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Disabilities in Senegal

Noted on January 9, 2012 by Eric Skaar in

Written by Aloura DiGiallanardo: University of Oregon student and IE3 Scholarship Recipient interning with Group for Population Studies and Education (GEEP) in Senegal.

I have been here now for 5 1/2 months. It has been an amazing experience. One of my first posts was about the stark difference I noticed between the rich and the poor in Senegal. Going back and reading that post, I honestly did not do a good job painting the picture of poverty in Senegal. So, let’s just say this, just seeing the lives of the poor here has changed my perspective on a lot of things in life and the western world leads it.

Rachel, struck by the same feeling of guilt and disbelief of just how poor poor was here, confided in her family back home, as I did with mine. Their reactions were similar; well just because they are poor doesn’t mean they aren’t happy and there are people in poverty here in America too, don’t forget that. This was the first moment I realized how valuable my time in Senegal would be. Our families back home couldn’t see what we saw, couldn’t comprehend what poor really meant. There are no homeless shelters, food banks, unemployment benefits, food stamps, reduced housing grants… any resources like America has, and often takes for granted or advantage of. There are people literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs here. If you are dealt a bad hand in life, there isn’t a societal support net to catch you as you fall. None of this I could really understand until I was here, seeing it, living amongst it, being confronted by it.

After a few weeks of the shock of poverty began to feel normal, I could ignore it. My heart wouldn’t break every time I saw a dirty 5 year old in the street asking for change and sugar cubes. I wouldn’t feel guilty bargaining for a taxi on the same street as a mother with her 3 children was trying to find their next meal. These things stayed sad, but I also accepted it as part of life here. It wasn’t until that point that I began noticing all of the disabled people.

People with disabilities struggle no matter where they are. In America, they are still fighting for rights and treated like lepers. In Senegal, the situation from a Westerner’s eyes is tragic.There is no city in Senegal, including Dakar, that is capable of accommodating people with disabilities. People with deformed legs, crawling down the street, flip-flops on their hands. Blind old men being led around by younger relatives, car to car, asking for change. Gangs of women, men and children in wheel chairs, looking hopeless. These are everyday pictures of my bus ride to work.

Rachel and I often talked about all of the disabled people we see. It seemed like there were so many. Far more than we had ever seen in America. Then, we questioned if there were simply more people with disabilities here, or if we are just better at hiding and/or integrating them in the US? Finally, I spoke with a friend who is a medical student about it. She said very matter of factually that most of the people with deformed legs or crutches, or in wheel chairs had polio.

Polio. It blew my mind. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew that polio was a problem in Africa. The nurse back home told me I was very lucky that my mom kept me up to date on my shots because I didn’t need a polio vaccine. I had to have made the connection that meant polio was a problem here somewhere in my head but I never really actively considered it before. Polio. A dead disease where I come from, cripples thousands here and leaves them on the streets, to the mercy of others for basic necessities.

A week or so later, I had another friend who had just gotten back from staying at a rural village for a week. He described helping Peace Corps volunteers give village children Polio vaccines. He is just a college undergrad from Boston with no medical training, yet, the need is so great, it didn’t matter. Polio was ‘officially eradicated’ in Senegal in 2003, yet, it was found due to poor injection techniques and other administrative problem, people are still suffering from the disease. The official report is with oral vaccines the situation is now under control. I’m not sure if that means there aren’t any more new cases of polio in Senegal, for all i know that is true. But, it is clear by looking on the streets, the polio situation is far from under control.

Then I went online to investigate further. Many people with lost limbs also are mine victims. A few years ago, when the Casamace conflict was at its highest there were a lot of people who suffered from mine injuries. I thought back to my trip to the Casamace and how disappointed I was that I couldn’t go to a famous animal reserve because there were still active landmines throughout the park and felt ashamed of my Toubaab self. While I was in the Casamance I knew there was still rebels and active land mines, but I never felt like I was in a war zone. I often joked about it with my fellow travel mates, not thinking about the consequences the conflict actually had on the people in the region. It was far more serious, and many more people who I had realized before were injured by the violence in the region.

If you’re a woman with a disability? That is called being doubly handicapped. Handicapped women are often kept from school, struggle to find a marriage partner, are at great risk when it comes to giving child-birth, and aren’t assisted in raising their children. Ultimately, they are condemned to beg. However, for some reason, it is more shameful for a woman to beg. They are constantly insulted, ridiculed and shamed, unlike their male begging counter parts.

So Polio, Land mines, being a handicapped woman, probably a poor diet, prenatal and health conditions lead to thousands of disabled people on the street, with nowhere to turn except their families and those who give to them on the street. I, being white, am asked by all of them to spare cent franc, cent franc. 100 cfa amounts to about $.20 but I simply can’t give to them all. There is a man next to a store I often go, it appears his legs stopped growing when he was 5 or 6. We banter in a friendly manner, sometimes I give him a little money, sometimes food but then I have to ignore everyone else who swarms me asking for the same. It is a difficult situation for any healthy person in Senegal.

Something else I’ve discussed with various people is mentally disabled people. I just don’t see them. Since I have been in Senegal I have encountered 4 people who I suspect were mentally disabled. One clearly had down syndrome an other a mental disorder but not something I could identify. One could have just been drunk and was harassing me for funny/to scare me or was seriously mentally disturbed. The third, is Rachel’s host brother, who is an epileptic. Hardly a mental disability in my opinion, but without treatment, can be a serious problem. Untreated epilepsy is often the case here and therefore is classified as a mental disability. He come from a wealthy family and has access to medication, he operates as a normal kid. He is incredibly fortunate. Yet, by and large that is not very many mentally handicapped people considering i’m in the capital city.

After reading a bit on mental disorders, my suspicions were confirmed. I found there is a great stigma around having disabled children. Many believe it is God punishing an unfaithful wife, and results in the mother having to raise he child alone, cut off from her family. Many hide their children, out of shame, never letting them leave the house. There are cases of infanticide of handicapped children, to protect family honor. The stories went on and on.

I learned that there are a total of 4 schools for disabled children, only one is outside of Dakar. All are filled to capacity by wealthier families. Most families that do have disabled children couldn’t afford the cost of these schools. The resources are overwhelmingly limited.

From what I can tell there isn’t a government program for the handicapped. There are many NGOs, USAID, etc who have various programs to help and empower the disabled of Senegal. Yet, from my experience, NGOs are inefficient and constantly are limited by funding issues. Then, USAID has a million conditions attached to everything they do, and again are limited in their capacities. The need is too great for them to effectively combat. Even if the resources were there, these individuals likely would not have the capacity to reach them or even access to information about them.

This is a sad post, I know. There are always communities that seem to be forgotten by society. Women, children, minority groups, the disabled… The situation for the disabled in Senegal is grave. Sadly, I do not have a positive solution to pose at the end of this post. Poverty is so wide-spread here, resources are poorly managed, and there are so many issues that focusing on disability issues is not a reality for the country. Everything is interlinked. Lack of education leads to the stigma towards metal disability which results in cutting off that family from support and that results in more poverty.

I rarely will think that outside intervention is a positive thing for developing countries. Often, as is the case with Senegal and their history with structural adjustment programs, outside development organizations make matters worse, rather than improve them. However, a large spread education campaign needs to be put in place and so is the establishment of an effective body to aid and provide resources for the disabled and their families should be established. Perhaps an outside actor could assist with this, because on its own, I don’t see Senegal taking action. That happening is a shot in the dark, but it never hurts to hope.

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