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Children with disabilities flourish against the odds

April 2013 - Despite coordination problems, Grace Ncube darts along a bustling street, with a black purse swinging from her neck, to meet a car pulling up at her home. Beaming, she opens each car door, hugging everyone.

Makokoba is a poor, congested, urban suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, about 400 kilometres from the capital Harare. Like many of the residents living there, Grace and her grandmother carve out a living in the informal sector.

Grace leaves her livelihood - sweet popcorn wrapped in small bags - on top of an old cardboard box in front of the door, and shows the visitors into the stark two-roomed home which she shares with her 10-year-old cousin, James, her grandmother, Elena Ncube, and their landlord. Another man is asleep on a bed.

Grace, who has no birth certificate, is thought to be about 16 years old. She sits upright and listens attentively as her grandmother explains how she became Grace’s caretaker.

“I only knew that I had a granddaughter when I received a message to say that my daughter had died leaving behind a little girl,” explains Ncube in the local language Ndebele.  “I immediately took the bus to fetch her.” But after many hours of travelling, she found nobody at her daughter’s home. She was directed to the hospital where Grace was being looked after. She was probably about five years old, but could not speak or walk and her father had abandoned her.

Grace’s grandmother, who has lost four of her seven children, did not think twice. “I strapped Grace to my back and took her home with me.” 

“I am so happy to see how she is now,” says Grace’s grandmother, clapping her hands in gratitude at Sally Siziba. Siziba is the community rehabilitation worker for Jairos Jiri Association, the largest service provider for people with disabilities in Zimbabwe, supported by UNICEF. Grace attended the Jairos Jiri centre and over the years she gradually learnt to walk and speak. She now attends a special school nearby.

Grace is one of the more fortunate ones. In the 1990s the government set up a community rehabilitation programme for people with disabilities which included trained staff in district hospitals and specialised staff in schools equipped with resource rooms. Unfortunately, these schemes, along with the Enhanced Social Protection Programme launched in 2000, have since suffered a severe lack of personnel and money.

Zimbabwe is also yet to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Furthermore, in 2008, the African Child Policy Forum ranked Zimbabwe amongst the poorest 10 African countries in implementing the legal and policy frameworks to protect children against harm and exploitation.

According to 2004 data, Zimbabwe is estimated to have 300,000 children of school age with a disability, yet enrolment figures indicate that a large proportion  of these children do not attend school. Grace’s special school is called “Sibantubanye” which means “We are together”. She was selected to be put on the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), set up by the Government to help the most vulnerable children in society.

Grace leads the way into a grassy playground which has seen better days. The climbing frame and swings are rusty and falling apart.

The deputy headmistress, Petronella Nkala, opens her arms to receive Grace’s huge hugs. Her classroom is well furnished with good quality desks and chairs; the walls are plastered in colourful educational posters and pictures; there is barely any space left. When asked to comment on her studies, Grace’s face lights up. “I like to go to school. I like maths; I’m trying. I want to be a cross border trader.” The South African border is not too far away.

When Grace has left the room to attend lessons, the deputy head comments, “Grace knows how to count her money. We buy her popcorn.” Apparently, Grace was hyperactive when she first came to the school, but she is now the child with the best behaviour. “We have made her a school prefect and she is spiritual too.”

Yet Grace, growing up in such poverty with her disability and only an elderly grandmother as her caretaker, is extremely vulnerable. The deputy head is all too aware of this.  UNICEF supports Jairos Jiri to run workshops with community members, to raise awareness about the rights of children with disabilities and to set up special assessment committees to place children - whenever their resources allow - into appropriate schools. “Men need to be more involved,” comments Femerai Mukorah, the Jairos Jiri Coordinator. UNICEF is also supporting birth registration – essential for access to many social services, as well as reducing the chances of falling victim to exploitation such as human trafficking.

The deputy head adds that lack of food is another problem. “We used to have a vegetable garden, but the pump of the borehole is broken and the vegetables have dried up. It is particularly difficult for our epileptic children who are taking drugs to go without food.”

Grace, too, has not eaten all morning. As the visitors depart, Grace sings tunefully with her grandmother in front of their home. She smiles broadly, clapping her hands to the beat; the black purse that is still around her neck is swinging too.



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