Land of Disabilities: Life in Karni Village, where persons with disability are productive and hopeful – part 1

Without sight, Limbless, Diminishing Hope, But Determined!

Karni is a remote village far away from Wa, the capital of Upper West Regional. This is where the region’s disabled, unfit and desperate drift to … obviously to live and belong.

The community has over 200 inhabitants living with one form of disability or another. Some have lost their sight; others are limbless. But they are a determined people in the face of the hopelessness.

Apart from being poor, the Karni village is symbolic for having inhabitants, many of whom are battling one form of physical challenge or another but with one common goal, that is, to make a living for themselves and their families, no matter how small.

There is an open field as vegetable garden for these PWDs. One side of the garden belongs to the visually-impaired farmers, whiles the rest of the land meant for other villagers with various forms of disability to grow food crops and vegetables.

A predominately farming community in the smallest district in the Upper West Region, Kani is bordered to the South by the Lambuisse District, to the North by Ghana’s boundary with Burkina Faso, to the West by the Lawra District and to the East by the Sissala West District. Karni has an intriguing story – one that many describe as nothing short of inspirational.

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Visually-impaired but active vegetable farmers

In a field of an open vegetable garden for the physically-challenged, a man with visual impairment is spending another day watering his beds of vegetable seedlings.

In this village is Peter, a 50-year old visually-impaired who has been farming for nearly 10 years in his condition. His job is pretty herculean. He said he has become so used to it that he goes to the farm and work all by himself.

He wears an oversized Baseball Tee, over a pair of faded pants, and a pair of Bruiser Caterpillar Boots aided by his white cane and makes his way steadily into the yard.

He does not survive on disability grants, which are not even available for those here. He is a farmer. It’s dry season vegetable farming here at Karni, and dry season gardening has started here, with crops such as beans, onions, cabbage, carrots among others being cultivated.

Peter said, “I use my stick and walk my way slowly to this place. It is my garden, so I know it, I don’t require much assistance to get here.”

Peter says he grows these crops just to support his children’s education and keep his family together.

On how he identifies the weeds from the vegetable seedlings, he said, “It’s something I’ve been doing for years. I use my hand to feel the plants, once I touch and it’s not a crop, I know … so I remove it.”

It is amazing how Peter and other visually-impaired farmers are able to till their garden beds, grow vegetables, harvest them and sell them on the market – some great skill required, one will imagine.

Tomato Fruit and its Cultivation

Owing to the peculiarity of the tomato fruit and its cultivation, it’s the only vegetable crop that’s not grown by the visually-impaired farming community. The Assembly Member of the area, Kabiri Luanga, explains: “due to the farming practices required such include staking among others, these visually-impaired farmers do not grow them.”

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Peter is not the only visually-impaired resident here who’s putting himself to good use on the farm. Meet Abdullah who is in his late 40s and a father of six became visually-impaired many years ago. He doesn’t even remember how. Most times, he requires assistance in order to make his way to the garden.

“Sometimes I lose my path on my way here, and have to ask people around to assist me get back onto the path,” he lamented.

“Once I get here, however, I’m able to manage my way because I’ve a mental picture of the location of my vegetable beds, aided by small pegs I’ve used as markings,” Abdullah reveals amidst a spurt of giggles.

Abdullah’s wife, who’s busily watering the sprouting bean seedlings on one of the beds, helps out on their garden when she can. Her frail looks tell of an individual who’s been through the tatters and back, but the family always remains her inspiration.

Sometimes, assisted by his wife, they water the crops and remove the weeds from among the seedlings.

Abdullah says he sometimes hires some children in the community to weed his portion of the garden when it’s overgrown with weeds at a fee.

“I pick out the weeds sometimes when I can, but I mostly hire some young boys to weed the place after which I pay them with what I have,” the red-and-black striped smock-wearing Abdullah noted.

Peter and Abdullah are only two of the over 50 visually-impaired persons, men and women, living here in Karni, who till a piece of land they call the garden!

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Physically-challenged and productive

On the left of the double football park-sized garden belonging to the visually-impaired farmers, is an equally vast landmass where villagers with various forms of disability grow food crops and vegetables – some crippled, some one-armed, others one-legged, epileptic, hunched and others limbless.

It’s a sunny Monday afternoon and scores of these physically-challenged persons are busily tilling their individual vegetable beds in the garden, others sowing seeds, while the rest water their dry beds.

One of them, 45-year old Munira, is clad is a faded textile knee-length dress, crawls across her vegetable bed, with a hoe in hand, softening the hardened earth, in preparation for replanting onion seedlings.

