Disabled Fight for Inclusion in Kenya’s Nomadic Communities

Nearly 4 percent of Kenyans are disabled, but the number may be higher in nomadic communities.

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Disabled Fight for Inclusion in Kenya’s Nomadic Communities

Publication Date

GARISSA, KENYA – Harun Hassan grew up herding goats in Kutulo, a village in Garissa County, a dry region of northeastern Kenya with little infrastructure. He lived in a Somali community of nomadic pastoralists, moving frequently in search of available water and pasture.

It never crossed his mind how disabled people would fare in his roaming community – until he became paralyzed in a car accident in March 2007.

Hassan was then a newly married provincial administration officer working for the government in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. While traveling from Nairobi to Garissa, he got into a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

He spent a year in the hospital in Nairobi. Although he later regained use of his arms, doctors told him he would never walk again.

When he was discharged in March 2008, he had lost all hope in life, he says.

“I went back to Kutulo to die,” he says. “I knew the place had no roads, no health facilities and no means of survival for disabled people. But I insisted on going there because I thought my life was over.”

His paralysis prevented him from participating in his community’s nomadic lifestyle. His family members herded animals in distant fields, leaving him at home alone.

Then people with disabilities began to visit him. Like Hassan, they were the only ones left in the village when the rest of the community was at work. This was the first time he noticed them, he says.

“It had never occurred to me that they were there,” Hassan says. “I wondered how they lived in a nomadic community, where people are always on the move in search of pastures for their livestock.”

His visitors restored his hope in life. He abandoned his resignation to dying and began to focus on helping people with disabilities in the Somali community.

“My focus started shifting from my predicament to other people,” he says. “I realized I could do something to help.”

With the help of five friends, Hassan founded the Northern Nomadic Disabled Persons’ Organisation in 2010 to empower community members excluded by society.

In rural Kenya’s nomadic communities, disabled members cite exclusion as their limited mobility prevents their participation in traditional life and families consider them bad omens. In response, NONDO and other organizations provide equipment to disabled people and educate parents and local leaders to promote inclusion in pastoral societies.

There are more than 1.3 million people living with disabilities in Kenya, or about 3.5 percent of the population, according to Kenya's 2009 Population and Housing Census.

In a nomadic community, there may be more people living with disabilities than in other populations, Hassan says. Poor infrastructure and a lack of access to health care means that nomadic people are more likely to suffer from diseases such as polio or measles, which can cause physical disability such as blindness, he says.

Hussein Borle, a resident of Garissa town, understands how inadequate medical care affects the community’s disabled members. Borle suffered a spinal injury in 1973 at age 12 when livestock thieves raided his village and speared him in the back.

“There were no rehabilitation facilities at the hospital,” Borle says. “They treated the wounds on the surface and told me to go home.”

Paralyzed from the waist down, Borle began using a wheelchair. There was suddenly little he could do to contribute to his community’s lifestyle.

“Living in the bush as a disabled boy was difficult,” Borle says. “I would be left outside the house like a piece of luggage as my family went to graze our animals. Even children were more useful than I, as they would go to herd goats and fetch firewood.”

His family’s movement depends on the availability of water and pastures, he says. When they exhaust the resources in one location, they move to another place, sometimes traveling day and night for as far as 100 kilometers (60 miles).

“When time came for the family to move to another place, they would carry me on the back of camels,” he says. “Sometimes we would travel for several weeks, settle in a place for two weeks, then start moving again.”

When nomadic families have too much to carry, they leave their disabled family members behind in homesteads, Hassan says. They stock the homes with food and fence them in to ward off wild animals. After settling into their new homes, they return for the disabled members left behind.

Hassan says that Somali culture considers children born with disabilities to be bad omens. Men sometimes divorce wives who give birth to disabled children. Most families hide their disabled members and do not allow them to go to school or to the hospital when they are sick.

“The Somali community tends to associate things they do not understand with evil,” Borle says.

Borle says his life improved when he left the community. After seeking treatment for bedsores at a hospital in Garissa, hospital administrators sent him to an education center run by a Catholic mission rather than back to the bush.

Borle went on to gain a university education and now works for the Northern Water Services Board, a government agency based in Garissa town. He also serves as chairman of NONDO’s board of directors.

Hassan says that when he first met with the disabled people in his community who inspired him to found NONDO, he noticed that most of them did not have wheelchairs. When they came to visit, they crawled on the ground.

“The first thing we did was to remove physical barriers the people were facing,” he says. “Well-wishers gave funds that we used to buy wheelchairs and crutches.”

Abdihakim Mohammed, an electrician in Garissa town, lost mobility in his legs after a childhood bout of polio. It was difficult for his family to care for him because of their nomadic lifestyle, so they moved him to the town to live with a distant relative.

NONDO equipped Mohammed with a tricycle last year. Mohammed says it’s easier than using a wheelchair.

“I can now move with ease around the town,” he says, “and I’m able to attend to many clients.”

NONDO collaborates with the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya and government agencies in northern Kenya on its initiatives.

Jemima Bamai, a project coordinator with APDK, says that the association partners with organizations such as NONDO and Kenya Red Cross Society to identify and to assist disabled people, especially during crises such as droughts and floods. The association also works closely with Kenya’s Ministry of Health by providing services to disabled people at provincial and district hospitals.

After NONDO or the Red Cross has identified a disabled person in need, APDK sends health personnel to assess the type of equipment they require, Bamai says. APDK then dispatches the equipment.

"It is, however, difficult to assist disabled people in the bush because even if they get a wheelchair, it doesn't help much,” she says. “We do not also want to remove them from their community, as they are part of it. It is really tricky.”

The organizations then complement equipment distribution with community education about people with disabilities.

“We encourage the community not to see them as a burden," Bamai says.

NONDO joins APDK in educating the community to challenge the stigma attached to disability.

“I recently had a lengthy call with a mother who has a disabled child with spinal injury,” Hassan says. “I had to convince her not to keep her locked up in the house. I usually engage parents to bring out their children and let them be like all the other children.”

Hassan says that NONDO trains parents of children with disabilities on how to approach community members who have not accepted their children. The organization also works with the government to educate officials on the importance of involving disabled people in governance and development projects.

Rebecca Kemunto, a community development officer for the Ministry of Special Programmes in Garissa town, participated in one of NONDO’s workshops. Before the workshop, she did not engage people with disabilities in her work, she says.

“They always want things done their way,” she says, “and they are very moody, so I feel that they will drag my project.”

But the workshop amended her attitude, she says. Kemunto is now willing to involve people with disabilities in her community development projects.

Hassan also aims to improve attitudes among disabled people by motivating them to participate in social and political life. In Kenya’s March elections, one of the disabled members of the community contested for a county representative position, Hassan says.

“I think people in our community are yet to acknowledge that a disabled person can serve in a public office,” Hassan says. “But that was just a start. I’m sure we’ll win in future as the society learns that we are not disabled per se but able to do things differently.”