After Joel Haule developed a crippling childhood disease that left him wheelchair-bound, his parents began calling him ‘‘Matatizo’’, the Kiswahili word for ‘‘problems’’.
The nickname stuck through his youth; a perpetual reminder of his painful disability. ‘‘I was born normal but then I got very sick when I was two years old. My parents called me ‘Matatizo’ because of the paralysis in both my legs,’’ he told IPS.
Joel spent years manoeuvring his clunky hand-cranked wheelchair around Tanzania’s southern highlands looking for an income but was frequently told he’s unfit to work.
Then he was put in touch with a church-run handicraft factory that employs deaf and disabled people. ‘‘When I came to work at Neema Crafts they said I couldn’t use my old name. So I chose Joel from the Bible.’’ It marked a fresh beginning. Neema Crafts, located in the city of Iringa since 2003, runs on the belief that people with disabilities are capable of living full lives which include the physical and intellectual rigours of a job.
For the most part, the non-profit organisation plucks unskilled people from the streets. Generally, disabled people in Tanzania are denied education or vocational opportunities, which leave them jobless and poor.
Neema provides on-the-job training in its core areas of business — turning elephant dung into paper or greeting cards, stringing together beaded jewellery and weaving colourful fabric into hammocks, scarves and cushion covers. Its artists also produce tie-dye clothing, Christmas decorations, lampshades, quilting, patchwork and other curios.
In addition, Neema operates a cafe where customers scribble down their orders for rich chocolate cake, coffee and fresh salads or use sign language they’ve learned from the menu. All of the cooks and servers are hearing-impaired. A switch on every table sets off a flashing light in the kitchen to call for service.
About half of Neema’s merchandise fills the shelves of its gallery, which is popular with tourists, volunteers and local missionary workers. The rest is ordered over the Internet and shipped to small-scale fair trade shops in the United Kingdom, United States and Germany.
Neema is not a charity. Sales revenue, combined with some donations, pay for Neema’s operating costs as well as the expansion to a larger and more modern building in February.
”We place a high emphasis on producing goods which are of a high-quality and designed to meet market trends. We make items that the buyer actually wants to buy, rather than relying on charity. This is a very important part of our philosophy,’’ explained Susie Hart, a Briton who helps manage Neema.
In Tanzania, many people apparently regard disabilities as putting an even greater burden on their already poor families. About a third of Tanzania’s population of 40 million survives on less than a dollar a day and 80 percent of people grow their own food.
Physically demanding farm labour is an impossible task for those who cannot use their arms or legs. ‘‘People assume disabled people have no potential and have nothing to contribute to society,’’ claimed Susie.
Poverty is a reason that many children are born with disabilities in Iringa, one of the country’s most destitute regions, according to Hart. ‘‘Women have to do very heavy manual labour. They carry heavy loads of water, right through pregnancy, which can damage the unborn child.
‘‘There is often poor nutrition during pregnancy – poor antenatal care – which leads to many children suffering lack of oxygen to the brain during delivery. Another problem is the prevalence of cerebral malaria.’’
Disabled people living in the east African nation must also cope with social exclusion, stigma and superstitious beliefs that a curse has been put on them. There are few rehabilitation centres and hazardous infrastructure such as potholed roads makes it difficult for the disabled to move around.
‘‘Wheelchairs and tricycle chairs are hard to use because of the hills of Iringa. I use a lot of energy and upper body strength to move up hills, which leaves me tired,” explained Hezron Kyando, who was bed-ridden for three years after injuring his spinal cord in a mini-bus taxi accident.
Hezron, now a paraplegic, is happy that his job at Neema has not only paid for a new house but also re-instilled his sense of self-confidence.
‘‘At first it was difficult as I was psychologically affected,’’ recalled Hezron. ‘‘Now I am a weaver and make cotton scarves and cushion covers. I enjoy showing my skills to our visitors.’’
Neema wants to add more workers to its 60-member staff. But it must first find new markets to sell its products, enabling Neema to pay more wages, Susie pointed out.
In a single week this year, Neema had to turn away nine hearing-impaired job seekers. ‘‘It is by far the most heartbreaking part of my job,’’ she lamented. IPS