31 December 2012

Uganda: Crippled to Obesity

Cyprian Ocen was crippled as an infant due to polio, killing his hopes of walking again. As fate would have it, his lack of mobility led to his weight gain, which turned into obesity. Solomon Oleny writes about his loss of hope in his situation

For the last two years, Cyprian Ocen, 50, of Agwatta-Lira moves out of his house at most once in two months, and only if he really must. Diabetic and severely obese, Ocen cannot walk on his own. He has no option but to lie on his worn out 4x6 mattress all day. It takes at least two muscular people to move him.

Since he is too big to fit in most readily-available clothes on the market, he is forced to spend much of the day half naked with a curtain sheltering his privacy. His caretakers have to leave basics such as drinking water, food and his phone close to the mattress before going away.

Crippled as a child

Two years after his birth in 1961, Ocen was diagnosed with polio, a child killer disease that left his legs crippled, killing all his hopes of walking again.

At five years, he joined Asa Memorial School for primary education. Unlike his peers who had the chance to walk, run and frog jump, Ocen missed out on much of the fun that comes with being a child. Luckily, he had a wheelchair to ease his mobility.

As fate would have it, the treasure that came with a wheelchair was short lived. Having lost his father Victor Ekin in 1971, Ocen started living a partially independent life.

However, his wheelchair broke beyond repair. He spent much of his time frequenting Mulago Hospital with the hope of getting a free wheelchair because his widowed mother, Maria Ekin, could not afford to buy him one.

Apart from earning a meagre income from selling agricultural produce on a small scale, she also had financial problems since she was the sole breadwinner for her four children.

Fortunately, by the time Ocen was admitted in Lango College in 1980 for his O'level, he had succeeded in getting another wheelchair that eased his movement for the four years he was in school.

He was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis

But with no one to sponsor his education, Ocen did not make it to A'level. He resorted to agriculture as his means of survival.

Ocen gets married

In 1981, Ocen married a beautiful wife, Florence, with whom he had seven children, something that shocked many. As he was a cripple, many doubted if any girl would ever fall for him, much less the most beautiful woman in the village, who was every man's dream wife.

But Ocen proved to them that disability was not inability.

LRA insurgency

Like most parts of northern Uganda, Ogur sub-county, where Ocen was working as a clerk in 1988 with the Ministry of Agriculture and Community Development, was not spared of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency which claimed thousands of lives in its two decades of operation.

He was among the few that survived being captured by the rebels because he was always a step ahead. Yet this quest for survival was never a piece of cake.

Everytime there was a rumour that rebels were around the corner, the villagers fled for their lives, while Ocen had to ride his wheelchair madly like it was his last chance to use it.

Since this race entailed manoeuvring over rough terrain such as rocks and swamps, his wheelchair could not survive.

In 1992, history repeated itself after it broke down beyond repair. With all his savings looted by the rebels during the December raid, Ocen was stuck between a rock and hard place.

Without his wheels he thought life had come to a standstill. Crawling was his only way of movement yet the village paths were very thorny. As such, he was transferred to Agwatta in Lira because it was one of the few localities in Lira that was not of interest to the rebels.


Having failed to acquire another wheelchair, Ocen had to cut down on his movement.

It was not long before this immobility resulted in a gradual increase in weight. By 2001, Ocen weighed over 120kgs, something he thought was normal having been born of a father who was genetically obese. By 2005, it dawned on him that

his weight was an abnormality that demanded medical attention.

By this time, he was too big to fi t on any of the available weighing scales in Lira. Unfortunately, neither could he fi t on any of the available wheelchairs. As such, he had to be transported to Lira Regional Referral Hospital, which was 30km away, in the back of a pick-up truck.

He was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, a medical condition that results

from changes in normal blood fl ow, including unusual turbulence, partial or complete blockage of blood flow.

But, his case could not be managed by Lira Hospital, so he was referred to Mulago for further treatment. He could not afford the sh2.5m which was needed to transport him to and from the hospital in a more accommodative vehicle, since he was too big to fi t in the usual bus seats.

Left with no option, Ocen painfully returned home and put his condition at the mercy of fate. Five years later, it became clear that his condition was not different from a time bomb that was only waiting to explode if it was not detonated.

Fortunately, a fundraiser effort that was organised in Lira District to help raise money for his transport and diagnosis at Mulago Hospital in Kampala bore fruit in February 2011. It was not until they got to Mulago that it dawned on Ocen that the money gathered could not do as much as he had hoped.

Since he was too big to fit in the hospital's biggest scanner, a proper analysis of his condition could not be made. However, other tests carried out at Mulago Hospital's neurology department proved he had a blood clot in his leg.


For the past six months, Ocen has been monitoring his diet in an effort to keep his weight in check as an alternative for physiotherapy since he is unable to jog, walk or swim.

He has given up eating fatty foods like meat and fast foods. He also eats only when he is very hungry. Though this has helped him shed some weight, it has not bettered his health.

For much of the day, he suffers from general body weakness and experiences excruciating abdominal pain about where his kidney is located.

He has been recommended for further examination and treatment in India but the costs are still too high for him. The treatment costs of sh20m include expenses such as flight tickets, attendant, operation and accommodation.

Right now he can barely afford the alternative sweeteners he uses to keep his diabetes in check, so that sh20m looks like a huge mountain that only a miracle would move.

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