Dealing with becoming a wheelchair user late in life is challenge enough, but surviving genocide? Being abandoned by your parents? Putting yourself back into very inaccessible secondary education at the age of 24 and then going on to graduate from university? That is something else. People have told me that I am an inspiring individual, but I have met someone who brings new meaning to the word.
Even though I have been diagnosed with aggressive MS, which has made me a full-time wheelchair user, I have channelled colossal amounts of energy into setting up a wheelchair travel website – wheelchairworld.org, a website that has had over 10,000 visitors already. It is through this website that I met Emmanuel, an amazing man from Rwanda.
I really hope to go to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas, so as soon as Emmanuel posted on wheelchairworld.org, I got in touch and he shared his life story with me, which left me dumbstruck. This is a collection of what he has told me:
“If you read about my situation the first problem I met with is lack of parents even if they were alive! Second, no any advice from any relative even after getting disabled. I am only happy because I could study to have a job will be better.
I am Emmanuel Gashirabake. I am Rwandese, I am 38 years old, a wheelchair user and I am married. I Live in Eastern province, Kayonza District Gahini sector to Kigali is probably 60km.
Since my birthday to now, my mom was my father’s second wife (he believed in polygamy) but after a few years they got separated. My mother remarried another man, and I had to go and live with my grandmother when I was only one-year-old. This situation made me sad, I was told that my grandmother is not my mom and even though there were many uncles and my grandfather at home none of them did care about me, only my aunts.
At age of seven year, I asked to go to school because some neighbours children used to go there and even though I had no equipment I went to school. I used a stick to write on small black board and I had to walk 6km everyday to get there. I was not yet getting disabled, so I was able to walk.
Neither my father or my mother made any contribution to my studies. I always used to ask family members where my father was after having known that none of them were my father. I remember one uncle asked to fetch water so I could get more books and fees but in the end he refused to pay and I got nothing.
By luck I concluded my primary school in Rushaki parish but war had started. There were 2 types of political segregation: ethnic segregation and regional segregation. Another barrier was that in my family no one was able to pay the fees or other requirements for school. Day by day, the war was getting worse and I stayed home. Not because of my inability to study but because of the segregation and the lack of money to pay the fees.
During the war
In 1992, the patriotic front attacked and from that point, things got a lot worse; people could not grow crops or do any of their regular activities. My aunts and uncles were forced to leave home and the war continued to get worse. We desperately needed to leave but my grandfather refused to flee so my grandmother and I went to a refugee camp. One day when I went out to search for food, my grandmother’s son took her to Kigali and I was abandoned yet again! What would I do a poor boy? I was forced to beg for food at the soldiers’ food lorries. I decided to go to Kigali by foot because once I had visited the uncle that took my grandmother. After four months we were encouraged to go back to our homeland as the government and the opposition had negotiated a so called «zone tampon». By this time I was a teenager and I had no parents to guide me through this difficult period.
In 1994, the genocide took place. Those were severe times. The government was killing tutsis and any other non-pro government elements. Fortunately for us, we lived in patriotic zone in the North. I didn’t know if my mother and father were even still alive.
Then I started feeling pain from my back and walking with difficulty. I didn't go to the hospital, I just stayed in bed for 3 months. My grandmother was too old to help me get up so I could only move when pain reduced and I still had to walk really slowly. This situation caused me to lose every opportunity I had - to study, to work, even to get family support. Still, in that bad condition, my elder uncle did not understand and he chased me from home. Neither my mother or father did anything for me, only my grandmother had enough patience to support me enough to get food.
In the summer of 1998, the pain reduced enough that I I managed to get to the centre at Gahini to see if there was any treatment that I could take. I had an operation because my right foot was deformed and the doctor who operated on me gave me crutches. A Few days later I came back from hospital but with sadness as I had been told that I had spina bifida. Some doctors did not easily accept that diagnosis because it is known that a child is born with the condition. I became depressed and lost hope for my future.
In 2001, German missionaries came to visit the parish in which I live and I was asked by a nun if I could read a speech in French. She was very surprised to see that I could read it without having had sufficient education! The nuns were ordered to support me to study and I became very happy as my dream might become reality! I searched for any secondary school that would allow me to restart my education and by a miracle I found a school.
In 2002 I was really suffering from the terrible pain in my back. From February to October I was in a bad condition [until my bed get old! This made me cry!!] I wrote two or three letters to the congregation of my parish and in October they came to visit me. I had almost given up hope and I tried to kill myself by overdosing and refusing to eat but these didn’t work because my grandmother always intervened.
