The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons living with Disabilities (December 3, 2012) was “Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all.” To mark this event, the Bamenda Coordinating Centre for Studies in Disability and Rehabilitation (BCSDR) and the International Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation (ICDR) of the University of Toronto, Canada, organized a conference in Bamenda, on Saturday, December 8, 2012, titled the “Bamenda Conference on Disability and Rehabilitation”. I was given the opportunity to address participants to that conference and I spoke on how I see the press in Cameroon covering persons living with disabilities among us.
Even though I have been in the media for a long time, having served for some years as the Editor-in-chief of the English edition of the Catholic weekly, L’Effort camerounais, and for four years (2004-2008) as the General Manager of the Catholic Media House in Douala, generally known by its French acronym, MACACOS, which publishes L’Effort camerounais, I do not recall ever having given serious thought to disability as an exciting topic for media coverage, nor assigned any reporter to cover a story on people living with disabilities.
What I remember, though, is that I did, on two occasions, write something about people living with disabilities; the first time was when I interviewed Reverend Father Roland Berngeh, the present Vicar General of the Diocese of Kumbo, who organized a program to cater for the welfare of mentally challenged individuals in Kumbo; and the second time was when I attended a meeting of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) at Saint Augustine’s College in Kumbo some years ago. There, we were challenged by a dynamic woman to review our attitude as parents towards children living with disabilities.
I guess, like most Cameroonians, I have come to accept the generally negative view of people living with disabilities that appears so often in the Cameroonian media (written, spoken or audio-visual). Such persons are generally cloaked in many negative robes, being seen, for the most part, as sinister, evil, violent, or simply objects of pity, curiosity, ridicule, or even objects of sexual pleasure.
President Jacques Chirac’s visit
Some years ago, when the then French President, Jacques Chirac, was scheduled to visit Cameroon, the authorities of the two main cities of Yaoundé and Douala, which our ‘illustrious’ guest was to visit, decided that people with mental disability, beggars and cripples were a sore sight on the streets.
Overnight, truckloads of gendarmes and police swooped down on the streets of these two cities, carting away these unfortunate individuals, under the watchful eye of the media that literally had a field day. One press coverage after another weighed in, not on the impact of the move on the disabled persons but rather on the ‘timely’ nature of the government action. It was about time, the press jubilated, for our city authorities to step in and rid our streets of those undesirable individuals. When any attention at all was paid to the individuals in question, it was to highlight the ridiculous side of the action. For example, humour-laden stories described how the police were chasing naked ‘mad’ people through the streets; or what a hard time the police had as they tried to lift up cripples from the ground so they could ‘dump’ them into the waiting trucks that carted them away to unknown destinations. The important thing was to have them off the streets and as far away as possible from ‘normal’ humanity. Some cripples were said to have been abandoned in forests and villages far away from these two main cities, the reasoning apparently being that by the time they crawled their way back to the cities, our ‘illustrious guest’ and his entourage would have long gone back home.
For their part, the mentally handicapped were either confined to the mental wards of the psychiatric sections of the Laquintinie hospital in Douala and Centre Jamot hospital in Yaoundé, giving unprepared workers much stress to cope with them, or were dumped in already over-crowded police and gendarme cells throughout the city. The press was around to describe for an eager readership the ridiculous side of the story.
Newspaper headlines carried pictures of this ‘urban-cleansing’ exercise that received general approval from the public. Radio and television talk-show hosts and their guests discussed the city council action in detail, the general trend being to applaud the police attempts to rid our streets of what many saw as an eye sore. It was rare to hear anyone talk of the violation of the rights of those persons living with disabilities, many tending to believe that their disability had deprived them of the basic rights to live in our cities.
Disability and sexual violence
It is not rare to read stories in the press, especially in Douala, of mentally-challenged men and women being objects of sexual exploitation by individuals rumoured to belong to cult-worshiping groups or religious sects of one sort or another. Men, apparently wanting to grow rich overnight, are particularly guilty of sexually exploiting women with mental disability. No doubt the number of mentally-challenged young women carrying a pregnancy is not a rare sight in our city streets. The culprits are usually said to belong to satanic or cultic groups that require that members commit such acts, even, and especially, in broad daylight and in full view of others, as a condition for gaining instant wealth.
