The following text is based on an interview that was conducted by Philip Armstrong (PA) and Nina Berman (NB) at The Ohio State University on May 11, 2009. Theodoto Ressa (TR) is a recipient of a 2006 Ford Foundation International Fellowship and presently a graduate student at The Ohio State University studying Special Education.

NB: Perhaps we can start with some personal background and you can tell us a little bit about when and where you were born, where you grew up, and how you got disabled.

TR: That's always a very interesting question, because I know from a number of friends that when it comes to that type of question — "when and how did you become disabled?" — it is like pricking a healing wound. I have heard others say that similar questions ignite itches! Well, I was born on April 14, 1976 in Kenya, in the Busia District of Western Province, around Lake Victoria. I was born in April; this is the rainy season in most of the regions around Lake Victoria. Therefore my name, Wafula, means rain. On my mother's side, we are six siblings. My father was born when polygamy was cherished in African culture; just like my great grandparents, he added himself another woman. So we are a family of a father, two mothers, and thirteen kids, growing up together in the same compound. One of my sisters later died from HIV/Aids.

NB: Do you want to say a little more about how you grew up?

TR: Before that, let me just add a point on how I became disabled. According to my mother, problems started when they took me with them to the hospital. There was another elder brother who was sick, but being a toddler they could not leave me at home. It was in the hospital where I got infected. In the medical jargon, I think they call it a secondary infection. However, from the medical reports that I have been reading, most of them have been quite specific that I was a victim of polio.

NB: How old were you?

TR: Seven months old. So I never had any experience of walking around or jumping about; however, my mother often says that I was very strong and that I could stand on my own while holding objects such as chairs and tables.

PA: And was this in a context where there were no vaccinations for children and little access to hospitals?

TR: Actually, for my case, I'm not sure, because there is a missionary hospital next to our home. It's called Nangina Mission Hospital. This is a Catholic missionary hospital. I think it was established in the forties. So if I was never vaccinated against polio, then it might have been due to the ignorance of some family members. I have always assumed that they had never encountered such a problem, so they never bothered to take me for a vaccination. Anyway, I cannot tell exactly because I have scars from other vaccinations such as BCG, measles, tuberculosis, and some of the communicative diseases.

PA: But they were available?

TR: Yes, I believe so, because by that time there was a big hospital there, and vaccination programs in developing countries were also offered by WHO and UNICEF.

NB: And isn't polio one of the illnesses where, at some point, there was a very concerted effort to try and vaccinate a lot of people?

TR: Exactly, exactly.

NB: By now, isn't polio almost eradicated?

TR: In Kenya, yes, but not wholly eradicated because of the refugees, mostly from Somalia, which as you know is an unstable country. Last year, a child was diagnosed with polio in northern Kenya — I think it is because the refugees are never screened or vaccinated at the border point as they enter Kenya. At the same time, this is not a Kenyan issue per se but the international community that conducts the vaccination programs through UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations such as USAID, DANIDA, or World Vision. So, we are still not a hundred percent free from a polio outbreak.1

So how did I grow up with my condition? After getting polio, from many stories told by relatives, it was a great shock to my parents. After all, this was a new family that was doing well during the '70s economic boom in Kenya. My Dad was a teacher and my Mum was a teacher, so they were role models in the community. As my condition deteriorated, however, they spent weeks away from home looking for doctors and herbalists who could cure this strange debilitating disease, or at least reverse the condition. They resorted to all the medical practices they could imagine. They read books with details on herbal and western medicine. That was the period my parents read widely. The search for a cure led them to traverse Kenya. By the time they reached Mombasa, they had wasted all their savings on an unfruitful search and odyssey. They were tired and seemed to have given up ever finding a cure. Whether they had accepted my condition as irreversible or not, I cannot tell. However, they decided to place me in Port Reitz Hospital/School for the Physically Handicapped in Mombasa. That's the hospital where I was taken at the age of four. Port Reitz is very far away from Busia, and at that time the only convenient means of transport available to my parents was either by train or by bus. There were only a few buses that travelled between Busia and Mombasa — perhaps just one bus a week.

