Kwaku, the #ENDPolio Warrior

A family's crusade to wipe out polio in Ghana

A man standing in front of a mural
29 April 2021

“Go around and ask people, ‘what causes polio?’ And you will be surprised at the answers you’ll get. In fact, I have even met polio survivors who don’t know what causes polio.”

Kwaku Asante Afful, president of the Ghana Federation of Disability Organisations, Sefwi Wiawso Municipal, struggles to hide his frustration whenever the word "polio" comes up.  He doesn’t remember exactly when he contracted polio. He remembers he was barely four years old, and it nearly killed him.

“They say I became crippled after contracting polio. Polio affected both my feet, and I hear I was admitted at a hospital in Kumasi for a whole year. I had to learn to walk again.  I thank my parents for not hiding me. My dad named me after himself, and he’d always call me around and introduce me when he got visitors. His confidence in me, gave me confidence that I could overcome this.”

Today, Kwaku truly has overcome polio. He’s one of a number of artists contracted by UNICEF in Ghana through partner civil society organisations - RISE Ghana, Theatre for Social Change, BIDO and Dawah Academy - to paint 80 murals on polio and COVID-19 preventive messages across the country. Kwaku paints with his 13-year-old daughter, Naana, when she’s not in school.

“When Naana and I were painting the polio mural at Sefwi Bekwai, the nurses at the clinic were curious. Many of them explained that they had been told to educate community members on polio long ago, and they decided to take advantage of my presence and the painting, to bring pregnant women and new mothers to educate them about why they should get their children vaccinated. My mural became their teaching aid, and I became the example of what happens when you don’t vaccinate. It was effective. The murals are effective.”

A father standing with his daughter next to a mural they painted together
Kwaku, with his Daughter Naana, standing next to one of the murals they painted together in Sefwi-Wiawso in the Western North Region.

Kwaku’s passion for advocacy is obvious, and uses every opportunity he gets to raise awareness, even though they often come with challenges.

“I became a polio advocate because I am both a victim and a survivor. I feel communication on polio only stays in hospitals. Apart from health professionals, very few people know what causes polio and how to prevent it.”

Africa is now considered free of the wild poliovirus, but unfortunately, the type 2 strain continues to spread across 16 African countries, including Ghana. This strain has paralysed more than 170 children across Ghana in 2020 alone. Between July 2019 and August 2020, a total of 31 children had been paralysed in Ghana due to polio. Outbreaks of Polio more commonly occur in communities where some children haven’t been immunised or live in poor sanitary and hygiene conditions.

Kwaku believes Ghana hasn’t been able to totally eradicate polio because of the many superstitious beliefs people have. The discrimination and stigma that comes with having a disabled child or being a person with a disability is also an issue.

A painting a mural on a wall
Kwaku, painting one of the murals on the side of a building in Sefwi-Wiawso in the Western North Region.

“One of the major challenges we have in our society is, people think when you are physically disabled, it means you are also mentally disabled. When you approach any elder in the community, they think you are coming to beg them for money because they are used to seeing people with disabilities begging. Whenever any important meetings are held in society, nobody bothers to involve us. In fact, even when they are taking decisions about disability, they don’t bother to involve persons with disabilities in the conversations. We are heavily discriminated against. To help reduce the stigma against people with disabilities, I decided to campaign against persons with disabilities begging in our community, and I have been successful.”

His disdain for pity shows through the passion with which he embraces work. Mr. Kwaku Asante Afful is married with five children. He raises grass cutters, rabbits and poultry in Gyatokrom where he lives with his family, but he’s also rented a room in the centre of town, from where he runs his painting and draughts boards design business. When he’s not doing farm work or designing and selling draughts, he may be painting a mural with his talented daughter and assistant, Naana in tow.

Kwaku with his entire family at his home