The press also delights in carrying juicy stories of women, who are said to seek instant riches by sleeping with mentally-challenged men, sometimes in the open and in broad daylight. There was a case of a woman, who is said to have alighted from her brand new car, walked up to a half naked male mental patient dosing away on a street corner, went down on her knees before him, stripped him of the scanty, torn and dirty shorts he had on, and proceeded to perform an indecent act on the poor man. The screams of the astonished man brought curious onlookers to the scene. Despite the shouts of astonishment of the curious public, the woman is said to have calmly walked back to her and driven off. Where truth takes over from fiction in such matters is hard to say. But the press is full of such stories. The attention is never on the mental patient, the unwilling actor in such an indecent scene, but rather on the woman from an apparently rich background committing such an act of indecency with a ‘mad’ man.
Students living with disabilities
As I mentioned earlier, as a man of the media, I never questioned my own approach to persons living with disabilities in our society until a few years ago when I attended a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meeting in Saint Augustine’s College, Kumbo. Shortly after calling the meeting to order, the Principal said he was giving the floor to someone who would talk to us about children living with disabilities in the school. She wanted to talk to us before going with a similar message to another school in town that had its PTA meeting that same morning. I remember that as soon as we were told what she would be talking on, my mind immediately went to my wallet as I wondered how much I had to spare, for I was sure the speaker was going to stand in front of the assembly, hat in hand, to ask for money. In my mind then, disability was synonymous with begging.
What followed, however, came as something of shock to me. The woman walked up to the podium and for over thirty minutes talked to us about the necessity to give children living with disabilities a chance to study under normal conditions. She did not say a word about money, nor did she beg for any, as I had feared she would. Instead, she challenged us with soul-searching questions about our attitudes as parents and teachers towards children living with a handicap.
At the previous PTA meeting, we had discussed ways of helping the school administration to renovate the toilet facilities in the school. In fact, we were waiting anxiously to hear the PTA Chairman’s report of what many believed were ‘ultra modern’ toilet facilities for our children. Then the woman in question asked us if we had a child on a wheel chair, for example, did we see him or her easily using the toilet facilities we were all so proud? No one had given it a thought.
We were humbled
As we sat humbled by her question, she then asked us to examine our attitude towards children with disabilities, not only at school but everywhere we went. She urged teachers in school to avoid calling a student with visual impairment a blind student, especially to their hearing. “Instead call him or her by name and urge the other students to do the same,” she said. “Also avoid calling a child with a physical disability as that lame boy or girl, or that cripple. No! Call them by name and that would make them feel accepted in the school community; and encourage the other students to do same.”
When she finished talking, we all stood up and gave her a standing ovation. I personally felt very humbled and somewhat ashamed because I had earlier dismissed her as a beggar of charity while, on the contrary, she had a positive message that challenged the hardened and largely negative attitudes some of us had developed over the years towards people living with disabilities among us, particularly children. The story I later wrote for the media definitely took a different slant from what it would have been had that lady confirmed the rather stereotypical mindset I had been brought up with about disability, namely, seeing it as synonymous with begging.
The Apostolate of Mentally Disabled Persons.
On the 18th of December 1990, Reverend Father Roland Berngeh, the then Rector of Saint Aloysius Minor Seminary in Kumbo, saw his dream come true. He had always been intensely disturbed by the lamentable spectacle of mentally disturbed individuals, roaming the streets of Kumbo and surrounding villages, without anyone seemingly doing much to help them. On that day, he convened a meeting of other concerned individuals and 39 of them attended, thus laying the foundation stone of what has come to be known as "The Apostolate of Mentally Disabled Persons" of the Diocese of Kumbo. Mental disability was beginning to catch the attention of the Catholic Church through the action of a concerned priest who, with the approval of his bishop, created an apostolate to cater for the wellbeing of a particular type of disabled persons: those suffering from mental disability.
