This is not a piece about disability in Sierra Leone. But somehow, it touches on that broad, vexed and somewhat taboo issue further tabooed by societal discrimination. Nor is it about amputees in the broad sense. A stop there is however ineluctable.
The date was Sunday 6 April 2008. The venue was the ATS stadium in Monrovia, Liberia. Some one dozen men clad in a tricolour green, white and blue jersey and trunk, carried light bags on their back. All but two of them were one-legged and so were accompanied by crutches. The two who had two legs had only one arm. As they negotiated the steps to the pavilion and later the dressing room, only two things they had on their mind.
Sierra Leone’s amputee football team had gone to Liberia to represent their country at the second African Cup of Nations for one-legged people. They wanted to make their country proud, but they also wanted to prove that their disability did not mean their inability. “We want to make Sierra Leone proud because the able-bodied footballers have not been able to do,” one told me. He said some other things and then tears icicled down his cheek. And down mine too.
On this day, which was the final of the competition, the Sierra Leone team was facing their Liberian counterparts who had beaten them the previous week 2 0. But the reason for that defeat was not because the guys from Freetown were not good footballers. They had just arrived in Monrovia BY ROAD on the day before. And if you have travelled to Monrovia by road, like I have, (and will tell you more about that tomorrow) you will know what that means even for an able-bodied football team, never mind a disabled one. How come the team was not flown to the competition? They managed a comeback and defeated Angola and Nigeria to make it to the final.
But back to that final; and without a modicum of sentiment, even though the Sierra Leonean team lost by a lone goal scored in the second minute, they played well, better even than the winners. Many things weighed them down.
The first time the Liberians defeated Sierra Leone, it was in the presence of their president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and she gave everything from assurance to insurance to the team to inspire them.
But when I visited the Sierra Leone team at their Kailondo hotel on the eve of the final, I was shocked to learn that not a single government or sports official had accompanied them to the competition. In fact, not a single Leone was given to them, from preparation to tourney, by the Government. The local mobile phone company Africell had bankrolled them, I was told. This, despite minister of sports Minkailu Bah pouring cold water, in the hottest of terms, on Africell’s support for football in the country just the week before.
But why is government apparently negligent towards the team? Is it because they are disabled? I think, if anything, the circumstance leading to their physical state (the war and its butchery) should drum up more interest for these guys. The Cameroonian UNDP employee, Peter Ngu-Tayong and a journalist were the only non-team members with the team.
Just as I was mulling over the plight of the amputee team, then came this hair-raising story on my TV screen over the weekend. Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was the subject of a documentary I saw on MNET Series on Sunday. The film, Emmanuel’s Gift, is about a child born with a bad leg, which made his father abandon him and his mother. He strode very hard in life and fortune smiled on him and he ended up in the US where he later became a goodwill ambassador owing to the facilities he was exposed to there. He won the Casey Martin Award, met with his compatriot the then UN chief Kofi Annan and later led his colleague disabled to meet a Ghanaian King, for the first time in over a generation.
Emmanuel is championing the promulgation of a Disability Bill in his country. Probably if we had it here, the apparent discrimination against our amputee team would not happen.
And after the final, the team were tired and looked dispirited. They had to travel back to Freetown the same way they had travelled to the opposite direction BY ROAD. They must have been sulking, not least because of the absence of an official to talk them up. And those officials who bothered to see them off at all have all forgotten about them AGAIN.
It is that tendency to forget about the fight against malaria until when 25 April approaches that is most disgusting. Now the amputee team have qualified for the world cup by virtue of having made it to the final of the Africa contest. The question is: will the attitude of government and sports officials change before then? If it does not, our amputee brothers will feel more hard done by. This will be like chopping off what remains of their arms and limbs.
The issue of disability should be treated more seriously. It is disgraceful to see wheel-chaired men and women begging on the streets to feed. Some may be inclined to say that able-bodied men too beg to feed after all. But that is the difference; that able-bodied men and women can afford to do so. We owe it to them to be educated. We owe it to them to help look after them. And we owe it to them to let them feel part of us. They can grow up to become better citizens than some of us the so-called able ones who have wreaked havoc on our country. One of the best leaders the US has had, Franklyn Roosevelt, was physically challenged. But because his country gave him his entitlement, he gave back to the country good citizenship and good leadership.
The issue of the amputee is shrouded in mystery and misery. Even a proper census to determine their true numerical strength is shoddy and shady. During the war government, apparently deliberately, inflated the figures to garner international sympathy. Once that sympathy came, the amputees hardly ever benefited from it. Apart from the peace. While those claiming to be working in their interest got richer over night, the amputees became poorer in broad day light. But they let life go on by going to the beach for recreation, and football was what they chose. It is basic and does not require plenty of money to get a football. They never knew that that would give rise to the birth of another football competition. But it did. But now we are letting them down AGAIN.
The Amputee Leone Stars must be enabled to sparkle by the appropriate authorities taking appropriate action. Otherwise we leave them psychologically limbless and armless. By Umaru Fofana