NB: You have to go to Nairobi first. That's a long trip.

TR: Yes, and at that time they did not move as fast as they do nowadays! In the 70s they moved at a snail's pace. Because of this, it took them days to arrive in Mombasa. After they had taken me to Port Reitz, they left me there. Travelling was also a problem for them because they were teachers in Busia. At the same time, they could not relocate to Mombasa. I still have some of the letters that the doctors wrote to my parents, telling them how I was faring. My Mum never kept them very well. They are torn. Now that I have gone to the university and in the process of writing my memoir, I find them interesting to read. Whatever they were telling my Mum, I can conclude that it was to convince my parents to accept my situation as irreversible, but not the end of the world.

NB: So how long did you stay in Port Reitz? You were four years old and all by yourself without your family.

TR: In fact, it was not even 1980. I was not even four. President Kenyatta, the first Kenyan president, died in 1978. So I never lived in Mombasa beyond 1979. After Kenyatta's death, my parents thought there would be chaos in the country. So they came to get me and that was how I my stay in Port Reitz ended.

NB: Do you know how long you were there?

TR: I don't really remember. After I had been taken back home, one vivid memory is that I could not speak Samia, my first language. I had become used to speaking in Swahili and that was how we communicated in the Hospital. However, all my older and younger siblings could not speak Swahili. I understand that they were mesmerized by this "foreign speaker." And then the other thing that always reminds me about Port Reitz is the calipers (braces) and crutches that I was given when still young. They are quite unique. I still have them in my mother's storeroom, but I can't use them because they are too small. Other souvenirs are the letters that the physiotherapists used to send; they have the APDK [Association of the Physically Disabled of Kenya] Port Reitz letterhead. These are some of the things that always remind me that I was once a Port Reitz patient.

NB: What's the next important step? When did you start school?

PA: And given that both your parents were in education, were you given a specific advantage for school?

TR: Actually, after I had been taken from Port Reitz, looking for another school was a big problem. Remember there were no special schools for the physically handicapped in the whole of Western Province, so they had to look in other regions. In any case, to my parents I was just someone who could not attend a regular school because of the walking problem. My mother was a teacher in a local school, but it took about thirty minutes to trek from home. That means it would take me over two to three hours, depending on the season. Because of this, I spent a chunk of time playing with newly hatched chicks and chasing away hawks. Indeed, I was at home for a whole year while they looked for a special school.

NB: For boarding schools?

TR: Yes. We had one in Kisumu. The Salvation Army ran it. However, I understand that admission was very stringent because it was more of a school than a home. Moreover, I was very young. The school only admitted students who could do things like washing, bathing, or going to the toilet. They also only admitted students who could sleep in the dormitory with the other disabled students. Because of my young age, I was placed on the waiting list. They said I needed to mature a bit. Finding another appropriate school proved difficult because information never flowed easily, even among the experts. Unlike today, when you can "google" such institutions, back then they depended on informed medics or other parents of children with handicaps, or on missionaries who would go around picking out disabled children from their homes. A doctor told my parents about another school for the physically handicapped in Kisumu called Nyabondo Rehabilitation Home for the Disabled (NRC), which the Catholic missionaries had started in the 60s. I had been at home for over a year and my age mates were already attending nursery. So that's how I ended up in NRC in 1981. However, I started schooling in 1982 because it took me another year to use NRC braces and crutches.

PA: And at that time, were all the schools run by missionaries or all religiously based?

TR: Yes, at least from the history that I know. The Salvation Army founded Joyland Primary School for the Physically Handicapped in Kisumu, Joytown Primary and Secondary Schools for the Physically Handicapped, and Thika School for the Blind, all in Central Province. The Catholic and Lutheran churches founded other schools specifically for the deaf and mentally challenged children. Later the Government built the Mombasa Secondary School for the Physically Handicapped (MSSPH). Although the Government seemed uninterested in special education, it actually played a crucial role in posting teachers in these schools. However, the other teaching staff consisted of volunteers, both local and foreign.

PA: When was that initiative?

