Sierra Leone: Disability, Discrimination and the Resilient Journey of Charles N.U Senesie

Education is not meant for disables. People like you are not relevant in society. These were some of the common stereotypic expressions that young Charles or maybe now, the 41 year old man recalled being told whenever he had asked his parents to send him to school.

Charles Ngombu Umaru Senesie popularly known as Ngombu is a polio victim, physically challenged through his left leg. It is a condition contacted through poliomyelitis virus that spreads from person to person, mostly through contaminated water. It mainly affects under five children and can lead to paralysis by attacking the nervous system.

Senesie was not born with the condition but seemed to have contacted the virus at an early age. However, his parents told him some witches and demonic powers were responsible for his condition, the typical African theory about polio disability. Initially, Senesie could not dispute this narrative but presently thinks he was just unfortunate to have contacted the virus and got infected at childhood stage.

In total, about 1.3 percent of Sierra Leoneans live with disability of which polio accounts for a greater percentage. Poverty coupled with lack of skills and unemployment has forced many of them into begging. And traditional believes about their conditions is also a contributing factor to their difficulty, subjecting them to discrimination and marginalization.

Leaning on a chair with a clutch on his left side, Senesie in an exclusive interview with Concord Times narrated the passion he had for formal education while growing up, but because of his condition, his parents never wanted him to go to school, thinking educating a person of his condition would be a complete waste.

In a bid to kill his quest for formal education, Senesie's parents proposed three life careers for him. He was either become a black smith, a hunter or just be a kind of village guard.

Born in Tomaju, a remote village in Kenema District, Eastern Province of Sierra Leone; Charles grew up with his parents in an extended family setting. Being a disable and the fifth child of 13 children delivered by three wives in a society that has less regard for disables, there is no doubt that Senesie was going to be considered less relevant in his family. In other words, the severe discrimination the polio victim faced while coming up started in his household from his very parents and relatives.

"Growing up in this condition was really difficult," Senesie lamented, adding "looking at the society I came from, if you are polio disable or you are blind, our people would think that you are not relevant again in society. In fact, if you are not coming from courageous parents, you will be suppressed to die at an early age because they consider it that even if you grow up you are going to become a burden on them. Papa was disappointed at having a son of my condition and he even wished that I die."

Charles Senesie's family did not only try to deny him formal education, they also prevented him from being part of social any social gathering in their village. And his father didn't want to see him. It appears having a son as Senesie's type felt like an embarrassment to the father. "Whenever dad sees me, he wanted to shed tears and he would discourage me with some words, he said, noting that only his mom had time for providing him care. His father gave up and "Even when there is a gathering or public places that I want to go, they will discourage me not to go there, saying I am not sympathetic about my situation; these are not places I should be."

"What actually discouraged me was that my people decided that I should not go to school. Some of my uncles and aunts went to my father and told him people like me are not relevant in society. They discouraged my father and mother that schooling is not meant for types of us, asking that if we are educated how we can be accepted in offices among people that are physically fit. So I grew up with that heavy heart, with that sorry mind," he lamented.

Against his will, Senesie was eventually handed over to one of the local blacksmith in Tomaju village to train him.

But salvation would arrived for Senesie's dream when he met with an Irish Catholic Priest, Father Makalista who visited their village and persuaded his parents to send him to school, marking the genesis of his long sought academic journey.

With the help of the Priest, Senesie started going to school and later migrated to Freetown where he continued his schooling. He was brought by his elder brother who relocated to the city during the civil war.

Again, provocation in school became another hindering obstacle for the young determined polio victim, rendering the learning environment hostile for him.

"My colleagues used to provoke me. They do me some kind of shaky thing, seized advantage on me and I have to fight for myself. Provocation and bullying pushed me to become very stubborn in school," he said. This, according him, became displeasure to his teachers who usually complaint about his growing stubbornness to his school principal.

But Senesie blamed his teachers for failing to understand true cause of his stubbornness. What the teachers did not know was that because he cannot walk like other pupils, his class mates often forcefully take his books and run away without returning them which sometimes becomes unbearable, goading him into fighting them. This however, never discouraged resilient Senesie to drop-out of school.

After completing primary school, he became a sales boy for his neighbor. Through this, and other support from philanthropist, he was able to raise funds to enter secondary school. But even with this, things were still very tough which he said, forced him to start teaching so he could raise money to complete his secondary education.

Senesie typically loathes begging for arms, despite being a disable and considers it dishonorable. He believes in working for what he gets and is doing everything he can, to prevent a situation where he could reduce himself into becoming a beggar.

"I feel bad when my colleagues use their condition to beg. Sometimes I imagined, if you start begging now at a young, what happens to you when you get old, a time you will not be able to beg?" he asked. He said: "This thinking inspires me to push harder. I don't want to beg!"

Clifford K Conteh, a US based Sierra Leonean has Known Charles Senesie for over three decades. He said Charles is not just the kind of person that let himself down because of his disability, describing him as a striker and a steadfast man. Coming from the US, Conteh said "I'm impressed with how much Ngombu has pushed his life."

With all the odds he is being through, Charles NU Senesie succeeded in hitting his goal of becoming an educated man. He now owns a Higher Teacher Certificate, Bachelors of Art Degree and an MA degree. He told this writer that he is now the most educated person from his village.

"Initially they said I have no place in society. Now I can say, I am the first from my village to enter university," he said.

Charles sounds outspoken and eloquent in English Language, a subject he teaches in schools along with History, Government, Literature, Social Studies and Religious Moral Education. He has been in the teaching for decades, a profession through which he raised funds not only to support his secondary school education, but also to pursue tertiary education.

But, that's not all for him.

Charles Senesie further has an intense desire for the capacity to fight discrimination and injustice against persons with disability. He is optimistic that becoming a Human Rights Lawyer will capacitate him to stage the fight.

According to him, persons with polio disability and the visually impaired are really suffering because they lack inadequate representation and laws to protect them when they are being disadvantaged; thus, his desire to become a lawyer.

Senesie is currently enrolled at the Law Department of Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone pursuing legal studies. He is reading Law to become a Humanitarian Lawyer, fight for persons with disabilities and serve as an inspiration to them.

"I want to become a role model. I want to change the narratives. I want to tell my colleagues and the whole world that disability is not just about begging for arms, NO. There is ability in this disability," he told Concord Times.

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