She’s been tricycle-ridden for nearly 15 years. With her moving aid parked at the garden gate, she crawls on her backside into the garden and begins work every day with no assistance.

The shy-looking Munira turns her back at us and hangs the hoe over her shoulder as she noticed we were filming her. After a few minutes, she crawls back and forth while still sinking the teeth of the hoe into the hard earth, to soften it.

Others, including the partially-hunched Yasum, also appear busy – planting bean seeds, sorting out onion seedlings for replanting and watering their seed beds.

While these persons grow vegetables, those, who are also physically-challenged but are unable to engage in any form of strenuous farming activity in the gardens, engage in contract peanut shelling for a fee.

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In groups or cooperatives of between seven and 10 individuals, they shell peanuts from the farms of their able-bodied neighbours for a fee. They also engage in de-husking maize crops after harvest to earn themselves some income.

Gardening blues and inhibiting factors

But there’s a challenge, or rather, there are challenges! They are striving hard despite their obvious shortcomings on one hand, but real time issues are threatening to demotivate these physically-challenged but hardworking Karni residents.

From about 200 hundred meters away from the gardens, sits a dam, which is intended to serve the irrigation needs of these persons but the water canals that link the gardens to the dam are in a state of disrepair.

Broken, choked canals are making water flow to the garden difficult, especially during dry seasons. These physically-challenged farmers have to trek to get water from the dam, to nourish their seedlings.

During times when some water trickles through the canal, how do these visually-impaired farmers check for the availability of water before attempting to water their crops?

While on the garden, about 20 meters away, leader of the visually-impaired farmers can be seen, himself visually-impaired, with his white cane, steadily beating through the cemented canal to check if there’s water in it.

Apparently this is a way to check for water – once his cane makes a sound reminiscent of beating water, and it signals availability for which the farmers can use. Assembly member for the Karni Central constituency, Mr. Kabiri Luanga says more about the irrigation challenges these persons face.

“The canals have been broken for a long time. As a result these persons struggle to water their crops. An irrigation redevelopment plan, proposed for the district, remains beautifully art-worked and mapped onto a signpost,” and that’s how far it’s gone.

On the far end of the garden, shoulder-level fencing around the farm have caved in, making room for rampaging animals who destroy the vegetable crops of these farmers, who appear helpless!

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Lardy is an Evangelist, who’s been engaging in charity work with some underprivileged communities at Jirapa, some miles away from Karni has been advocating for better conditions for persons living with disability in the region.

“One of the key challenges for us here is the issue of the fencing. You see the far end, animals break into the garden especially when the crops are almost reaching fruition stage,” a sad Lardy lamented.

As if that’s not enough, “the canals as you have noticed, are in bad shape. We are appealing for immediate aid for these people, reaching out to anyone touched by the plight of our people,” she added.

She had some choice words for persons with disability across the country, who make it a point to line the streets, begging for alms rather than putting themselves to some profitable use.

“I say to you, that these people are a shinning example to the world. Despite their challenges, here they are doing something for themselves. This way, people who want to lend a helping hand, know that they’re supporting a worthy course, “Madam Lardy noted.

“I’ll take the opportunity to advise those who are on the streets begging, to take a cue from what pertains here. So at least persons living disability can be treated with some dignity,” she concluded.

On the other side of the garden belonging to the physically-challenged, different from that of the visually-impaired, some of the folks are seen working, making mounds, watering and planting seeds. These hardworking individuals say if they had equipment and other materials, they could do more.

Joshua, 26, who is 5ft 4ins tall, is a Dagaare teacher in the Karni community, who developed his disability before the age of two. His mother gave up on a search for healing after she sought help from different places to cure his elder brother’s disability, to no avail.

Despite his disability, he has risen to become a trained teacher, who’s helping children in the Karni community. He’s had to seek transfer back to the community due to movement and transportation challenges. With only a tricycle, he has to find his way through the rashes to the next village, about two miles away.

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He has spent almost a lifetime trying to make himself understood, and he has found alternatives to the words that are so hard for him to shape. Surviving being taunted throughout his schooling and being called CRIPPLE may have been a daunting reality to live with but Joshua is living each day at a time.

Joshua has been tricycle-ridden for nearly all his life, but this 14-year old tricycle has served him well and aided his movement from one point to another.

He has a portion in the garden for the physically-challenged where he used to grow vegetables and other crops until he got his first teaching job out of the village. His teaching job does not offer him that much time to till his garden.

His ‘able’ mother has for the past three years been working on his farm together with his two sisters in his place. She say she has been helping out on his farm ever since her son got a job as a teacher.

“My son is tricycle-ridden and cannot come to his garden. It is the reason I am here with his two sisters to work here,” the shy-looking woman noted.