TR: I don't have a clear picture, but I think in the early 1980s, because I know some students who joined the school when I was still in lower primary school. There was a U.N. dictate concerning PWD at that time, and countries that were members of the U.N. and had assented to the UN declaration tried to uplift the conditions of PWD.2 That's how the then President of Kenya, Mr. Moi, started programs to help PWD. Starting MSSPH was one of the Government initiatives to better the conditions of PWD.

NB: So you joined that school in Kisumu?

TR: Yes, I joined Nyabondo Rehabilitation Center (NRC). In fact, it is a rehabilitation home, not a school. We have an adjacent school (Nyabondo Boys Day Primary School — NBDPS) that serves both the disabled and non-disabled children. There was only a fence separating the Center from the school, so walking or wheeling across was easy. Apart from a nursery school, NRC is just a place for boarding and rehabilitation. Because NRC is a private institution, run by foreign Catholic nuns, and NBDPS a public school, the nuns had to organize with the school administration for us to school there. So after mobility training I joined the nursery school, and a year later I started my primary schooling. Because there is a workshop in the Center, we never had any challenging issues with mobility aids, and it was uncommon to find a student who couldn't move around, a common problem in other special schools. However, since coming here to the U.S., I have seen some ergonomic crutches and braces and I wish they were cheaper for developing countries.

PA: And what were the disabilities of the students in the school? Were there any criteria for the disabilities that would make you eligible for that school and those that wouldn't?

TR: Actually, the majority of PWD in NRC were physically disabled, even if the causes and degrees of disability made us distinct. Some could not speak, others had respiratory problems, others were blind, and a good number had multiple handicaps. The term cerebral palsy (CP) was unheard of, but looking back I can see that there were a number of CP students. Speech and language disorders was another unused term. Some of the students could not even speak; they could only babble and growl. A few depicted characteristics of mental retardation and what has popularly become autism. Yet others were victims of civil wars in neighboring countries, like Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda.

NB: What kind of memories do you have of that when you were six? You say that some of the children could only growl or they wouldn't really speak; with some of these disabilities, was that scary when you first got there as a six year old?

TR: You know, I don't think so, because apart from missing my parents, NRC was a small haven. Right now, NRC is run by African nuns; sadly, the services have deteriorated. Years back, all the nuns were Europeans — from America, Britain, or the Netherlands. The same for the physiotherapists. We were required to pay school fees but a majority of students never paid school fees at all because a good number were sponsored.

NB: But apart from the money, what made it a haven? Were they very affectionate? Did they pay a lot of attention to your needs?

TR: Actually, that's what I needed to add. You see, the ambience at NRC could comfort even the dying. I would be homesick during the first week of school and after the school holidays, but because we had loving nuns and chaperones all around us, and virtually all the time, homesickness vanished during the very first week. The chaperones were women employed to take care of us — they were like foster or surrogate mothers, and they bathed us, prepared our beds, cleaned our clothes, prepared our meals, and took care if us when we were sick. Moreover we found comfort in each other (birds of the same feathers…). Because we played games together, sung together, and went places together, we would forget about the tribulations and challenges back home. We had many toys, many musical instruments, and we would entertain the visitors who visited the institution. There was also TV, and occasionally the nuns would organize a film screening. Sometimes we would be taken on a safari. There were also handicapped sports. On Saturday, older and more physically able children would do manual work, and on Sunday we would go to church. It was compulsory. Therefore, our life at NRC was fully packed with lively activities, something that was missing in the Salvation Army Schools that depended on teachers.

NB: So there were resources, and at home there were no resources like that?

TR: At home, walking was a problem because when it rains it is mud everywhere. I could not visit distant relatives. In most cases, my siblings would leave home to visit maternal grandparents and uncles, but because it was several hours away, I would be left behind. I resent those days, because my interaction with my relatives was damaged when I was young. I remember one day my mother quarrelling with my grandmother (who was then in her late seventies) for making a three-hour trek to come and see me — a three hour trek just for me! This would not have happened if I could walk. Remember that back home in Kenya, children have to participate in the economic activities of the family. So I would be left alone at home when everyone went to dig the fields or herd family cattle. There were times when other herdsmen would bring milk home and in the absence of parents or siblings demand that I stand up and walk. But because I could not, they would kick me severely for refusing to walk. I remember one day when our housemaid fought a herdsman for kicking me. Although some of the literature says that a child below seven cannot remember childhood experiences, I remember vividly some of the awkward encounters I had in childhood.

