Friday, December 31, 2010

Kenyan activist works to change hateful attitudes toward disabled people there

From The Standard in Kenya:

Mantelina Nasieku, 14, knows too well what she wants in life- to be a lawyer. It is a miracle that she is alive to declare her dream.

Being mauled by hyenas, strangulation, suffocation, being snuffed to death by tobacco concoction or being poisoned by desert rose juice are some of the things that might befallen her at birth after she was born partially blind.

But suffering doesn’t end with children with disabilities. Women too have to pay the price of bringing forth such children. The men issue orders; the women do the execution. Objections to such decrees are met with frown, ex-communication, or battery.

Luckily for Mantelina and 500 others, they are alive due to a rescue operation.

Mantelina’s zeal is an embodiment of triumph over cultural oppression.

"She has a big appetite for knowledge," says Grace Seneiya, a woman who defied culture to offer a new lease of life and dignity to the condemned babies. From a ‘rogue woman’ to a celebrated figure in the community, today Seneiya, 37, befuddles even her sharpest critics.

"In Samburu, disability is frowned at. The disabled are viewed as a curse, a burden, a bad omen," explains Seneiya as we take a tour of Samburu Handicap Education and Rehabilitation Programme (Sherp). "With this amount of loathing, such babies are condemned to death," adds as her voice falters.

Here, the disabled are called ngoki, meaning curse, useless or demonic. That is why, Seneiya explains, there are not so many disabled adults in the area nor will you even see albinos. They are killed soon after birth in one of the most horrific cultural acts.

Indeed, treading through the thorns and thistles of this near-barren world, the scrubland shrinks as if in shame of the infamy of the atrocities it has silently witnessed and concealed. There is an eerie feel of death here.

So you think that this is a practice of a bygone era? You are wrong. "Just recently, we have had cases of abandoned disabled babies," Seneyia says after a long silence.

Death designs are as varied as they are many. Babies are tethered on spiky scrubs, abandoned in the bush or left in the goat pens. It is mothers who perform the killing. Men issue orders.

Women who defy such orders are excommunicated from their matrimonial homes. Some commit suicide because of frustrations, Seneiya reveals.

Locals seem to have been sworn into silence and interestingly even though the administration or law enforcement is aware of the practice, no one seems to want put in force the rule of law.

"There was a time some leaders wanted us to be ejected from this ground arguing that disability does not add anything to the growth of the community. No one is taking action against these dehumanising culture," Seneiya mourns.

The turning point came in 2003 when Seneiya’s and five other women in Samburu were engaged in a workshop in Nanyuki by organised by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation.

"We went to Nanyuki and there was a lady called Sabdiyo Dido from SNV who opened our eyes. She empowered us to think critically and to be strategic in resource mobilisation for our cause. It is after that training that I came out like a possessed person. I knew I wanted to help the disabled. That is how I soldiered on," she recalls.

Thankfully, this rescue effort required a brief women empowerment effort to kick-start these changes. In Nanyuki SNV wanted to find solutions on the myriad problems affecting women and children in Samburu, and instantly, Seneiya, herself a special education teacher, knew where to place her cards. It has paid off.

"All these children you see here would either be long dead or living miserably," points out Seneiya.

For instance, Mantelina was born partially blind and was left for the dead in the scrubland. She was rescued and underwent surgery and now she can see.

Maralal is a dusty township with wooden structures fashioned from cedar. Men draped in red shukas sit on one side of the street snuffing tobacco and engaging in small talk. Across the street, women, sitting on the dusty grounds supply the tobacco. The irony is that the much cherished drug is the killer dose here for the disabled.

One old man, Daudi Olekentai, doesn’t think there is anything wrong with killing the disabled. "We the Samburu are always on the move. How do you expect us to carry a disabled adult," he poses, snuffs his tobacco, sneezes and requests if we can buy him more tobacco.

To Seneiya, this is a classic impunity but she is not deterred. She hopes a time will come when the disabled will be accepted in the social circles of the community.

"We’re now moving from rescuing to awareness. At least today, they’d rather dump the baby here than kill it. We want them to appreciate the children and show that they can be productive," Seneiya says.

However, such a bold act was and still is considered a perilous enterprise that fires high emotions, fear and hatred with equal measure.

Indeed, Seneya endured an avalanche of hatred from friends and relatives alike. She was accused of surrounding herself with curses and as such, they swore, she would never get married.

"The nomadic Samburu lifestyle is intolerant to the weak and disabled. As they move for pasture and water, a disabled is considered an extra baggage. During raids, the disabled are usually left behind. A year ago, in one village there was a raid. Everyone fled except two disabled people who were killed," she recalls.

Girls are supposed to bloom to astounding beauties that could attract premium bride price. Disabled girls never attract suitors. The very textile of this society is cut on bravado and bride wealth. Anything that threatens these key rudiments is frowned at and has to be destroyed. Disability, real or perceived, is such a threat.

"For long I used to mount my motorbike and tour the manyattas to inquire about disabled children. At times I would stumble on one abandoned here and another there. Most of the time you find them tethered on a shrub, feeble and shrunk."

"People used to look at me awestruck. They were convinced I was nuts," she says.