In countries where the national infrastructure is weak i.e. few hospitals or social services; then attitude is doubly important. Why? Because if someone needs support, that support is much more likely to come from a neighbour than a government agency.
We know of too many cases where a disabled young person is refused support from the community because the attitude of the community is determined by stigma and ignorance.
But in Gunjur, The Gambia, the brittle face of stigma is cracking into an inclusive smile! Over 25 young volunteers from the community regularly turn up to support the disabled children of that village socialize and have fun on a playscheme which runs every Saturday.
We’ve talked about the playscheme before – see: http://bit.ly/ONfz9G - it continues to provide a great service to kids and families. There are now 58 kids registered with us
and we have so many stories of children with improved social interaction, physical development and language development since coming to the playscheme. But I wanted to just say a word or two about the young people that make this possible.
For the most part, they hadn’t had much to do with disabled children before volunteering for the playscheme; they almost certainly hadn’t met disabled children at school and they will have seen very few of them around the village - even though there are well over 1000 disabled young people living there! They may have been told that disabled children are cursed or possessed, or that they will become infected or somehow contaminated if they associate with disabled children.
I think it’s ok to admit that the first group of Gambian volunteers showed up to our first ever play session because they knew that a group of 17yr-old volunteers from the UK were also going to be there. Most of the UK volunteers were girls and most of the Gambian volunteers turned out to be boys – go figure!
But here’s the thing, the UK visitors went home nine months ago but the Gambians still come - every Saturday they come. They say that they are glad to be there; one volunteer expressed surprise at the amount of fun he has with the children. Another said, “I didn’t realise that these kids are just like everyone else.”, and yet another remarked, “These children teach me how to be friends with other people.”
For myself, I enjoy imagining the conversations. When someone says to Yaya, one of our most committed playworkers, “Where are you going today?” and he answers, “A Playscheme for disabled kids!” or someone invites Rohey to go shopping and she declines in favour of the playscheme – it’s what they say to their friends and families – how extraordinary it sounds in this West African community – and the way their words and actions change the old, bad attitudes to more enlightened and inclusive ones.