By Georgina Mumba
Many a day, when I was younger, seated by my bedroom window as I watched the world go by I used to dream of fun and wonderful adventures that existed beyond my home. I had similar thoughts as I watched my friends rush out of class every time the break bell rang. As I sat and ate my snack at my desk I imagined there must be something truly exciting out there to religiously inspire such a pandemonium every single day.
In those solitary moments I dreamt of uninhibited adventures and mischief of youth as mine was a childhood and adolescence filled with nothing but an imagined world. Imagined wild adventures, crazy risks etc. After all there are only so many adventures one can have at a classroom desk and the backyard one’s home. For the most part, it was a mind numbing part of my life.
So when two years ago I was finally blessed with a powered wheelchair and for the first time in my life I could actually leave my bedroom window and reach out for my imagined adventures, I could not help but cry. On one hand I cried because it was so surreal. I was flooded with emotions of pure joy and excitement not to mention a new thirst for adventure probably, unconsciously, to make up for all my many years of forced solitude. On the other, I wept for my lost time and opportunities. For everything I missed out on while sat by that window day in, day out.
But alas, today I still find myself sitting by my window and even more heartbroken. During my younger years of daydreaming I imagined what it would be like to have the means to venture into the world past my usual confines. To be the physically uninhibited girl I have always imagined in my mind. Back then I imagined the wall between my world and the world that everyone resolutely sought as I remained all alone, was my immobility. I truly believed that if and if only I had a way of putting myself out there then I would be part of the dream world.
But boy was I wrong. The dream world in my mind had long forgotten about me and my kind. It had long resolved I did not exist. It has since relegated my existence to that of an alien in my motherland. An alien that does not deserve the means to leave that bedroom window have any contact outside their immediate confines. An alien that does not belong on the road, buses, trains or taxis.
The reality of inaccessible transport systems in Zambia today, as in most developing countries, is a very absolute manifestation of exclusion of persons with physical disabilities. A very effective means of crowding persons with physical disabilities out the public space. This is not only exclusion from the central business areas but it is unfortunately exclusion from their immediate environs too-their neighbourhoods. Exclusion that denies persons with physical disabilities basic and simple opportunities of socialization. Exclusion and isolation that puts the mental health of persons with physical disabilities and their families to the ultimate test and also has significant implications for perpetuation of the vicious cycle of poverty within the disabled community.
Since I discovered my new found physical independence with my powered wheelchair (limited as that independence could be) I am immensely excited that at least I can independently attend my weekly Sunday church services. It is a small but very life changing opportunity. Not only do I have an opportunity to connect with people and learn of community engagements and projects I can be part of, but it also a very empowering ritual. But this simple weekly social engagement within my neighbourhood is hardly likely to last long.
From my house, the church is just about a kilometer. A kilometer that neither guarantees my personal safety nor that of my wheelchair. Naturally, most footpaths are not paved and those that are, are hardly accessible a reality that is assaulting my wheelchair with such brute force and ultimately accelerating the rate of tear and wear of the wheelchair at a very disturbing pace. I have two simple choices, either stay home and prolong my wheelchair’s life or go out and socialise but risk losing that very basic independence and opportunity of socializing in a couple of months. Let us not forget wheelchairs and most importantly powered wheelchairs are quite expensive aids.
Furthermore, where the footpaths are out rightly impassable I have no choice but share the main road with motorists. The oddity of my being on the road is obvious from the blunt stares I get from most motorists and pedestrians. I am really not sure what shocks people the most, whether it is the safety risk of my being on the main road or the very fact that in my state I dare to venture out there all alone or actually both. Either way, it is hard not to feel like a clown at display for everyone to stare at without any regard for the discomfort it causes me. It is hard not to feel a rushing urge to rush back home and hide away from being made to feel like an alien.
In a nutshell, the lack of accessible transport systems such as accessible roads, buses, taxis or trains has a very significant negative impact on the participation of persons with physical disabilities in social, economic and political activities in Zambia today. But beyond that, at the very least persons with physical disabilities can hardly even go past their backyards because doing so does not only pose a risk to their personal safety but it equally threatens the wellbeing of the very basic means of protection of their dignity, mobility and sometimes the only means of managing their impairments, their mobility aids.
And the fact that these challenges still abound in our midst to-date goes to show our level of engagement with the intricacies of disability in our communities today. These disabling environments are the silent, slow but cruel killers of our beloved brothers and sisters confined to their homes due to physical impairments. There is only so much one’s mind can take but a lifetime of isolation due to conscious exclusion is not one of them.
May our ideal Zambia, Africa and world be an inclusive one.
By Georgina Mumba (Zambia 2015)