It’s a bumpy ride to Balali village, located about 180 kilometres from Marsabit town, Kenya. We talk about politics to distract ourselves, eventually we run out words. It’s quiet in the car except for the soothing Gabra music and the noise from our bumpy road, ideally it would have helped to doze off but we all have to stay alert lest we find our heads hitting the roof of the car. My companion is a former aspirant Member of County assembly for one of the Wards in Marsabit, unfortunately, she lost the election/nomination but the leader in her is evident throughout the trip in her interaction with the community.
Five hours later, we arrive in Balali; the men are waiting under a tree and the women are busy in a manyatta (traditional hut) a few yards away. Traditional stools are set for us under a leafless tree and we sit as the women start trooping in. Then this woman shows up with traditional ‘bracelets’ or ‘medich’ as they call them made of fresh goat skin, she says these are used to welcome guests and an indication that a goat has been slaughtered for the guests.
We start the meeting; our mission is to collect data for a research piece by the Linking Preparedness Response and Resilience project lead by Christian Aid on support to locally led responses. Balali group is one of the four communities that received grants in December 2017 of KES 170,000 each, through a pilot project implemented by MIONET (Marsabit Indigenous Organizations Network) and funded by Christian Aid, to design and manage a drought response activity of their choice. Balali group is special because it is not even registered but MIONET recognised the need and gave them the grant. A grant that, through our discussions, we learnt has transformed their lives. They invested the money in food items for sale that were distributed in three ‘manyattas’ for easy access to the 82 households living in this community. The benefits proved to be immense, for example; shortened distances for the women who before had to trek for kilometres to get food on credit in the nearby centres and sometimes went back home empty handed. Now, with their own shops, they never lack food. Empowerment that has seen women who used to ask for everything from their husbands now make decisions on what to buy from the shops without having to ask for permission since they are the ones who manage the business.
An old man changes his sitting position to face my direction when I ask the group how the disabled benefit from the business activity. I notice one of his eyes appear closed as I shift my attention to the response of one of the elders. He informs me that the disabled and the most needy are known in the village and they get to benefit even when they are not members of the group as the group allows them to get food on credit until they are able to pay, sometimes in cash and sometimes using goats. This has been a success despite the challenges they were facing, like lack of knowledge in the managing groups, business skills etc. We conclude our meeting after a two-hour discussion when one of the elders, the same man I notices earlier, stands up and gives a vote of thanks. Buke Guyo was his name and we all felt flattered by his words, he said I didn’t deserve just the ‘Medich’ but a live goat to carry home with me. I was nodding my head acknowledging his gratitude but his next statement broke my heart. He said, “I would have come near you to give you a special handshake as a sign of gratitude but I know you will be scared of be because of my eyes”. My first instinct was to cut him short and tell him I am not scared of him, to assure him that I am amongst the many humanitarian workers fighting for their inclusion, but in our African culture you don’t interrupt the elders. I waited for him to finish and spent the next minutes reiterating the importance of involving people with special needs in any humanitarian responses and development activities. I assured him that he like any other community member is important and I am not scared of him because of his visual impairment.
Even with my assurance, my mind was disturbed about his statement. In such meetings I would usually conform to the cultural practices of the communities just so they don’t look at me as an outsider, just so I fit in and make them comfortable enough for honest and open discussions. This time I emphasized the importance of ensuring that people with special needs are involved in community activities to ensure these activities cater for their needs. Buke Guyo’s statement was for me an indication that we need to do more to make people with special needs feel accepted and valued within the community.
A lot has been done and is being done to champion the involvement of people with special needs through different platforms, but there is a need to expand the focus. We need to not just address the physical aspects of having them represented, but also on dimensions that would address the mental and social impacts as a result of their disabilities that probably make them feel different from everyone else.
Well, I took a personal step to let Buke Guyo know that I am not scared of him by shaking his hand and taking a selfie with him. His face beamed with a smile, he said, “people in Nairobi will now see me”. What are you doing to promote inclusion as an individual, in your community and organization? What are you doing to make people with special needs accepted and valued?
In the upcoming global conference ‘Preparing for Shock: Is Preparedness the New Frontier?’ taking place in Geneva on 14th and 15th March, we will explore how far we are from ensuring participation of and reaching the most marginalised; to what extent we are programming according to inclusive principles, and what we are doing that is different in practice and the results of this; how we have progressed on enhancing the roles of underrepresented groups such as women, older people, and people with disabilities in preparing for, delivering and reaching the affected population; and how far we have come in enabling affected communities in leading preparedness programming and humanitarian response. For more information about the conference, please visit our event page here.
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