Wheeling for change in Kenya

Zack’s mission is to raise cash, build a rehabilitation clinic and get people to take notice.

To say that Zack Kimotho is an unusual sight is something of an understatement – at least in Africa.

For the past few weeks, he has been pushing his wheelchair along the open road outside Nairobi. Each day, he advances a little further down the highway heading south. Sometimes he makes 10km sometimes less, depending on the hills.

Travelling just ahead of him is an open truck, with its trailer carrying a disc jockey, a collection of over-sized speakers and a group of gyrating dancers boosting Zack’s spirits as he navigates the broken tarmac.

Immediately behind, is an ambulance, then two armed security guards and bringing up the rear is another truck, with yet another complement of dancing supporters.

But it is not just the slow-moving and very noisy convoy that makes Zack so unusual. It is simply the fact that he is a disabled man out in the open, in a place where those with disabilities are all but invisible.

And now, he has become very difficult to ignore.

Eight years ago, Zack lost the use of his legs when thieves shot him in a botched car jacking. Kenya has just one spinal-injury ward with about 30 beds, but no rehabilitation clinic to help the disabled learn to function once they’re out of hospital. The nearest one is in Cape Town – 4,000km away.
So, that is now where Zack is heading.  

It is a publicity stunt of course, and he and his team have done it very effectively. They have been on local TV, in the papers and on millions of mobile phones across the country in an attempt to raise the $3m dollars they need to build a spinal rehab center closer to home.

As soon as they raise the money, they’ll turn around and build the center. If the money doesn’t come, Zack will grit his teeth and push his chair all the way to Cape Town.

When I told this story to a friend, she pointed out that the government was not likely to be too bothered – since it cannot find the money to provide even the most basic health services to its able-bodied population, let alone to its disabled. And anyway, the clinic will be able to help only a handful of the 15,000 Kenyans that the government estimates suffer from spinal injury every year. But for Zack, that isn’t the point.

Across Africa, the disabled seem hidden from view. Beyond the ramp that leads out of hospital, it seems there are no concessions to the needs of people confined to wheelchairs or on crutches. Broken roads, muddy laneways and badly designed footpaths are tough enough for most people to cope with. For the disabled, they are not just impossible to negotiate they become insurmountable obstacles that are as confining as prison bars.

So Zack’s mission is to raise his cash and build his rehabilitation clinic. But it is also to get people to notice, and think a little more deeply about what it means to be disabled in Africa.

As another driver slips past his convoy and leans out to shout encouragement to Zack, it seems on that last count he might have just succeeded a little.

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