Friday, March 14, 2014

Birth to wheelchair, the irony of childhood

By Meluse Kapatamoyo

I call it the irony of life. I am standing in between the car park at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH). On my right is the huge building housing the Maternity Ward, and on my left is a tiny building accompanied with a little billboard labeled APTERS. Trooping in and out of the Maternity Ward are mostly pregnant women and relieved faces of mothers with their newly born babies, filled with hope that their little ones will grow into healthy individuals.

But when I walk over to APTERS whose acronyms stand for (Appropriate Paper Technology) and begin to shake hands with its Chairperson John Janes and Rotary Club of Lusaka President Zarina Geloo whose organisation has come to make a donation of wheel chairs, i quickly realise that although located within the same vicinity and both offering services to mothers and their children, in comparison, the maternity ward and APTERS couldn’t be more different.

In the background of my hosts are several children, with their guardians who include men and women. It does not take one to be a doctor to realise that not only are the children mentally challenged, they are physically challenged too. I notice the anguish on one mothers face as she struggles to keep her daughter calm but I also see smiles begin to form as we walk towards the group.

The maternity ward offers hope and dreams for expectant mothers. When their babies are born, they leave looking forward to a day when their child will start to speak, walk and jump around. Sadly, there are accidents during birth, perhaps genetic or biological makeup of young children that can result in permanent damage. The dream of seeing a child speak and walk may never happen because they are mentally challenged to process anything or their bodies are paralysed.

For children and parents faced to live with this challenge, they turn to APTERS. Although the name does not give activities of the organisation away, it is here where the dashed hopes of mothers and children who walked out of the maternity ward several years ago are somewhat restored.

According to the organisation’s Chairperson John Janes, APTERS is a small organisation of Zambians who manufacture mobility equipment for children who suffer from Celebral Palsy. The equipment includes walkers, tables and chairs, made from recycled material. The organisation also provides livelihood for Zambians who have in the past suffered from Polio.

Each year, APTERS makes between 200-250 different items of equipment with beneficiaries coming from all over Zambia. “They filter through the system, through various clinics and end up here. The equipment helps both the children and parents have a higher quality of life and offer badly affected children an alternative to spending time on the floor. It also helps the parents and guardians who have the responsibility of looking after them especially when the children become too big for the mothers to carry them on the back,” he tells me.

He says each year APTERS appeals to donors for support. The organisations support group also subsidizes the cost of each mobility aid as nearly all parents are unable to meet the cost themselves. The average cost of the items is K110. Despite running for 23 years, the project still struggles to meet its financial obligations, especially now that it has plans to expand.

“Yes we have a few donors but it is always difficult to get donors on board. We were advised on the need to expand, so that we can modernize the old polio pool where we manufacture these items and have a bit more rooms so that there are better conditions for painting and cutting of the cardboards. We are currently working with Rotary Club of Lusaka and other donors so we can make a start on the slab and begin to extend our workshop, “Jones explained further.

Rotary Club President Zarina Geloo seals the handover

And in an interview after making a donation of nine wheelchairs and a K15, 000 cheque to APTERS, Rotary Club of Lusaka President, Zarina Geloo said, as a service organisation whose aim was to uplift the lives of vulnerable people, the club was keen to partner with organisations such as APTERS.

“Where we do not have the expertise, we partner with organisations like APTERS, Who have the expertise, experience and are in touch with people in need to help us, help you. Hopefully we will be able to get some more (money) that will help with the extension of APTERS for the benefit of the organisation and for the benefit of the children who need it the most,” Ms Geloo said.

When I finally got to mingle with the children and their guardians, they all could not stop thanking the Rotary Club. They shared with me how difficult it was to move around with the children from place to another. Even trips to the hospital for checkups and physiotherapy were a nightmare as they could not afford private transport. “With the wheelchairs, not only can we get them into a bus, we can now take them into town. Show them what they have been unable to see all these years. Let them feel like normal children,” they said in unison.

For Mervis Chandwe, whose daughter Winnie, has just qualified to grade eight, the wheelchair may just save her job. “I have to take Winnie and also pick her up from school and to do this I have to get permission from my employers. I am often being accused of taking advantage of the situation because I have a child who is disabled. But the location of my job, Winnie’s school and where I live are so far apart but there is no one to take her or pick her up. At the moment, am not even sure if they will renew my contract. But this chair will help me move a little bit faster and hopefully save my job.”

And an emotional Edna Bwembya who spoke in Bemba said, “I can never put it into words for you to understand what this wheel chair means to me and my son. He has Spinal Difida, the wheelchair I had got damaged and he had to stop school. He’s supposed to be in grade seven but he has not stepped into class this year. So you can imagine the joy I feel in my heart.”

Saddled in his brand new wheelchair, her son, 13, Luckson who could not hide his joy and spoke fluent English simply said ‘Thank you for giving me this wheelchair. I was not going to school because I didn’t have a wheelchair, now I can. Thank you.”

As we parted and said our goodbyes, I looked and captured in my mind the smiles on their faces, including that of their children, at least on those who could process what had just happened and what it meant. I wondered about the struggles, the parents and children would continue to face had organisations like the Rotary and APTERS not existed, but thank God they do and we can only say thank you. PYM

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