Jeneba sits inside her tailor shop this evening sewing a client’s brightly colored outfit. She works alone and the place is still and quiet. Her colleague left town to attend a funeral and her son, Ibrahim, went to visit a friend. Jeneba comes to a stopping point, sets the work aside, and rests her head on her arms as they lay across a metal sewing machine. She feels happy and accomplished after yesterday’s Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI) meeting. Jeneba decides to share her life story, beginning with her youth and ending with her current goals as SLUDI chairlady. She wants the story to be a reminder for herself and a positive example to young girls and boys with special needs.
I was born in Masanki, a small village far from town. As a young girl living there, I remember having many friends. We loved to watch the older kids play volleyball and football, but we were too young to join them. I had a happy early childhood, but then a sickness attacked me. My mother recalls the day well and always begins the story with a small detail—the bright white towel. She hung it to dry outside after bathing me, but someone stole it from the clothesline. She began to notice my fever on that day. I fought it with all the strength a five year old child could muster, but it lasted for weeks. After my recovery my mother noticed that I could no longer stand.
My parents and grandmother took me to Serabu Hospital. The doctors told them I would eventually walk again, but not like other children. My family wanted a second opinion so they took me to Rotifunk. At the time the Chinese people operated a hospital there. They gave my parents the same outlook.
I tried to walk with my grandmother’s help but made little progress. She had so much patience and I’m very grateful to her. I remember the walking stick she made from a tree branch since crutches weren’t around at the time. The stick supported my weight as I practiced standing. It took me a year of hard work to walk again.
I entered primary school at the Moyamba District Education Council (MDEC) Government School in Masanki. My childhood friends slowly drifted away as they began to notice my disability. Some students ignored me and others would bully me. They thought my disability could pass to them if they stood too close so they wouldn’t let me play with them.
I soon made new friends who truly supported and encouraged me. The school staff also helped. The headmaster Mr. Lebbie, may his soul rest in perfect peace, helped me greatly during my first year of primary school. He punished any student who bullied me and I appreciated that. During lunch hour, he invited me to eat with his family at their home. My mother couldn’t afford lunch money sometimes and Mr. Lebbie didn’t want me to feel ashamed in front of the other pupils. He also taught classes and always asked me to sit in the front row. I focused on the lessons and my name always stayed in first position. I did so well in primary class one that the school gave me a double promotion to class three. I never expected that! The teachers and headmaster asked me if I could represent the school for quiz bowls and debate competitions. I refused at first then they begged me to go. They said everything would turn out badly without me.
I loved attending MDEC, but had to leave Masanki village after primary class five. My father accepted a work transfer to a nearby town and he brought us along. I finished my sixth year at Moyamba District Council (MDC) Primary School, then passed the National Primary School Exam (NPSE) with great results. Afterwards I entered St Joseph’s Vocational Secondary School. The teachers there really encouraged me since no other student in the school had a physical disability. I felt so welcome and safe because of their help and protection. Pa Lavrie, my English language teacher, always stood by my side to make sure I followed the right path to my future. Two of my other teachers—Mr. Kambeh, social studies, and Mr. Samu, business studies—helped me with extra classes to ensure my success. Luckily my schoolmates never became jealous of the extra support I received. Instead they asked for my help and I agreed. After working very hard, I successfully completed my junior and senior level courses with excellent marks. Then I passed the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE).
I had a boyfriend after senior secondary school and we stayed together for one year. He ran away after that, I think because of my disability, but then I realized that I was pregnant. On January 6, 2000 I had to visit the government hospital because of a complication—the doctors failed to save my baby. The experience left me devastated and I refused to enter university. I felt that my boyfriend spoiled my future.
Three years after my miscarriage, one of my good friends Silfana Junior became annoyed with me. He said it’s not good that I sit at home doing nothing. We decided to start an organization called Disabled Rights Movement (DRiM). We worked around our town and collaborated with Non-Governmental organization (NGOs), Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), and the District Council. They were impressed with our initiative and hard work. DRiM focused on advocacy work to promote the rights of persons with disabilities. Silfana and I grew tired of the marginalization we all faced: the rape of men and women with special needs, bullying and intimidation, and housing discrimination. People would always tell us “don’t come here, you’re not fit to be among us.”
Silfana asked me to represent DRiM at meetings, but I’d feel so ashamed when standing in front of so many people. I’d freeze and words wouldn’t come out, then I’d cry. He would ask me about the meetings and I’d feel so guilty. One day I told him to stop sending me because I felt small among so many powerful people. Silfana responded by giving me even more responsibility—he nominated me to be the DRiM Gender Desk Officer at our next staff meeting. I protested but he promised that the position would help me become a better public speaker. I threatened to leave the organization but he didn’t back down. He was right. With time I grew more comfortable expressing myself in public. Silfana made sure to always give me speaking roles any time our organization went into the field. I felt encouraged being around my colleagues. After some time my public speaking improved greatly and I became the chairlady of DRiM.
My duties brought me to many major cities in Sierra Leone—Freetown, Bo, Makeni, and Kenema. In 2011, the Sierra Leone Government passed the Persons with Disability Act. I visited Freetown to meet with other district representatives from all over the country. We talked to government officials about the Act’s importance to people with special needs. My other work for DRiM took me to villages for sensitization programs. I trained communities in the proper way to treat people having special needs—with respect and dignity. In 2014 I represented DRiM at a forum hosted by the 50/50 group. I addressed a hall filled with people and the coordinator of 50/50 admired my speech. He predicted that one day I would hold a high government position in Sierra Leone. I believed him! After that I prayed every day to become somebody great in my country.
During the 50/50 forum I heard so many problems facing women in my country. When I returned to Moyamba, I decided to leave DRiM on good terms and start a new organization called the Disabled Women Action Group (DWAG). I wanted to help women with disabilities discover their passions and take up trades such as hairdressing and tailoring. DWAG would help them develop their businesses and teach them to be self-reliant, just like I’m doing for myself with tailoring.
When I first heard about the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI) elections, I didn’t want to run for the leadership position. My friends and colleagues felt otherwise—they begged and encouraged me to run for office. They reminded me of all the good things I did for them and others. They inspired me to run for chairlady. Many people applied but the race came down to four candidates—two women and two men. I’m overjoyed that my district chose me to lead the march towards equality and justice. During my first meeting as SLUDI chairlady, many community leaders expressed their appreciation of my hard work and dedication. I felt like crying, not from shame this time, but from joy.
I want to help accomplish many of SLUDI’s goals as chairlady. First, we want housing facilities for people with special needs. I don’t want to hear another story about landlords raising rent to evict us. We also want empowerment through livelihood-assistance programs that create employment opportunities for us. We also want youth-focused government initiatives such as government-assisted schools for children with special needs. If the children receive support at an early age, they will become future leaders in Sierra Leone. SLUDI would also like public buildings to be more accessible—we want to feel welcome and gain access to important services. Finally, we want laws in place that punish anybody who abuses, bullies, or discriminates against people with disabilities. Let us receive justice. I really appreciate the government’s efforts so far, especially with the Persons with Disability Act. Thank you to former President Kabba, former President Koroma, and President Bio. I feel President Bio will do what we expect of him and even more. He’s a serious president.
I have a special message for girls like me—don’t be discouraged just because you are different from others. Be brave and make yourself known to the world so you can do good things for yourself and others. Don’t give up after failure. If you need help, come to me for advice and I will give you love and support.