Graduating with a PhD vindicated my belief that disability is not inability
You just graduated with a PhD in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. How do you feel?
I am elated and very proud of myself. This has always been a dream for me and today I feel vindicated in my belief that impairment in one’s ear, eye, leg or hand does not disable everything positive in them.
What challenges have you had to contend with in your journey to become a professor?
There is the stigma and discrimination faced by people with disability, and I am not an exception. But the biggest challenge for me was to overcome self-pity and dejection due to my physical condition.
Tell us more about your disability.
I got infected with polio when I was just three years old. My parents say that they had taken me for vaccination at Mulago Hospital in Kampala where I was born. Soon after the injection, I became paralysed on both my right hand and leg. Nobody knows if it was the vaccine that got me sick or if it was negligence on the part of the doctors.
What challenges did you face growing up with a disability?
First of all, my parents could not afford to buy me crutches because finances were tight. My father was a cane-cutter and my mother was a housewife, so the little income father made was to feed the family. As a result, I had to crawl to school which was eight kilometres away from home.
I sometimes used a pole for support although it really affected my back. I was always late to school because I would get there almost three hours later, thus missing out on morning classes. I was also discriminated and stigmatized by my peers who used to make fun of my condition.
Do you recall the most challenging moment of your childhood?
Yes, using the washrooms at Matawa Primary School was pathetic. I would crawling into the toilet because there was no one to assist me.
Did you have a support system?
Yes, my mother was very supportive and she would often carry me to school. There were also some teachers who would carry me back home and this made my burden easier.
How did you overcome all these challenges?
My life changed for the better when I met my area Member of Parliament Willis Wameo, who is also living with disability. Wameo offered to pay all my secondary school fees on condition that I had to top my class. I met his condition and when I joined Mumias Muslim Secondary School in 1984, he paid my entire school fees from form one to form six. Aside from that, he motivated me to become a better person by getting rid of self-pity which was engulfing me. This is when I decided in my heart that I would beat the odds and fulfill my dreams.
Did things improve after this inspiration?
Yes, I became more confident with myself and even went on to join the University of Nairobi to study a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Philosophy. My experience in university was fun because I had the chance to enjoy the big city, having come from a remote village. Back then we also had ‘boom’ money which I would spend to make myself comfortable while studying, so my campus experience was much better than primary school.
You were a vocal crusader for the rights of people with disability in the 90s. What has been the progress?
I can say that so far, so good. I was part of the committee that worked on the Disability Act of Kenya in 2003 and I am still championing for representation of people with disability at the national level.
Have there been any notable changes for people with disabilities from the 90s to date?
In my experience I will say yes, especially in the education sector. For instance when I joined university in 1990, it was stressful accessing the lecture halls because some lectures were located on the top floors of the building yet there were no ramps for me to use.
I rarely made it to class in time. In fact, one of my saddest experiences was climbing to the fifth floor of Gandhi Wing for a lecture. It felt as though I was being punished because I am disabled and it was so humiliating. However most campuses nowadays are accessible because they have ramps for wheelchair users.
How did you make it to become the county Chief Officer in the Ministry of Social Services?
I was appointed to the docket by Governor Wycliffe Oparanya because of my extensive work representing people with disability and championing for their rights. We are currently compiling the ‘Kakamega County Persons with Disability Bill’ that highlights the need to create awareness among members of the group and also to impact them with skills for self-dependence.