IT HAS been four years now since Mary Chibombe's daughter Damela developed a disability after suffering from an unknown disease.

Four-year-old Damela, was born healthy but fell ill after two weeks. The illness has left the baby with stiff legs, arms and a neck which is titled to one side.

Mary, 38, of Chongwe's Lwiimba area is struggling to come to terms with what has befallen her family. She has four children and the other three are healthy. She is married to Chongwe peasant farmer Frank Chikoko.

Mary says she initially thought Damela was suffering from malaria.

"It was two weeks after being born that Damela fell sick and I thought it was malaria. But later I got worried when I noticed that her legs were becoming stiff," Mary says. "I rushed her to the hospital where I was asked if my baby had meningitis to which I said 'no'."

Damela was subsequently placed on medication and Mary was advised to start taking her for physiotherapy twice a week. However, Mary could not manage to take Damela to the University Teaching Hospital because she had no money.

"I am a poor farmer and my husband is not in formal employment so I could not afford to continuously go to UTH every Monday and Friday due to transport constraints. However, they physiotherapists told me that I should only go back after Damela turns six years old so that she can start advanced physiotherapy," said Mary as she struggled to hold back tears.

However, Damela's condition has now worsened.

"She now can't sit up and she can't eat on her own and the worst part is during the time I have to go into the fields. During maize harvest, I used to leave at 06:00 hours and be in the field until 18:00 hours. She had to be on my back at all times, it was tiring. With schools in session my three other children have to attend classes, Damela has to be either on my back or lying down on a mat," she says.

Like several other Africans who believe in non-conventional medicines, Mary and her husband have also tried to seek help from traditional healers.

"We went from one traditional healer to another and some of them were even saying that ni vakubantu it's witchcraft until last year when I decided to have my child registered with World Vision for assistance," she says. "I can work as I have to feed or make sure I am near her to make sure she is safe. I can't afford the hospital fees to have her condition rectified. We have also admitted we have to live with the situation and turn to God for guidance and solace."

Last week, the Free Wheelchair Mission donated wheelchairs to the vulnerable people in Chongwe and Damela was a beneficiary.

Mary thanked Free Wheelchair Mission founder and president Dr Don Schoendorfer and John Jensen for helping her daughter.

"When I was told that I was to receive a free wheelchair last night last Tuesday, I could not believe it and thought that they were just joking but now I can be able to rest and work," she said.
With a new wheelchair for Damela, Mary only hopes her daughter will be well soon so that she can lead a normal life.

Damela will surely grow up to remember the words of two former US presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln looking at the commitment that her mother has to ensure her wellbeing.
Washington once said, "My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her."

In the same vein, Lincoln said, "I remember my mother's prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life."

Free Wheelchair Mission, a US based organisation, which donated the wheelchairs to the vulnerable in Chongwe, was founded ten years ago on the premise to better the lives of the disabled people in developing countries.

Dr Don Schoendorfer and his wife Laurie were on a vacation in Morocco when they saw a disabled woman struggling to drag herself across a dirty road. Ignored by the crowds and barely evading traffic, the woman's hardship was a scene the couple would be unable to forget upon their return to life in southern California.

A mechanical engineer and inventor, Don was a Columbia University researcher responsible for a string of over 50 US patents. After his experience in Morocco, Don began researching the global dilemma of disability in developing countries.

Thereafter, he started tinkering in the basement, developed a durable, safe, inexpensive wheelchair, and eventually walked away from a successful career to found the nonprofit organisation Free Wheelchair Mission.

In developing the wheelchair, Don's goal was to come up with a basic design at an extremely low cost so as to reach the highest number of disabled impoverished people in the shortest possible amount of time.

Rather than starting with custom-made components, Don put together a wheelchair using parts already in existence. Through this approach, he was able to generate an extraordinarily low cost in gathering wheelchair components.

The plight of disabled children still remains a challenge in the country and organisations like Free Wheel Mission should be emulated to ensure that many children are empowered.