In the Democratic Republic of Congo, life for the disabled or physically impaired is wrought with difficulties. With no state support and few employment prospects, individuals with disabilities face numerous challenges.
Cédric Kalonji, Congolese journalist and manager of Congoblog “Ba Leki”, frequently reports on the situation of the disabled and disadvantaged in his country in an effort to not only highlight the difficulties they face, but also to highlight the tenacity and entrepreneurship of such individuals in the face of hardship.
Writing about the situation of Mariam Mapoyi, Congoblog reports this disabled woman from Lubanga as stating:
“Je fais tout ce que je peux pour assurer le minimum pour mes enfants mais ce n’est pas évident … Je me lève tous les matins vers 6 heures et je prends la pirogue pour traverser de ce côté (rive droite du fleuve) pour mendier auprès de commerçants, hommes d’affaires ou autres autorités politiques. Mes enfants m’accompagnent parce qu’ils doivent pousser mon vélo et manger avec moi ce qu’on me donne”
Congoblog goes on to add to her testimony:
Ce que cette dame ne dit pas, c’est qu’aucun de ses trois enfants ne va à l’école. Ils ne savent ni lire ni écrire. Elle a bien conscience du fait qu’un avenir sombre les attend mais elle sait aussi qu’elle n’a aucune marge de manœuvre dans ce pays où les parents doivent payer les études de leurs enfants, l’état ayant démissionné de cette charge depuis des décennies. Et pourtant, les textes de la Constitution de notre chère république stipulent que l’école primaire est gratuite et obligatoire.
However, Mariam, and many like her, are not ready to give up hope, and are taking active steps towards escaping the cycle of begging to become independent. Mariam has enrolled in a training centre in Kisangani where she is learning how to sew. During her training she will have to continue to beg, but she hopes that once she has finished lessons she will be able to get hold of a sewing machine, in order to become self-sufficient and even earn enough to send her children to school.
In a country where employment opportunities are at best limited, -and where, the law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services, further narrowing the possibilities for people like Mariam,- learning sewing and other forms of craftsmanship are a means for disabled Congolese to earn an independent living without having to rely on the charity of others.
Earlier this year ITNewsAfrica detailed the success of a group of disabled women who have created a sustainable arts and crafts business, which they have named Shona Crafts.
Shona crafts was established in Goma with the aid of American Dawn Hurley, and has since become a stable and successful source of revenue for the women involved.
These women create and sell a range of handmade clothes, bags and other items through their website. Their products, of which 100% of the profit goes directly to the women, have been an immediate success in the USA, where they have sold over 100 products on ebay alone. Their success is a remarkable example of how the internet can be harnessed to reach out to different continents and have immediate, positive effects for all involved.
In recent years, more efforts have gradually been put into training and education centres similar to Shona crafts. In August 2008, the first training centre for deaf-mutes, called Espoir des sourds (Deaf Hope) was established in Kisangani. This centre provides sewing and carpentry workshops for deaf-mutes living in Kisangani, and in addition to this incorporates a computer training program into their studies.
Institutions such as this equip individuals with skills that allow them to provide for themselves and integrate into society. Indeed, instead of being seen as a burden, which, according to Ernst Mukuli, reporting at Syfia-Grands-Lacs, is so often the case,
le regard de la société change depuis qu'ils apprennent un métier.
The students at Espoir des sourds have been reported to have been making the most of what the internet has to offer by connecting with other deaf-mutes and deaf-mute organisations and support groups throughout the world via the local cybercafes in Kisangani.
In March 2009 Handicap International UK was granted nearly £500,000 for an inclusive education project in the DRC. This money will go towards a 3-year project which aims to increase accessibility to primary education for disabled children. This will be through increasing the enrollment of disabled children in mainstream state primary schools, and through training teachers in new training methods adapted to the needs of disabled children. Handicap International UK also aims to submit three new educational policies on the rights of disabled children to education to the Ministry of Education.
In addition to the pursuit of training and education, a number of disabled Congolese have found innovative ways of earning a living without depending on begging.
Since the 1970's disabled people have been exempt from paying tax in the DRC. This has led to many disabled entrepreneurs making inventive use of their mobility bikes. Congoblog reports :
Leur activité consiste à prendre sur leurs chaises roulantes des marchandises (farine, huile, poissons ou viande) et de les faire traverser de part et d’autre. Les commerçants privilégient les handicapés pour faire traverser leurs marchandises parce que ces derniers ne paient pas de taxes. Leurs effets ne sont pas fouillés et ils n’ont besoin d’aucun document pour traverser la frontière.
The tradesmen pay less than they would otherwise for the transportation of their goods, and the entrepreneurs can work independently, and are making a decent wage out of their work.
Manque à gagner pour le trésor public mais moyen de survie pour les handicapés qui trouvent dans cette activité les revenus leur permettant de subvenir à leur besoins. « Nous préférons venir travailler ici plutôt que d’aller passer nos journées à quémander en ville », lâche fièrement Patrick. Ses compères et lui-même ont bien compris qu’il valait mieux se débrouiller, plutôt que d’attendre un hypothétique redressement de la situation politique et économique du pays.
The two most senior members of Staff Benda Bilili, a group of paraplegic Congolese musicians from Kinshasa met whilst transporting merchandise between Kinshasa and Brazzaville.
Marseille-based music blog KoToNTeeJ outlines the content of the groups songs:
Coco Ngambali, l’auteur principal du groupe et champion de bras de fer, explique qu’à travers leurs chansons, ils jouent le rôle de journalistes, parlent à ceux qui vivent et dorment dans la rue sur des cartons.
Staff Benda Bilili practice in the zoological gardens of Kinshasa and play at both local bars and expat clubs, and are a true success story. They have overcome all barriers and are currently leaders of the World Music Chart Europe. Staff Benda Bilili have been signed up to the Crammed Discs label, and are anticipating a European tour.
While examples such as Shona Crafts and Staff Benda Bilili demonstrate success gained from hard work and committment, they also have an element of luck involved in their creation. One cannot forget that for the majority no matter how much effort is put in they will still face a life of hardship and handicap.
As Congoblog remarks:
Si déjà la vie est dure pour les personnes valides, pas besoin de s’interroger longtemps sur le sort de ceux qui vivent avec un handicap. Et bien sûr, on ne peut rien demander à l’état, absent, démissionnaire et irresponsable.