Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Tchekpo Assocation for People With Disabilities

The first meeting of the Assocation for People With Disabilities in Tchekpo Togo was held in early February in the community library.   I knew it was important.  I knew it was needed.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I had of course noticed people with disabilities around Tchekpo, but spread out, just seeing someone from time to time was deceptive.  At that first meeting I realized just how serious this issue was.  I never saw so many disabled persons in one place.  I arrived about ½ hour early.  Honou Koffi and Komi were already there arranging and tugging on tables and chairs to form sort of a circle.  Honou on his crutches, Komi limping with his one foot that is just completely turned upside down.  Honou smiled, and he looked very happy.  He’d been looking forward to this day for many months, probably years.  He said he didn’t need any help, so I just took a seat in the front of the room and waited for people to arrive….wondering how many people would come.  Hoping for Honou’s sake that it would be well attended.  He had traveled through the village for days to tell all the handicapped people he could find about the meeting.  

One by one they filtered in.  At least three of them literally crawled up the steps and in the door, wearing flip flops on their hands as well as on their feet.  One girl came in walking on her knees, leaving her wheelchair outside.  Just getting up the steep step and inside the library was a daunting challenge for most of them.  I could see a couple of them pondering how they were going to do it.  I'm quite certain strategizing how they are going to get somewhere is an hourly task for most of them.   Many arrived on crude, ill-fitting crutches.  They were missing a limb or just maneuvering a limb that no longer works.  One woman was carrying her twelve year old daughter.  I was told that last year this girl was normal, running around like any girl her age, and then all of a sudden she couldn’t stand, and now she can barely sit up.  She was so pretty; alert and smiling.  Her mother gently set her down on the floor and then walked around the room to greet everyone. Three or four arrived in Togo wheelchairs…tricycles which are powered by their arms not their legs.  Many of the women had babies on their backs, or breastfed during the meeting.  Nothing seems to stop them from trying to lead a normal life.  No one, not one person looked forlorn or depressed….just hopeful and happy.   Twenty-nine people with disabilities showed up at that first meeting.  Twenty-nine disabled people in the little village of Tchekpo.  I would soon learn there were many, many more.

Last summer Honou Koffi and another young man, Komi, were lucky enough to attend the Togo Peace Corps first annual Camp Joie in Pagala for handicapped youth.   This camp was the brainchild of about four volunteers.  I’m in awe of what they accomplished.  Honou and Komi came back from camp with a new found self confidence.  They were glowing and happy and excited about what they had learned, and had a new, palpable hope for their future.  When he returned Honou spent a lot of time talking about Lyle, Stacie, Meredith, Martin and Nahid;  the Peace Corps Volunteers who founded the camp, worked the camp and set up the structure for it.  They obviously inspired Honou and Komi, and Honou would tell me funny stories about each one of them. 

Members performing a sketch on self-esteem
 If you’ve read my blog, you’ve read about Honou Koffi.  He’s my very favorite, number one person here in Tchekpo.  People use the word amazing too much, but I didn't know a better word to describe him.   I looked it up in the thesaurus, and sure enough it gave me a bundle of words that describe him.  Astonishing, astounding, remarkable, marvelous, incredible and on and on and on.  I’m his biggest fan. What he is to me, is an absolute wonderment of the human spirit.  To tell you the truth, I pretty much forget that Honou even has a handicap, even though it’s very obvious, since he’s on crutches, and to get around he pulls his legs behind him.  I just don't think of him as having a handicap or being disabled, because there doesn't seem to be anything that he can't do.  Get around he does….everywhere.  Nothing stops him.  And to top it off, he’s almost always smiling.  A real, sincere, optimistic smile.   Everytime I see him I think….how does he do it?  And how could I ever complain about anything again. 

The Indominatable Honou Koffi

For more on Honou Koffi see: and

The Officers
When he returned from Camp Joie, Honou immediately began  talking about starting a club in Tchekpo for the people with disabilities.  Ohhhhh.  This was not on my agenda.  This was not in my plans.  This was nowhere on my radar screen, but of course I went along with him, told him it was a great idea, and that yes, I would help.  I’ve done a number of projects with Honou.  From the moment he mentioned starting an association for disabled people, I knew that he would do it.  He was always out there way ahead of me, pushing me to get to the next step.  On most projects and with most people here in Tchekpo  I’m the one doing the pushing, the cajoling, the begging, but not with Honou.  He comes by my house several days a week.  He helps me with three or four projects that do nothing to benefit him.  Each time he comes over,  the conversation inevitably turns to his next new idea about the club.  I give him incremental information…We need to do this, we need to do that….thinking I’m buying myself a little time, but lo and behold the next time he comes over, he has made arrangements to do this and that, or more often than not, already completed the task.  For example, I said we need to speak with the Chief, tell him our plans.  Next time Honou comes over, he tells me he met with Chief.  "Not only is the Chief very happy about this, he would like us to do this with the entire prefecture (county)!!"  Honou says with unabated excitement. 

The Chief has been very supportive of this particular project.  He should be.  There are so many people with disabilities here in Tchekpo.  It’s hard to say what the primary cause is.  Poor nutrition during pregnancy, polio, mishaps.  Most seem to be birth defects of some kind.  I know the Chief has several kids that live in his compound who have disabilities.  I’m not sure how they are related to him, or even if they are.  So the Chief has indeed taken a personal interest in what we are doing.  He has appointed a representative from his council who attends the meetings, and offers support.  We are trying very hard to do this professionally.  Set up a structure, so that we can get this registered by the Togo Government as an official association.  We elected officers and the secretary takes notes of each meeting.  We also hold an officers meeting once a month.

Meetings are held twice a month on Saturday mornings.  The meetings are inspirational and pertinent to their needs and desires.  We have an average of twenty people show up for each meeting; however the Chief really wants us to expand our current reach.  Each meeting there is a topic of interest that is discussed, and then the members will perform a little sketch about the topic.  Some of the topics we’ve covered have been about self-confidence, health and hygiene, family life.  They collect dues (whatever the person is able to pay), sing songs and pray.  We now have a “wish list” that they go over at each meeting.  The wish list includes things they’d like to see the association do, as in having a demonstration of income generating activities, or talking to the churches about helping them raise funds.  We’ve had several speakers come from the bigger villages.  One man came from Tesvie and talked to them about the benefits of being an official registered association as opposed to just a club.

The most appreciated speaker so far, was Meredith.  Honou was just about beside himself when he heard she was coming.  Meredith was one of the principal Peace Corps Volunteers who started Camp Joie.  She traveled many hours by bush taxi, just so she could see Honou and come to the meeting.  I do think that it was very rewarding for her to see what she and Camp Joie inspired here in Tchekpo.  I could tell she was pleased and surprised.  There is of course another camp this summer.  She asked Honou to come and be a counselor.  Meredith delivered a very inspiring animated speech.  She told them how excited she was and how proud she was that this was the first village Assocation for People With Disabilities in Togo.  She’s just a little wisp of a young woman, but she had a powerful message.  Du Courage!!!  You can do this!!!

Sidenote:  If you’ve read any of my blog, you understand at depth that “nothing is easy in Togo.”  Certainly the heat and the terrain, not to mention the poverty and hunger are all daily challenges.  It’s hard living and yet all of these people I have met with disabilities get around and go about their life, as if they are no worse off than anyone else.   Amazing!