Friday, 17 June 2016

The Hand that Reaches for the World

Last week we visited a special school, Yumba, the only public school for children with mental disabilities such as Autism and Downs' Syndrome, in the Northern Region of Ghana.

We weren't sure what to expect when we walked toward that building with its bright blue painted exterior. It appeared much like any other school we have visited in Ghana.

Lack of funding means the parents of students have to pay for
the bus which takes students to and from Yumba school.
Some who can't pay have had to consider
taking their children out of the school.
Yumba receives funding from the government. They are very grateful and feel that the government is doing all they can. This, however, is not enough and often the school needs to rely on donors or fundraising from the parents of the students, who go out in Tamale to try to raise the desperately needed money for the school.

Sitting in a sweaty office and speaking with the headmistress about the school, I couldn't help notice the vast chasm of difference in development between Ghana and the UK. When we walked in the power was out – a common thing in Ghana. That means no ceiling fans (air-conditioning in the region is rare indeed), that means no light, that means no sockets to charge phones, that means no access to electricity of any sort and all the amenities that come with it – try to imagine a school that regularly experiences that in the UK.

Having lived here for more than two months, it is easy to miss the poverty which exists around us. A person becomes used to it and sees it as normal. However at this school I suddenly noticed the region's poverty again. It wasn't just the power that was out. We had the opportunity to listen to a conversation between the headmistress and a man from the water company. The headmistress asked the man: “We haven't had water for a while now. We are lucky we have that.” She points outside at a solitary water tank. “We need water in this place, as you can see. What will you do? Will your people sort it out for us?” The man from the water company rather unconvincingly said that he will report the matter.

But the sad sight of this poverty was really underlined when we met the children. When we walked into each class the children looked at us with varying emotions – some were happy, some were excited, some were confused, some unimpressed and others even seemed a little scared. These are people for whom the world is experienced and understood in a different way. All processes, systems and social norms in this culture are made for the mind of the majority, but these children are a minority and those systems are baffling and confusing to them – thus they are somewhat stuck, living in a world made for other people.

In the vocational class we visited some of the stronger students. They were aged between 9 and 22 and were learning the alphabet. Many of these kids were very excited to see us. They knew no social boundaries – they would run up to us and hug us, they would hold our hands and not let go. They would stroke us and would be desperate to stay with us. The UK volunteers among us, being so obviously foreign and white even to the non-disabled Ghanaian, were well and truly aliens to these children. The hair on our head, our arms and legs were the object of utter and continual fascination. What must the world be like for the mentally disabled? When the simplest things around them are like master games designed to catch them out at any moment, and for whom the world at large is so ungraspably foreign.
Yumba School's Vision Statement: " Seek to make sure that the
marginalised, the less privilege [sic] and the disabled are given
the opportunity to better themselves, the community and the
nation through education"

In Ghana mental disabilities are stigmatised more than physical disabilities. It is an invisible disability which appears to have less of a cause. Most of the kids we met on the day were born with their disability. In a part of the world where poverty forces a person to hold up their own and integrate into society and culture fully, to be mentally disabled – to see the world on another plane to the average person – is to be aside from the world, to appear useless. This is why we hear of so many stories of parents who, realising their child has an intellectual disability, endeavour to 'cure' their child. There are elusive camps, elusive pastors and holy people who believe that they can use their religious power to remove the disability – much to the parents' folly and the lining of those people's pockets.

We are working in one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest parts of the world. To have mental disability here is like being stranded on an empty desert island, completely reliant on the kindness of starving birds to drop you food and water.

Once again the government is doing all it can, the school handles things as best they can, the parents to their unparalleled credit work hard to keep the place running. Everyone involved works to keep this place afloat, and it is afloat – a solitary raft in the middle of an ocean – a weak raft, but a raft indeed.

The type of person who will involve themselves with ICS and International Service is no doubt a dreamer and an idealist among other things. It is then in our dreams to imagine a Ghana providing the best support for persons with disabilities – a hundred more Yumbas. Yumbas with the right amount of funding, with support for all its students – those children confined to living in a world outside our world.

Long after I leave Ghana, I will remember those students. I will remember the way they reached for our hands to hold - a hand to walk with them and see what they see.

The hand reaches for the world and the world must, in turn, do its best to reach for the hand.

Martin Farrugia (UKV)

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