In Malawi, negative perceptions of people with disabilities are rampant.
The stereotypes often portray them as inferior or second-class citizens.
But disability is not inability-for the notion that people with disability cannot do anything worthwhile is discriminatory, fictional and false.
‘Im not dead’
This was spectacularly discredited long before Ibrahim Kuchanga won the MBC Achievers Award for their agricultural exploits last year.
“I may be blind, but I am neither dead nor useless,” says Kuchanga, 59. “Actually, my heart bleeds when blind people go begging as did many in Blantyre before I lost sight in 2001.”
In Duwa Village, we saw works of his hands.
The journey begins in a wetland dotted with fish ponds dug and owned by a self-help group comprising people with various disabilities which he leads.
From the dams, a dusty path takes visitors on a nearly two- kilometre walk to his home. By the wayside, brick houses built and roofed by the passionate farmer flash past.
On the nearly 15-minute walk, we branch into a narrow, overgrown detour which takes lovers of zero-to-hero stories to the fertile shores of Lake Chilwa where the man and his 30-strong group cultivate maize and rice.
His is a tale of overcoming, but the most inspiring story is not that he literally does all field work-starting from ridging to harvesting-despite his visual impairment.
Rather, the ponds and crop fields have become monuments of his firm belief that only the starved can free themselves from hunger.
“They symbolise that we are not failures. We refuse to be reduced to beggars. I do not want my family to be trapped in a house of hunger. As long as my brains and hands are OK, I will do anything to survive. We are people like any other,” explains Kuchanga.
The father of eight wants his children to attain quality education.
According to him, any society that fails to empower his likes with quality education and relevant skills cannot blame or rebuke them for becoming non-productive or not taking part in developing their societies.
“Education and skills are almost everything. The sudden loss of sight left me thinking about committing suicide, but my life changed dramatically when Malawi Council for the Handicapped [Macoha] trained me to farm using a rope,” he narrates.
In the country, people with various disabilities find it difficult to access basic services and needs.
Let them learn
The Catholic Development Commission (Cadecom) is striving to change the gloomy picture by championing inclusive education in the country.
In their minds, the change agents believe that empowering people with disability to realise their potential would greatly uplift their families and societies.
Mavuto Sailesi Phiri, the inclusive education project manager at Cadecom, says giving learners with disability an enabling learning environment will firmly put them on the path to self-reliance.
“This can only be achieved if communities do not hold negative perceptions about people with disability. So we are sensitising them on disability rights and the benefits of sending the disabled to school,” he says.
The project is underway in Chiwalo and Namboya in Phalombe. It is slowly turning the tide of stigma, lack of concern and name-calling as families are increasingly sending children with various disabilities to school.
Cadecom, together with Ministry of Health, have been lobbying parents and guardians to guard against misconceptions and discriminatory tendencies.
Previously, some of the locals used to lock up the vulnerable children, perceiving them as a curse and symbols of shame.
“We are making a tremendous progress. Now parents no longer keep their disabled children in homes or on leash. They send them to school,” says Phiri.
Ernest Mpeketala, senior health surveillance assistant (HSA) at Nambazo Health Centre, says the number of children being screened for different disabilities is rising.
“It appears parents are aware that some disabilities can be treated when detected early. Timely screening helps guardians make free and informed decisions that benefit their children. This gives the pupils a chance to learn with fewer challenges,” the community health worker says.
Mandinda Zungu, Cadecom secretary in Blantyre Archdiocese, said the organisation has unearthed and overcome numerous stereotypes.
To her, making inclusive education a reality will give children with disability a solid start and ensure they grow to achieve their dreams like anyone else. n