PA: And in the school, were there any moments when people were characterized by their specific disabilities or was everything conducted for everyone in the same way. Or were people with mental disabilities separated from people with physical disabilities?

TR: This is how the Nyabondo Rehabilitation Center compound is built. At the main gate, you have the office block. To the left is the medical center block, which is where the physical therapy is done. Immediately after that, there is another block, separated into two dormitories — one for girls, another for boys — and a common dining hall. It is in this block that children who have been operated on recuperate. The surgeries used to be done by the flying doctors.3 Nowadays, we have specific local doctors who do the operations. Although a number of these boys and girls later joined the schooling section, it was not guaranteed. The school dormitories are built on the same model, in a "L" shape. These two dormitories face each other, but in between there is an underground water tank and a small swimming pool. On the northern part of the compound is a training center for tailoring for female students. Generally, female students who joined this center were those who performed poorly academically, or were too old for primary schooling. So if there was categorization, it was in terms of ability, age, and gender, and not specific to our disabilities.

NB: Did you think that that was good or bad? Did it matter?

TR: One only perceives these categorizations when one has grown older. There was once a student who was both physically disabled and deaf. In normal circumstances, the student would have learnt sign language, but he was too physically weak to move his hands steadily. Communication was just hell. It was always a matter of throwing things. That was the crudest way to communicate. Kenya Sign Language is also still in its beginning stages. On the other hand, the house-mothers were not trained to use sign language. Their qualification depended on their perceived humility.

PA: And who would be there to make medical diagnoses?

TR: There was always a physiotherapist attached to NRC.

PA: And people with no specific specialization in different disabilities?

TR: Actually, if you can remember the history of missionaries, where they established a church was also a hospital, a school, and/or a college. Nyabondo is such a model. As a complex, there is a rehabilitation home for PWD, a hospital, a nursing training school, and a convent within the hospital compound. There is also a primary boy's boarding school, a primary girl's school, a primary boy's day school, a boy's high school, and the mission center where the priests live. I joined Nyabondo High School after my primary education. It's a regular school for all students.

PA: So somebody must have been in a position to determine whether you could go to High School?

TR: Yes, it all depended on my good performance. Because we were in a regular school, we never had a special exam or special accommodations. We competed with other students equally. In fact, that helped me a lot. High School work was demanding but I continued with my good performance. By the time I graduated from primary, I knew how to interact with the regular students, and fitting into the High School social life was easy. Although I had problems interacting with girls, in general I was a gregarious person. I think my poor interaction with girls was exacerbated by the rigid Catholic rules that never wanted boys and girls to interact. There was always separate rooms and separate activities — indeed, separation pervaded the compound. The only place we converged was on Saturday, in the multipurpose hall when we watched TV, or on Sunday when we attended church service. If my first High School was purely a boy's school, my second High School was mixed. It is here that I learnt some etiquette, though in a hard way!

Like many other students from NRC who graduated before me, I was destined to join MSSPH, but because of its poor showing in the summative national exams, the then NRC administrator decided that I join Nyabondo High School. But the conditions in the High School weren't friendly, and even more so to someone who is disabled — the toilets and the bathrooms were unadapted, the classes were always full to the brim, the constant switching of classes was hectic, and the teachers also seemed not to care, or rather never knew how to interact with me. The unwarranted sympathy was sickening and a great hindrance to self-actualization. During rainy season, walking in the slippery, muddy paths was another lifetime test. Then came a mountainous challenge I will never forget. Being on a plateau, Nyabondo has no rivers of its own. In fact, the nearest river is five kilometers away. It was the first school term, during the dry months, between January and March. It was announced that the pumps had broken down at the water supply company. Those months proved challenging. The news sent chills down the spines of Nyabondo residents. We knew this was ominous. When the pumps would be repaired was uncertain. On this specific school term, students had to be taken to the River Sondu to bathe by the riverbank, and to fetch water for kitchen use. One Saturday, a prefect drowned. Then came the restrictions, the rationing, and the biting water scarcity. For three months, I went without bathing. I was uncomfortable and colleagues never wanted to sit next to me. I was just an outcast.