He explained to the Catholic weekly L’Effort camerounais that prior to the creation of the said apostolate in 1990, he had been feeling particularly challenged to do something for the poor people of our community. He thought particularly of the mentally disabled people, who were totally neglected by society. Even though he felt sorry for them, there did not seem to be much he could do. But, on further reflection, he became inspired by the scriptural text where the Jewish authorities, even Jesus’ relatives themselves, had accused Jesus of being mad (Jn 10: 20). It was then that he decided that merely sitting around and pitying those unfortunate brothers and sisters was not enough. He needed to do something concrete for them and that was when he brought together people to see what they could do for the mentally handicapped in our society. That is how the Apostolate of Mentally Disabled Person saw the light of day in the Diocese of Kumbo.
Mental disability evokes violence
Asked how information about his apostolate became known to the public, Father Roland said he first made an announcement in the Catholic Church and the people who attended the first meeting began to spread the news by word of mouth. Before long, people from other denominations began to join them as well. From the initial 39 mainly Catholic Christians, who showed up for the first meeting, membership has grown considerably to include people of other beliefs and religious convictions, a clear indication that mental illness is not the concern of only one religious group.
The fear that persons with mental disability are prone to violence is fairly widespread in our society. Father Roland dismissed this fear as baseless. “No, strange as this may sound,” he said, “they haven't posed any particular danger either to individuals or to Cathedral property. Instead, many of them show a lot of respect when in church. We have been motivated by what the Psalmist tells us, that is, that God does not build his house in vain and that is what motivated us to begin praying for them and with them in God's own house. During Masses organised for them, they themselves do the readings and participate in lectionary and offertory processions. This was also a kind of eye-opener to the mentally ill people themselves, who came to realise that they are worth something. They were being asked to contribute to something positive in God's own house and many of them responded very positively to that.
Appeal for assistance
Asked what he discovered as the common cause of mental disability among the people he attended to, Father Roland said that some patients were born mentally unstable; others - the majority – could be said to be largely responsible for their condition, especially drug addicts, who formed the bulk of those with mental disorders in Kumbo. They were, for the most part, young men and women from stable homes who had indulged themselves in smoking Indian hemp, marijuana, or other more potent drugs, and had been finding it quite difficult to kick the habit.
Asked if family members were ever contacted and sensitized as to the need to take care of their loved ones with mental disability, Father Roland said such contacts were necessary, especially as there were no structures to receive their sick relatives. “We try to educate them on the necessity to take their loved ones back into their homes and take care of them, instead of leaving them to run wild in the streets,” he added.
Asked where financial assistance came from to enable the apostolate to continue taking care of persons with mental disability, Father Roland said they relied mainly on charity. They made appeals for help from the public and would occasionally receive positive feedback from benefactors. “Our prayer is that, by God's grace, some good Samaritan somewhere - and we know there are many out there - would hear our appeal and come to our help to enable us to build a centre where we can care for our brothers and sisters with mental illness. We are also looking forward to receiving assistance from psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors, who can give their time to help us. We appeal to people to be conscious of the fact that they should show love and understanding to our unfortunate brothers and sisters, who are suffering from mental disorders. We have to take care of these people, whether they are responsible for what has happened to them or not. We should all show respect for the dignity of man and it's not because someone is in such a broken state that he or she ceases to be human”, he concluded.
The media in Cameroon, as elsewhere, continue to either ignore persons living with disabilities, or portray them, whenever they do, from a negative angle. They generally hack on stereotypes of disability which they see either as a curse, a sin or a burden to society. However, the media can reverse this largely negative view of disability by re-focusing the public’s attention on the positive side of persons with disabilities, portraying them as persons who are also in need of love, caring and understanding, just like everyone else. For this to happen, media men and women themselves need to be thoroughly schooled on disability and the place of people living with disabilities in our society. The Ministry of Social Welfare and non-governmental organizations should organize frequent seminars, like the recent one in Bamenda, for media men and women that will help them change their still largely negative attitudes towards disability in our society.