Paralympic Power: Disability in Sierra Leone

As London celebrates a wealth of skill from disabled people around the world, Hannah Loryman considers the shifting attitudes towards disabled people in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has a high rate of disability because of the civil war. Photo by babasteve

This year’s Paralympics sees the second ever Sierra Leonean, Mohamed Kamara, compete. The first half of Kamara’s story is unfortunately a common one. He is one of thousands of Sierra Leoneans who suffered amputation at the hands of rebel forces during the war. Now 22, he was a small child when the rebels came into his village, killed his parents in front of him and then chopped off his hand. In addition to a high number of amputee victims the lack of health infrastructure during the war caused an increase in diseases such as Polio which led to disability, particularly in children. The result is a generation with a much higher disability rate with conservative estimates suggesting that disabled people make up at least 10 percent of the population.

In addition to overcoming the problems associated with having his arm amputated, Kamara had to overcome the stigma associated with disability in the country. A recent report found that those with disabilities are 2.7 times more likely to experience physical abuse and/or rape than those without. Many disabled people face significant stigmatisation and exclusion from society due to the belief that disability is caused by black magic, voodoo or sin. This belief is deeply entrenched especially in rural areas. Many children don’t receive vital treatment because of the idea that they can be cured by witch doctors; others are abandoned or even killed.

Bentry Kalanga, Leonard Cheshire’s senior programme manager for Africa, highlights that in a country where access to education, health care and employment is already low people with disabilities have even less access and a “voice that is not heard”.

Grassroots organisations such as the United Polio Brothers in Sierra Leone have formed communities which allow them to live in an area free from discrimination. Over 100 “brothers”, including women and children, live in Freetown in an ex-abattoir sleeping on cardboard on the concrete floor. Over the past few years, help from charities has  improved their living conditions and by working together they are able to produce small scale crafts to earn some money. While these conditions are far from ideal, the Polio brothers represent a group of disabled people actively
reclaiming their voice.

By giving disabled people a community to live in, organisations such as the Polio brothers can make a real difference to their lives. But the reality is that this shouldn’t be necessary. They should be able to live equally alongside non-disabled people and receive the same access to education, health and employment.

A positive shift in attitude recorded by a recent survey reflects the possibility for change in the country. All respondents believed that disabled people should
have the same rights as other Sierra Leoneans. This alongside the government ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and introducing the Persons with Disability Act is a positive step forward.

Kamara’s paralympic journey cannot suddenly change the way in which disability is seen and it can certainly not erase the economic, social and physical barriers that disabled people face. It can, however, demonstrate to all Sierra Leoneans that disability isn’t something to be feared and that disabled people can achieve great things.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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