When eventually the missionaries arrived at our house, they decided to carry me back to the centre at Gahini. This made me happy. I spent a whole year doing physiotherapy but sadly, my grandmother was abut die as she was old. Then we had to figure out where I would live after because I had just started use a wheelchair and the area I used to live before was mountainous. Finding somewhere to live as well as a school in which I could study was a big challenge.
I humbly begged the management of the centre to let me keep being there as I, a 24-year-old man, had been allowed to restart from primary school in a nearby establishment . I wanted to become an important man so I happily chose that. after one year I got secondary!
Nuns assisted my studies until the end of my secondary. The journey from the centre to school was relatively easy but from school to the centre I needed help and I had to go back to the centre if I needed the toilet as there were no toilets at the school which I could use. There were schools nearer to the rehabilitation centre but they were definitely inaccessible so I had to go further.
In 2010, I passed the National examination, meaning that I could continue to university. However, it was not near the centre and it had no support for people with disabilities, except one resource room for the blind. However, I really wanted to attend university so I had no choice but to confront the difficulties.
I could get around the campus but obeyed I would require someone to carry water to me and I would need someone to help me wash my clothes. In order to get to class I would have to go out of the school and then come back in through another entrance. After one month, Campus leadership had the barriers removed and I was able to move nearly everywhere. However, I could only use the office toilet and during the night the office was locked! By my 2nd semester things had really improved but there was no lift access. One teacher refused to move their classes to an accessible floor so I repeated a year because I couldn’t get to the class which was on the 3rd floor!
Job seeker with challenge
After this long journey, I would have expected to get a job easily but this is not the case because employers only see the wheelchair and do not consider other criteria. I can teach social studies and I like teaching. I get disappointed when someone asks me how I can teach while I sit in a wheelchair. I don't blame my government because it has set good policy but the implementation is the problem. If we don’t make a 1st, it might never happen. There has been a small improvement compared to 2002, because at least now it is talked about and it is considered in some public buildings.
Living in a wheelchair in Rwanda
After the genocide, this country had a lot of urgent problems to resolve like reconciliation, country security and bringing to justice those involved in the genocide! However, the genocide has left an unusually high number of people living with disabilities.
I felt very sad to became a wheelchair user. I thought there was no hope and I thank God that I could study. However, in a country of thousand Hills, being a wheelchair user is not easy
To meet has been luck: I hope I will meet other important person and wheelchair users can orient me how thing is done! God bless you!
Emmanuel is a true inspiration and I am overwhelmed by his courage and motivation. The hardships that he has overcome give me a real reality check on my own challenges.
In an attempt to improve the situation for wheelchair users in Rwanda, Emmanuel has set up the Rwanda Wheelchair Users Committee (RWUC), which is a group of 8 Rwandan wheelchair users. You can visit their Facebook page here.
I now have a new goal – to help Emmanuel and the Rwanda Wheelchair Users Committee in any way I can.
Emmanuel is trying to get the government to share responsibility for supporting wheelchair users as their families often cannot cope with the difficulties presented by having a wheelchair user. For example:
“A neighbor Wheeler, she can’t move and her mother leaves her home alone. Her sisters are sick because the house is dirty. I don’t know what to do for her: advocacy? If her mother doesn't care what can I do, I thought she would at least have clothes, soap and a cushion!“
Whilst in the UK, things are moving forward for wheelchair users, in Rwanda, it is not so easy. Policies have been developed but they have not been implemented. It is up to wheelchair users like Emmanuel to fight for life with dignity. Emmanuel needs to raise funds in order to apply for a licence for the committee. You can donate here.
I am hoping to go to Rwanda myself. It has always been a lifelong ambition to see the mountain gorillas, and when I became a wheelchair user, I thought it was impossible, but through my research for wheelchairworld.org, I have read about a couple of wheelchair users who have made this journey and discovered that there is a way. Frank Gardner, the BBC journalist whose injuries made him a wheelchair user, has done this journey himself and wrote about it in one of the British newspapers. I have been directly in touch with the park wardens who have explained about the ‘stretcher’ that can be used to carry wheelchair users to the gorillas. I know it is going to be challenging, and I know that Rwanda is not a particularly wheelchair accessible country, but if there is one thing that I have learned is a wheelchair user, it’s that people are amazing – they are so happy to help you, and even more so in the developing countries.
I would love to meet Emmanuel and the RWUC when I am in Rwanda, but there are all sorts of logistical complications as the country is not wheelchair accessible, making it difficult to get around. Still, I am sure we will find a way! Nothing has stopped us yet!