Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sleepless in Zabzugu

Hiya readers, James from the Disability Resource Centre. There is now only three weeks left of work and we are at the stage where we are reflecting on what we’ve accomplished, thinking about the future of resource centre and realising the effects of our work.
The week started with apprehension – it was my first taste of education and teaching and as part of our contribution to the disabled community of Tamale we taught ICT to deaf students of the disability rehab centre two blocks away.

I was a late replacement for another international volunteer, so I was thrown into the mix without a lesson plan, only my inherent Western computer literacy. I got apprehensive – How would I communicate through two barriers of Dagbani and deafness? What methods would I use to teach? What topics would I cover? Would I be able to remember and break down simple concepts that I wouldn’t even think about?

Two hours later and the time had flown. We overcame hurdles of complex language and concepts, communication barriers and our students went from not even fully recognising the alphabet, to typing an e-mail.  There’s a satisfaction from seeing students learn so fast and be so grateful for your time.
But it is hard to think that that was merely the start of the week. We would be spending the next two days in Zabzugu, an eastern village on the Ghana-Togo border 3 hours away from Tamale, where the ABM Foundation, a school for children with mental disabilities, was recently founded.

The previous ICS cohort had made the initial contact and carried out some interviews with the staff. It was our job to finish off a short video on the ABM Foundation made to help them raise funds to keep it afloat and cope with the ever rising student applications. We also aimed to use the trip to deliver the sensitisation programme that we’ve been developing for the past weeks, but more on that later.
We hit the road at 8 AM with the founder ABM (Alhaji Baba Munkaila) meeting and driving us personally. He spent the last 30 years building a business in Australia and the foundation is a way of doing his part, giving back to his roots at Zabzugu.
We got given a first look at his foundation, a school of 35 students and 8 paid full-time staff. It is the only lifeline and chance for the children, who are pulled off the street or bought out of their houses, away from a life of begging, isolation and sometimes crime.
Many of the students only suffer from epilepsy but were shunned for their occasional fits and have only started to receive the medication for it 4 months ago when the school opened. Many of their parents are unable or unwilling to support their education and sometimes even provide for their food and have thrown them out on the street.

The ABM Foundation provides all the medication as well as breakfast and lunch every day, haircuts, school supplies and uniform, all which come from ABM’s personal sources. The students learn Maths and English as well as practical vocational skills for future employment and most importantly, the school fosters a caring environment which encourages and provides some of the only emotional support for its many vulnerable students.

ABM extended his hospitality, showing us where we’d be staying, showing us around the village market, serving us lunch. We had then intended to show our a documentary in the town square in the evening– but development work as with any other is at the mercy of greater powers. The heavens opened, the rain fell in droves and all our evening activities in the village ground to a halt.

Nonetheless we still had work to do. During our morning visit to the school, we had taken more shots and so had the task of integrating our new film into our short video. Overcoming electrical and technical problems, our editing and reviewing session ran long into the night – till half past midnight! However, it wasn’t all work and no play, we had a lot of fun trawling through possible music tracks for the film and spent most of the night laughing in light-hearted comradery.
We left the film to render in the early hours of the morning and were to show it the same day to ABM, his staff and the village chiefs. Once again though, there proved to be unexpected twists and turns.
Firstly, electricity cut out just as we started the render. The job is power intensive, so as our laptop switched to low battery mode, only 10% progress was made in our 8 hours of sleep – it was now around 9 AM, we had to show it in 2 hours.
Whilst having breakfast, power luckily came back on and the rest of the job finished in good time…
...But as the time neared to show our efforts, more troubles. To power our projector and speakers, we had to draw electricity from a building hundreds of metres away. Ten frayed and patched together cables were strung through fields of corn. By the time they reached us, there was no current to be had, and as we traced it back to the source we realised the problem could be anywhere.

Time was against us, electricians were called to no avail, a generator was brought in but proved too fluctuating to keep our devices up, our delay was making people restless and it was on all of our minds.
In the end, instead of displaying our videos through the projector and speakers, we decided on a quick improvisation, just going round group to group with the small laptop screens, with national volunteers on hand to translate any English into the local Dagbani language.
It proved a success – the video included most of the staff, students and donors of the foundation. And we also showed some Paralympics clips. The novelty of the Paralympics and seeing themselves in video, made everyone forget about the frustrations just before. In addition, the personal touch of walking the chiefs through the videos in Dagbani made them extremely appreciative.

Despite the twists and turns we’d made it through. As we made the long trip back to Tamale, there were picturesque skies over the horizon and we all felt touched by the memories of the wonderful school and content with our efforts there.

It’s got me thinking – how much real change we’ve had, the many varied experiences we’ve been privileged to have seen. I initially entered the trip with a certain imbued cynicism, advised that we might not be the white saviours and that it may be hard to measure our impact.
And although we might not be able to measure the reduction of stigma in the North, or be able to quantify how much we empower the disabled, I have experienced first-hand that everywhere we have been, we have touched people’s lives. It can be as small as making those present see persons with disabilities in a new light, or as huge as moving the students at one school to run straight into their village and persuade a young disabled girl left in her house to come to school with them the next day (which she has now started attending).

Every step we take is a step in the right direction because we have changed and are changing perceptions. Although it might be slow, although stigma is far from being a thing of the past, I am proud that for all the work we put in, we are seeing real change come out.

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