Wheels of Freedom

September 16, 2013 4:32 pm Published by

It all started with a simple question: “Do you all have any students with disabilities?” 

It was a common question, but it sparked a conversation about the many struggles these students face on a daily basis.

At JBFC, we have three disabled students – Neema Malele, Veneranda and Mayila. The two girls live with us at our home; Mayila lives with his family in the village about half a mile away from school. 

Both Mayila (below on left) and Neema Malele (below on right) contracted a bacterial infection when they were infants. The disease caused their legs to become malformed and both walk on their hands and knees. 
We are still working to get Veneranda properly diagnosed, but we think she suffers from severe scoliosis which has stunted her growth. She endures a lot of pain and needs a cane to get around campus. 

Despite their conditions, these are three of the most cheerful and active members of our JBFC family. But sometimes they can’t hide their hardship. The reading buddies program was a favorite activity between both our summer guests and girls. But it took place in our new library. After a long day at school, it was almost too difficult for Neema Malele and Veneranda to make the trip down the dusty road to the library.

Thankfully one of their sisters or a kind-hearted friend would carry them the distance, but some time they would have to stay behind in the dorms, having a guest or one of their sisters pick out a book for them. Mayila is on scholarship to attend JBFC’s Joseph & Mary Schools. Every day he walks on his hands and his callused knees about half a mile each way to learn. Truth be told Mayila gets around on his hands and feet better than most kids do on two legs. He “runs” plays tennis and horses around like any other 9-year-old.

But at the end of the day, even this seemingly tireless little boy hangs his head in fatigue as has to makes the trek home.

These were the stories I told to a friend of my aunt who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. Lisa Stuart and her husband, Scott, immediately thought wheelchairs would be the answer to helping our students with disabilities. However, our sandy and rocky environment was not exactly conducive to the standard variety of wheelchairs. Working with the Walkabout Foundation, the Stuarts found the Tough Rider. It’s a wheelchair made for Africa- sturdy, tall, and as its name suggests- tough! Best of all, the wheels are actual bicycle wheels, making the inevitable puncture a breeze to repair. 

After a few months of working out logistical matters of getting the Tough Rider chairs to campus, three brand new chairs arrived last week, have been assembled, and have been passed out to our three children with difficulties- Neema, Veneranda, and Mayila! 

They took their first spin around our home dining hall with all of their sisters and matrons cheering them on. Neema Malele is actually an old pro – she had a wheelchair before but it broke and could not be fixed. She was quick to lead her new wheelchair buddies in a quick tutorial. 

Mayila’s first question – “Can I ride this all the way home?” The smile that cracked across his face when I told him he could, would break your heart. 
Their smiles say all that needs to be said. They have freedom – freedom to go where they please, freedom to attend reading buddies all on their own, freedom to go to and from home for school without wearing down their knees. 

Distributing the chairs and giving a lesson in wheelchair use for the first time reminded me how incredible our entire JBFC family is- from the ones here in Tanzania, to all of our supporters and friends abroad! We thank our supporters Lisa and Scott Stuart, from Greenwich, CT, who made this happen. And we look forward to seeing what these three students will now be able to do with their newfound freedom.

Chris Gates is the Executive Director & Founder of JBFC.

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This post was written by Mainsprings