The rains finally stopped in early December and almost straight away the harmattan arrived (dust from the Sahara) skipping the legendary clear days which are supposed to come in between. Our children, out from UK for Christmas holidays, bemoaned the haziness, but enjoyed the heat, remembering their friends at home suffering rain, floods and much colder weather. They are now safely back in their student homes trying to remember the lovely warmth they left behind here. Meanwhile in Freetown there is still lots to explore, although, first, I should give a mention to the road constructors who have been doing sterling work since November. Many of the worst roads have miraculously become smooth(er) and some have even been tarmaced! Bliss! Outside our house is a different matter – dust, potholes and business as usual, as the construction effort has moved further up the hill, leaving our section worse than before. But, as I come and go in a 4WD it makes little difference.
However, I cannot begin to imagine the difficulty of moving around Freetown as a disabled person! There are certainly no ramps up kerbs or into any buildings, let alone lifts….if they exist they are likely to be broken or not working through lack of electricity. There are few pavements, so pedestrians share the potholed streets with traffic. Rudimentary health care and a lack of crutches, mobility aids and wheelchairs, also hamper mobility. The disabled are stigmatised and often either hidden or abandoned to fend for themselves, which leaves many of them begging on the streets. Plenty of NGOs have begun to address the problem in the past, offering training schemes and start up kits, but these often don’t offer long term sustainable solutions and social support.
One project which is trying to do this is Dignity Market Centre, run by One Family People. Started in 2008 the project began by engaging with disabled people who were begging on the streets. By gaining their trust they began to develop their creative talent and formed a musical group called the Walpoleans after Walpole Street in downtown Freetown, where they were squatting at the time. This was the beginning of a process to build self esteem and confidence. Many of these people had been trained and were skilled but had nowhere to work, so it was decided to find some premises. This was also not easy. The stigma attached to the disabled meant that many leases suddenly became unavailable. But eventually they secured premises in Henessy Street, King Tom.
Here the craftspeople gather each day, many travelling long distances, which is also a challenge for them. The poda poda and taxi drivers often refuse to accept disabled passengers, because they claim it slows everyone else up. There are blacksmiths, weavers, gara dyers (local batik style cloth), seamstresses, artists, jewellery makers, electronic repairers, leather workers – a creative bunch! and individuals often have more than one skill. The metalworkers have built customised transport to help many members’ mobility. They also make cooking stoves from scrap metal and recycled drinks cans. They recycle bottle tops, shells and beads into jewellery. On a rack, colourful dresses are complemented by matching clutch bags, both made at the centre.
There is no doubting the skills employed here, but what they lack, despite the name, is a market. This is something we hope to help with. They need to find viable, long-term outlets for their products. Any profits made are shared communally, with a deduction of 10% for the overheads of running the centre. They have plans for future products, but have no business training to enable them to draw up a proper business plan which might enable them to secure some larger, long-term contracts.
Our group of international women were treated to a rendition of three songs by the Walpoleans and the dance floor was full! Those unable to dance, clapped and sang from the audience and a good time was had by all!