As she carefully picks out onion seedlings from the stalk for replanting, she tells me how she’s had to do this for close to four years. “It’s been tough for us – especially as a woman, doing this by myself. My son is unable to come here because of his work. I have, therefore, taken it upon myself to do this,” the mother of seven explained.

The idea of creating a garden for the physically-challenged and visually-impaired persons here, we are told, was the brainchild of a white missionary named Sebastian over a decade ago when he visited the community.

Assembly member Kabiri says, “the missionary settled here over a decade ago, and having noticed the condition of some of the inhabitants here, decided to institutionalise the gardening system, an attempt to unite these persons and empower them to be able to work and feed themselves.”

He brought along an assistant, who was a garden specialist, who began training the organized physically-challenged residents in gardening.

“The practice gave these persons at the time some sense of hope and belonging. Later, many more physically-challenged persons, who hitherto were hiding, came out and were taking through rudiments of gardening,” Mr. Kabiri added.

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The system has since been carried forward with the expansion of the garden to incorporate those who come out late to register as physically-challenged persons.

Period after period, new ways of farming and other agronomic practices have been provided to some of the farmers here.

The hard work and steadfastness of people here in Karni, despite their physical disabilities defies logic, some have said. But the shinning example of some of these persons continues to spur the others on.

While scores of them have come out to register as persons living with disabilities, authorities believe there may be some more who’re hiding from societal scorn.

Eight years ago, 28-year-old Hamza lost his sight after he was hit by a football one afternoon. He says health officials assured him he was going to be fine after giving him an eye drop. But he has since never regained his sight.

“I remember that day like it was yesterday. I had just returned from school that Tuesday afternoon, when I decided to join a group of friends at the park, ” Hamza recalls.

“It was an ‘interesting game of football until I got hit by a flying ball. Just then I felt drowsy. Later when I visited the health center, I was informed it was not a serious injury and was given an eye drop,” the pained young man recounts.

Married with an eight-year old son, Hamza is in his second year at the University of Education. But there is no void created in the garden. His wife manages his portion of the garden in his absence. According to him, he’s been able to cater for the family with the small revenue generated from vegetable sale.

Stigmatisation

His drive and passion to further his education has seen him gain admission at the University of Education in Winneba. However, his condition is making education a pain, especially with the kind of treatment he receives from people.

“It’s a hard time in school for me, even on my way to campus and back to the village is an uphill struggle,” Hamza notes.

He explains further,“Sometimes when I get to the bus terminals and the roadside especially hoping someone helps me cross over to the other side, they usually scold me, thinking I am about to beg them for alms, it gets really frustrating and embarrassing at times.”

“Owing to this, whenever I am en route campus and I have some money, I get a taxi and as you’d know, it’s unsustainable on my meagre income from our small vegetable garden,” he added.

Despite having some very helpful friends and close associates, who aid him around campus, in the classroom is another challenge. Using the brail in the midst of other visually normal students is a pain, he laments.

“The lecturers will usually not waste time during lectures because of me. Whether I grasp the notes or not, they proceed to teach like they would normally do. I am always burdened having to go to my friends after lectures to catch up.”

With each passing day, he finds strength from within to spur him on far away from his wife and only child, in Karni.

Like Hamza, Joshua the Dagaare teacher, wheelchair-ridden, has to deal with a few murmurs everywhere he finds himself – even in the classroom where he teaches.

But he takes them all in his stride – with an inner perception that everyone else is crippled in one way or another. For him, the cripple tag he’s been given means only one thing – that he is crippled physically, but not mentally.

“Well, I get people calling me cripple, they even refer to my mother the (cripple’s mother), but I say to you sitting right here, that you are also crippled in one aspect of life,” Joshua tells me, while feigning a wry smile.

After a couple of minutes, he asked me, “Do you speak and/or understand Dagaare?”

My response of course was in the negative – prompting a sharp response from him: “Ahuh, so you see, you are crippled in that area. You see?” Joshua exclaimed!

For a moment, I was lost in thought. Joshua had a good point – but in my head, I was thinking it was a way of fighting the stigma.

Even though other ‘fully-fit’ inhabitants here are generally receptive to their fellows who happen to have one physical challenge or the other, the traces of the stigma and isolation is latent.

But, Assembly Member Kabiri tells me the villagers are a helpful bunch – some make it a point to buy vegetables from their disabled counterparts as a means to assist them and encourage their hard work. But behind this, is a real reason. The vegetables sold by these physically-challenged inhabitants are roundly cheaper on the market – good reason!

The story will be continued … watch out for part 2.

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