this very reason why Albert, like many others, lies aimlessly in the corner of a yard, like a despicable creature not worth anyone’s sight. It is this very reason why Albert’s parents did not bother to provide medical care or send him to school.
While he may never become a famous football player, I can certainly see Albert becoming a word-class banker or a politician. But to the Ghanaians the prospect of a disabled person going so far in life seems surreal. During my visits to banks, hospitals and schools I was shocked to see how inaccessible these facilities were to those who were not entirely able-bodied. Talking to the school children I learned that none of their schoolmates were disabled. I was surprised to learn from one regular churchgoer that e