Disability & hardship works as stepping stone to creativity in Zimbabwe, Africa

Chumile Jamela – WNN GlobalARTS

Outdoor street market Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
An outdoor street market at City Hall in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe provides a public avenue for numerous artists including physically challenged 28-year-old Ms. Siphosethu Ndlovu. Image: Sokwanele

(WNN/GPI) Bulawayo, ZIMBABWE, EAST AFRICA: Siphosethu Ndlovu, 28, sits on the pavement in front of a large supermarket in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. Born with multiple disabilities, she knits toilet and bathroom sets using her toes in order to earn a living. Unable to use her arms, she holds a mealie-meal sack between her teeth and the toes of her left foot while she sews with the toes of her right foot, using a piece of thick wire as a needle. Her self-taught artistic talent shows in her finished sets – a cistern cover, toilet bowl cover and two mats made from wool and old sacks that once held mealie meal, flour made from maize.

Ndlovu says that doctors attributed her disabilities to poor maternal health care during her mother’s pregnancy. Throughout her difficult childhood, Ndlovu lacked even the most basic survival skills, like the ability to feed herself or move about unaided. On top of physical challenges, community members view disability as a curse in Zimbabwe.

“I never went to school, and I spent all my childhood years hidden,” Ndlovu says in her native Ndebele, though hearing her is a struggle due to a speech impairment she has had since birth. “I don’t think anyone who wasn’t a close relative saw me, ever.”

She grew up in rural Lupane, a district in Matabeleland North province, where she says that stigma against disability is rife. In rural areas especially, many residents lack any understanding of the causes of disability, associating it instead with witchcraft, punishment by ancestral or evil spirits or even promiscuity by the mother during pregnancy.

But Ndlovu says that her social exclusion was a blessing in disguise, as she used the time alone to practice accomplishing basic acts like feeding herself using her toes.

Then, when she was 10, her uncle took her to Bulawayo with a promise that she would attend a special school. Instead, he took her to the streets to beg.

“He would take me to the pavements every morning and make me beg on the streets,” she says as she watches a few street kids begging nearby.

It has become a common practice in the streets of Bulawayo and across Zimbabwe for families to ‘use’ disabled members to seek alms. But Ndlovu desired a different life for herself.

Although the growth of her limbs is stunted, her legs have now become her strongest ally. Today Ndlovu sits next to her brand new wheelchair, which she bought with the money she makes selling her bathroom sets. She has already mastered how to get down from it without help.

Ndlovu sells her wares for $7 per set. Some days she manages to sell three or four sets.

“Usually when I finish a set, it will already be booked,” she says. “So how much money I make depends on how many sets I can knit in a day.”

The social stigma attached to disabilities has led to a lack of educational and employment opportunities for disabled people in Zimbabwe. Limited access to education also has health repercussions for the disabled, such as lack of information on HIV and AIDS. As the government introduces new initiatives to boost special education this year, nongovernmental organizations are training disabled women in income-generating projects such as art to enable them to support themselves and their families.

About 350,000 Zimbabweans have disabilities, a figure that equates to 2.9 percent of the population, according to the nation’s most recently published population census from 2002.

But only 7 percent of people with disabilities are employed, according to a 2002 study by the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped, an association that promotes and develops the coordination and participation of member organizations to care for people with disabilities. An additional 8 percent are self-employed, and 29 percent are engaged in sustainable farming activities.

Rejoice Timire, executive director of Disabled Women Support Organization, a group that strives to empower women and girls with disabilities, says the disabled lack access to job opportunities because of stigma and discrimination. For example, they lack access to many buildings, as legislation doesn’t require buildings to be accessible to people in wheelchairs. The lack of job opportunities leads to a life of extreme poverty, something her organization continues to fight.

“As an organization, we are lobbying for 25-percent representation of the disabled in all companies in the new constitution,” she says, referring to the country’s constitution that is currently being drafted.

Nobesuthu Lunga, a special education teacher at one of the local schools for disabled children, attributes the high rates of unemployment among the disabled to poor education because of the inappropriate training of teachers.

“Training colleges like United College of Education in Bulawayo and the University of Zimbabwe produce teachers in special education,” she says. “But these teachers are not able to sign or read braille, and there are no additional capacity-building courses to top up the basic skills that they have.”

Only 33 percent of children with disabilities in Zimbabwe have access to education, compared with more than 90 percent for the able-bodied populace, according to the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped.

Senzeni Dube, 23, says she tried to attend school. Born in Filabusi, a rural district in Matebeleland South province, Dube was diagnosed with polio at age 4, which incapacitated the right side of her body and impaired her left arm.