PA: So High School started at what age?

TR: I started at fourteen. That's when I joined the Nyabondo High School.

PA: So when you started there, were you immediately at the level of all the other children?

TR: I joined the school with some of my former classmates. So I wasn't scared. But because of that change in environment, my performance in my first school terms just dropped.

NB: Because it was too big of an adjustment?

TR: It was just hectic. We were two disabled students from NRC. To some students, we were strangers, creatures to be avoided; to some we were objects of sympathy. So adjusting was not easy. But for those who had been exposed to disabled people, they found us quite interesting. Nevertheless, this was a kaladeiscope of students, some from rural areas and others from urban areas.

NB: So did they treat you in any offensive way?

TR: You see, this was a boarding high school and students came from different backgrounds. Some had never even seen a disabled person, while others had never been close to one. Still others were brought up knowing that a disabled person should be avoided at all cost. Because of fear of the unknown, others never wanted to interact with us. Another lot just saw education as a punishment; it never clicked why a disabled person would seek education in such a murky circumstance. On the other hand, there were those who were sympathetic. They would sacrifice their time and comfort to make us comfortable. In fact, I remember some students volunteering to carry me on their backs during rainy seasons. A number of them ensured I had my meals promptly, either in the class or in dormitory. You see, once it rained there would be mud everywhere, and it would be soggy and slippery. Furthermore, with over six hundred students walking on the same paths, in most cases the paths would be bumpy and rugged, as if a tractor had harrowed the land. Unlike at NRC, which had pavements everywhere, the paths were bare red soil in the High School. At times I look back and wonder if it is childhood illusion, but in the '80s and '90s it used to rain a lot. Although the challenges I faced in High School were backbreaking, to an extent they prepared me for the arduous university life.

PA: And the teachers?

TR: I can say that teachers were ambivalent in their reaction. Some were quite empathetic and quite helpful, while others couldn't care. They would deal with me arrogantly, never taking into account my strengths and weaknesses. Whether it was out of deep-seated hatred for the disabled or reverence, I cannot tell. Overall, the principal was very helpful; perhaps it was because of his religious conviction, I don't know. But there was definitely a cordial relationship between the NRC management and the principal. The principal also had a disabled boy. Together, all these made him protect us from bullying. In Kenya, most of the schools are affiliated to churches, and so the heads of these institutions have the church's blessing. Because of this, principals usually adopt programs that champion the church's dogmas.

PA: And the teachers were all African?

TR: Yes, Africanization had taken place in several schools by the time I joined the High School. At Nyabondo, all teachers were Africans. I once came across a Kenyan Indian, but he was the owner of another private school.

NB: So because you brought this up a couple of times, do you think the Africanization of schools has been bad for disabled persons?

TR: Well, it depends from what angle you are looking at it. For some of us who experienced the good treatment of former years, I am bound to say yes. You see, disability is not cheap. When one is disabled, then other resources are redirected to meet the needs of the disabled. This is the void Africanisation has failed to fill. A number of low-class citizens feel that the Kenyan elites are greedy. It is a widespread problem in our culture and has been nurtured to such an extent that phrases like: "you eat where you work" sounds correct, or sounds like an anthem. You see, when the same malpractice is instituted in special schools that wholly or partially rely on donor and volunteer money to operate, then nothing positive can be said about Africanisation, because it is like a slow poison that leaves its victims dead alive. The antipathy of the ruled towards the rulers could be a natural phenomenon, seen among dissatisfied citizenry all over the world. But in Kenya, when students miss school because someone does not care about their education, when the disabled lack necessary equipment because someone wants to overtax their equipment for profit, when special schools are turned into money minting projects for individuals who want short-cuts to wealth, when school fees are raised arbitrarily because someone wants to lock out economically disadvantaged students from joining specific programs, and when people die and students drop out of school because of hunger while a small clique wallow in opulence, then you should expect disquiet. I believe some African leaders are hardworking and they mean well for their countries; they want to better the economies of their countries. On the other hand, we have demagogues whose interest is to amass wealth at all cost. It is the freebooters that make some Kenyans conclude that nothing good can come out of an African ruler, even if this is a deductive fallacy.

