Handicapped in Zambia

Mapalo's affectionate touch and smile are a blessing to us all. But for his mother, each day with this handicapped boy in Zambia is a challenge.

Mapalo's affectionate touch and smile are a blessing to us all. But for his mother, each day with this handicapped boy in Zambia is a challenge.

     I’d seen the boy last year already, lifting his walker over the potholes in the street, accompanied by an older lad. When I spoke to him, he tried to focus on me with his roving eyes, a big smile on his curious face. He struggled to walk, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He loved being out and about.
     This year I met Mapalo’s mother. Mapalo is Bemba for Blessing. Juliette told me his story. He was born in South Africa, at five months, weighing only 800 grams. Somehow he survived. When he was several months old, a shunt was necessary to drain fluid from his brain. Despite all odds he seemed to do quite well until he was two. Within a day the fluid from his brain drained much too fast and he became severely handicapped.
     Juliette says it was hospital error that caused much of his handicaps. At least the South African hospital is taking responsibility and all his hospitalizations and treatments there are covered.
But they can’t cover the daily problems that are magnified in a country such as Zambia, where Juliette returned to work in order to cover the increased cost of living with Mapalo. Her dentist’s license was not valid in South Africa. She has to travel to South Africa for all his medical care.
     When Mapalo was little, it was easier. Things were manageable. But it gets harder as he grows older. She laments that she can’t find diapers in his size. So he wears ones too small, causing rashes and rubbing spots. She can’t carry him anymore. Streets are all so potholed; it is difficult for him to move with his walker. Services like occupational and physical therapy are either unavailable or out of the reach of the ordinary Zambian.
     She is very grateful for an NGO that runs a school for the handicapped and provides bus service to pick him up. That is, when there are funds. Sometimes funds are not available, and he has to stay home. He gets aggressive then. Mapalo loves activity and variety. He gets bored at home, even though Juliette has hired a woman to care for him when she is working.
     I stopped by the other day. Mapalo was sitting out on the veranda, happily turning the wheels of a new walker, one with a seat so he can sit when he is tired. Another gift from the NGO, as are the colourful sturdy toys scattered around him. “This is all from you people,” Juliette tells me. Without the support from overseas donors, Mapalo might be like so many were or are in this country – locked behind doors, an embarrassment for his family.
     Juliette is thankful to live at MEF, a safe community where people have understanding for her son’s handicaps. Out in one of the city’s many compounds, he would be ridiculed, teased. “It would not touch Mapalo,” she says. “But it would touch his mother.” And things are already hard enough for her.

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