Her parents, unfamiliar with how to handle a child with disabilities, unintentionally neglected her needs, she says. It was the same at school. She attended primary school for several years, but she says that she kept repeating the first grade because she couldn’t use her hands to write. There were no teachers who paid any attention to her special needs.

“Everybody just ignored me,” she says tearfully. “No one really bothered to interact with me in any way.”

In addition to hampering job opportunities, lack of education also has health repercussions for people with disabilities.

Literacy rates for people with disabilities are low, making communication of HIV and AIDS messages challenging, according to the ‘Disability, HIV and AIDS Trust’, a nongovernmental disability advocacy organization. Currently there is no HIV and AIDS information available in braille in Zimbabwe, and sex education programs for those with disabilities are rare, said Lizzie Longshaw, a Disability, HIV and Aids Trust program coordinator, at a workshop in July.

“Negative attitudes towards women with disabilities and living with HIV prevent them from accessing mainstream health services as well as information, education, and communication programs about HIV and AIDS,” Longshaw said.

When Dube was 15, an HIV-positive relative raped and impregnated her. She says he believed that sexual intercourse with an innocent female would cure him of HIV.

“When I fell pregnant, my parents found an excuse to pack me off to Bulawayo to go and beg for myself and my child,” she says.

Then the Jairos Jiri Association, a philanthropic organization in Bulawayo, took in her and her infant. The organization adopts disabled children living in the streets and strives to rehabilitate them and to integrate them into society by teaching them practical skills. For Joice Matara, the advocacy officer at Jairos Jiri Association, the solutions to challenges that disabled people face lie in action, not rhetoric.

“As Jairos Jiri Organization, we are working on community-based rehabilitation whereby we go out into the remote areas, identify disabled women and empower them through income-generating projects,” she said in a phone interview.

The institution taught Dube to draw and paint with her right foot. Now, she is able to earn a living through her art. She draws designs on greetings cards and postcards as well as creates simple paintings that people can hang on their walls. The Jairos Jiri Craft Shop, a craft outlet in Bulawayo that offers tourist souvenirs, sells her wares. Lindiwe Maphosa, a saleswoman at the craft shop, has limitless praise for her art.

“Her drawings are simple and innocent, and they have always been a favorite of the tourists,” Mahposa said.

With her earnings, Dube can now afford to support herself and her energetic 7-year-old son. No longer living in the streets, the family rents a two-bedroom apartment in one of the high-density suburbs of Bulawayo. And just as the association took her in, Dube has taken in a 10-year-old blind girl from the streets.

The government appointed a director of disabled persons’ affairs and established a National Disability Board through the 1992 Disabled Persons Act.

Susan Masvikeni, a projects officer at the Ministry of Public Service, Labor and Social Welfare, quoted the act during a phone interview. “Among other critical issues, the Disabled Persons Act seeks to break down physical, cultural or social barriers inhibiting him from participating at an equal level with other members of society in activities, undertakings or fields of employment that are open to other members of society,” she said.

“This is what our Ministry is doing,” said Masvikeni. “But there are still many challenges we face, such as poor budgetary support by [the] government.”

The government passed a resolution this year to mainstream special needs education at all levels of teacher training and in schools, said Johnsai Tandi Dewa, the director of manpower and institutional development in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, at a workshop earlier this year. The resolution aims to restructure teachers colleges and to adjust their curricula to meet the requirements of special needs education.

But the absence of a clear disability movement, lack of enforcement of disability policies and shortage of dedicated funding on top of lingering negative beliefs about the disabled leaves much work to be done, Masvikeni says.

But women like Ndlovu and Dube say they aren’t waiting for widespread acceptance. Instead they are paving their own way.

“Disability is no longer a hindrance for me now,” Ndlovu says. “I have learned to accept it and make the best out of my life through art.”

Dube says she even uses the challenges that have come from her disability as inspiration for her art.

“I have grown past the pain that I suffered when growing up,” she says as she drags herself around her living room dusting the furniture. “And I am now an independent woman making a good living through art.” 


Training as a journalist through a program offered by the Global Press Institute, Ms. Chumile Jamela’s motivation has been to document the lives of women in Zimbabwe, especially the ‘rural folk’, who go through so many challenges but are still able to face the future positively. “These challenges, some of the most heart-wrenching stories, remain far, far away from mainstream media. I believe it is through the media that telling these stories can provide a vehicle for bettering the livelihoods of these women,” says Jamela.


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