They say a coin has two faces. One school of thought presupposes Africanisation as a Western tool of hegemony. Creating African caucuses with Western ideologies enables Western countries to control the daily activities of African nations. Many African leaders have pointed accusing fingers at institutions of manipulation, such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, holding them responsible for the breakup of African socialism. There are those who believe, for instance, that the IMF will support a program 99%, and then leave it to the government (which has no resources) to complete the final stage, somehow "proof" that when things crumble, no African leader is capable of bringing a program to fruition. Overall, Africanisation is a noble idea, but it should be done systematically and intertwined with authentic African practices. Only the competent should be rewarded, but not at the expense of integrity. South Africa has learnt this from other African countries. In their quest to empower the majority of Africans, they are trying to avoid rewarding unqualified persons with jobs that require skills. After all, you don't give a vault to a kleptomaniac and expect a judicious distribution of wealth.

NB: What about in terms of attitudes? Apart from the resources, what about attitudes vis-à-vis disabled persons?

TR: That's why I said that Africanisation has been interlaced with Western ideologies. All our practices sound Greek to a majority of Kenyans. You see, most of the programs for the disabled were started by religious organizations, and the perception has only been one of "sympathy." Because of that, our original African view has been obfuscated by these foreign practices. But look at the U.S. Do you think disability is viewed sympathetically? I doubt it. I think it has been turned into an industry, a viable industry where billions of dollars are traded in the form of insurance coverage, employment of experts, and what have you. Our Persons with Disability Act in Kenya is another example of the blind adoption of a Western measure. Look at the Act; it is a white elephant project because someone planted the American Disabilities Act in Kenya. What we have is a constitution in opposition with itself.

PA: Were you aware of that at the time?

TR: No, because I have been reading a lot about the history of special education and PWD. Most African cultures are patriarchal and, above all, stratified. At the helm are men, then women, boys, and girls, and then the disabled at the bottom. As Chinua Achebe says in his novel, Things Fall Apart, the sun shines on those who are standing before it shines on those who are seated. So in the African context, good things are usually given following the higher social strata. For example, when a family has two children, a boy and a girl, who have qualified to join a university and there is money to take only one of them, automatically a boy would be sponsored even if the girl performed better than the boy.

The Africanisation of special schools was expected, but in some quarters it was precipitated by greedy Africans who found schemes to oust the foreign nuns. It has taken governments decades to try to fill the void left by donors. I wish the predecessors had bequeathed to Africans the appropriate managerial skills and the ability to raise funds. As I said earlier, running programs for the disabled has proven challenging because of ignorance, apathy, and lack of priority.

However, I want to consider these challenges to be teething problems. Already a good number of students in the universities are taking special education. With the ready manpower, I believe we are on the right track toward solving some of the challenges. But there should be a mechanism to separate out teachers who join the profession for purely monetary gain from those who believe school can transform peoples' lives. Principals should be dismissed for selling donated wheelchairs to private hospitals while students crawl on their knees.

NB: In western societies, the same concept — that the physically disabled should not go to school — existed as well. My father was born in Germany in 1925 and got polio when he was three. He completed high school, but then his parents thought that he should not go to the university. So they made him do an apprenticeship as a bookbinder. They thought that would be it. And then he fought on his own to go to the university. Polio has nothing to do with your mental capacity. So the attitude in Germany was similar in many ways. It was only after World War II that it changed. It might have been that it was the missionaries in Africa who were ahead of the game; their attitudes toward disability might have been even more progressive than those found back home in Europe. That might be an interesting thing to look into.

