The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Disability - Rwandans Share Experiences

Though begging is considered abominable and shameful in traditional norms, the habit has gained ground in some parts of the country. Disabled people are mainly singled out as those carrying the habit-though the irony is that some "well-off and normal people" have embraced it as a job

Regrettably, some individuals commonly associate physical or mental disability with inability-something which is preventing the affected individual from performing any productive action.

And thus, some disabled persons are lulled into believing that their situation is an eternal barrier to success, something which condemns them to destitute life.

It is common to spot people with disabilities in towns begging for handouts. But while some brave the scorching heat on the streets begging for a coin of Rwf50 or 100, others with the same physical or mental conditions are busy devising ways of improving their livelihoods.

These individuals are courageous enough that they are ready to try exhaust all roads and taste any bile if they think it will lead them to success. Their tale is a mixture of social rejection, despair, courage and determination.

Donatila Niyonsaba

She was crippled by polio at the age of three. And as her parents could not meet all her needs, she was transferred to Gatagara centre for the disabled, where she could receive education, care and other material support.

But as she grew up, she left and started a new life. Today, she is a self-sufficient tailor in Nyanza town. The glow of the 30-year-old is reflected in her ability to support her three children without relying on alms.

"Of course, we are faced with a lot of challenges. But we cannot sit and wait for our death. We have the capacity to take full control of our lives-like other individuals in the society," the optimistic Niyonsaba says.

Like Niyonsaba, Amina Siajali, 30, also realised her strength and took to school. A few months ago, she enrolled at the Nyanza technical school where she is pursuing training in embroidery and calligraphy.

"I didn't have any other means for survival," she says of what pushed her to go to school.

After a few months of training, the school offered her an opportunity to work. Today, she earns income from her artworks that she produces and sells with the help of her school.

"For those who think that disability is a barrier to better life, I want to tell them that they are wrong. They should put aside that belief, stand up and work hard. That is the road to success," she advises.

AT TWELVE, many kids of the dot com era are still in pampers, being stuffed with junk food and play stations. They float around like butterflies, with such effervescent innocence that you would think the world has no guns and malaria. Children who lack these 'basics' live it in their popcorn dreams.

But for Jean Baptiste Murenzi, there were neither dreams nor play stations. He had to become more than a man at 12 to survive, all because of the 1994 Genocide...

That cold evening, Murenzi awoke to a din in the village. The dark aura of death hang in the air as the blood-thirsty Intarahamwe militia butchered every living thing that crossed their path in the small village. Murenzi, though, miraculously survived the killings, escaping with only a limb as the other was maimed. All other nine of his family members, included the extended family, were butchered.

The nightmare of the bloody cold night that unfolded before his own eyes left much more than the scar of the lost limb; Murenzi

"After the Genocide, it took me a lot of energy and efforts to accept my new conditions," he says. "I was desperate, I had lost all my relatives and my leg was cut. I could not figure out how I would survive without my parents and the state I was in," he says, fighting tears. "It was a mountain that I had to overcome."

Things would get to the worst when he suffered dejection in society owing to his handicap.

"Even the way people used to consider me changed because they saw me like a burden, it was like I would rely on them for survival," he reminisces.

Now 30 and a father of two, the resident of Ntyazo sector in the rural part of Nyanza district, has every reason to look up to the head of the coin, having fought the tail end of it.

"I was in a situation which needed action," he says, mimicking a brave face. "As days went by, I realised that my survival depended on my efforts and that I was the sole beholder of my future. I sat down and thought of my future and resolved that my disability would not be a reason to give up hope. I discovered a burning desire to build a strong and better life for not only myself but also those close to me."

He says he could not afford begging every passer-by for survival. The primary school dropout in 1999 started a small-scale business. His merchandise was biscuits, matches, sweets and such petty items in a box.

With the perseverance of a mountain climber, Murenzi clawed on. Today he boasts of a retail shop in Ntyazo centre. "I have managed to overcome my disability and start a new life," he proudly says. "Even the way people looked at me has changed; I am a respected person because everyone has realised that I can sustain my family despite my handicap."

The disability movement in Rwanda

The government has initiated various programmes to support people living with disabilities. A National Council of Persons with Disabilities (PLWDs) was also created to advocate for the rights and needs of the disabled persons.

Rwanda also has a Member of Parliament for the disabled persons. At local government level, each district has one employee charged with responding to the needs of the disabled. Committees representing the individuals are also operating at the sector and cell level and other apparatus of the leadership.

The structures act as a forum of exchange between them and at the same time a channel through which their views and opinions are carried to the competent authorities and organs.

Emmanuel Karabaranga, the in-charge of people with disabilities in Nyanza district, says they have introduced many support programmes to help alleviate the living conditions of the disabled persons.

"Disabled people are supported in terms of skills development as well as financial and material support," Karabaranga says. "They receive training on project management and they are assisted to form cooperatives, which in turn get financial support to start operating an income-generating activity of their choice."

He says PLWDs also get other forms of support such as health insurance (Mutuelle de Santé) for the most vulnerable among them.

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