PA: A related question: At High School, were you given any sense that you had a future after you had finished school? Were you given any sense that there were possible careers ahead of you, or did you get the impression that the teachers thought you would get to the end of High School and then there would be little hope?

TR: When I joined High School, there was a big leap in the field of education of PWD in Kenya; there were a number of secondary schools that were admitting persons with disability. There were universities teaching special education and departments within the humanities that dealt with disability issues, although at a rudimentary level. Therefore, I knew that a future was there to be explored. But how? That was the challenge. My dream was to be a lawyer, or a wildlife manager, or an electronics engineer — at worst, a teacher! My parents were teachers so I needed to venture into another field. I was optimistic that my good performance would drive me there. After all, I was among the best students throughout my primary schooling. Although I was not near the top ten students when I joined High School, in one term I performed quite well and came in ninth out of 124 students. This convinced me that I could be anything if I wanted. Nevertheless, nothing pushed me ahead more than the belief of people who knew that I could do it. It has been the unseen impetus.

I still remember how one day, after skipping school, me and ten colleagues were sent to headmaster's office where we were flogged. Since then, I have never missed school again!

It also reminds me of another friend of mine. We schooled in the same primary and secondary school. He used to perform very well until his mother died and his father remarried. I don't know if it was the new woman who influenced his father, but his life was never the same. The last time I heard about him, he had become a beggar in Nairobi. One day, a teacher told him that his walking style could tell how rude he was. I was perplexed because this was a guy who used crutches and was wholly dependent on them. It's only now that I see how some of our failures have been contributed to by the teachers.

NB:What about your family?

TR: My mother has been supportive and I believe she has been pivotal in my life. She has fought many battles on my behalf. Many villagers tell me that were it not for her, I would never have scaled many ladders. I am always appreciative of her unceasing love. I never had a close relationship with my dad, especially during my teen years, probably because there were many of us in the family. But one thing is clear — he sacrificed his comfort for our education and he apportioned his salary to all of his siblings. He would pay my fees without delay. On joining university, however, I saw a remarkable change in our relationship. Occasionally, I would be consulted when serious family deliberation was needed.

NB: And your siblings?

TR: I have three elder brothers and a sister the same age. Although I wasn't really part of their lives, our relationship is fine and there is no sibling rivalry. My younger siblings respect me too. In the whole family, I'm the only one who has pursued post-graduate work and I plan to continue with a PhD. Unlike here in the U.S., my education is cherished by both relatives and non-relatives. The whole village was filled with joy when the news spread that I was going to the U.S. to further my studies. I remember a similar thing when I passed my primary and secondary summative exams. This is seen in the way people relate to me, with respect. I am more accepted than before.

NB: So education is really crucial for PWD. It's crucial for everyone, but maybe even more so for PWD.

TR: It's liberating. I remember one day meeting a village elder on the main path to my home. "How is your training at Odiado Vocational Center?" he asked. He had seen me grow up, go to school, and all along it never occurred to him that I would pursue a different career other than train to be a cobbler, a popular trade for physically handicapped persons. I was then a sophomore at the university. So I have grown in disability and with disability. I have also experienced the mighty hand of education. Like the tortoise, I have always stretched my neck out of my shell to explore the unexplored; after all, nothing comes without sacrifice, and if does, it vanishes just as it came.


  1. According to news reports, "Kenya has not registered any case of polio since 1984 until this year February when the first case was reported and confirmed in Loki area of Turkana North. Sixteen other cases were identified later." As a result, Kenya has increased polio vaccination campaigns in recent years, and particularly in 2009. Outbreaks are linked to incoming refugee populations. See "Kenya Starts Polio Vaccine in 12 Districts,", August 6, 2009.

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  2. In December 1982, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons. See and for information on the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons: 1983-1992.

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  3. For a documentary on the Flying Doctors, see The Flying Doctors of East Africa (German: Die fliegenden Ärzte von Ostafrika, 1969) by Werner Herzog.

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Copyright (c) 2009 Theodoto Ressa

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)