DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
WHEN he was five, Kenneth Habaalu was paralysed by polio. Now 53 years old, has turned his own misfortune into an occupation to help disabled children.
Mr Habaalu heads an organisation called Appropriate Paper Technology (APTERS) as executive director. The organisation manufactures mobility aid devices for physically-challenged children.
His story of survival is encouraging to anyone beset with difficulty.
“The early part was very, very scary because I just got sick and suddenly, I was unable to walk, but I am glad I survived. I had polio between 1969 and 1970 and I was unable to walk,” he said.
He recalls playing football in the village, just like any other boy. But when the polio set in, his parents could not find treatment for him.
“Just after my body got paralysed, my parents tried to look for treatment but nothing. The only available remedy then was warm water which my mother used to massage me as a form of physiotherapy,” he says.
Because of his disability, his school attendance was affected; he was on-and-off school.
“I stayed for four years without attending school because of my disability as mobility was a big problem,” Mr Habaalu recalls.
Born in 1964 in Choma district in Hamutebe village in Southern Province, Mr Habaalu started school in Muzoka at Nachibanga Primary School in 1971 and relocated to Muzoka where he lived with his older sister.
Just as he was about to get used to the school environment, his sister relocated and so Mr Habaalu returned to his parents in the village and abandoned school for close to five years.
“During this period, my mother tried to teach me how to cycle a bicycle and I learnt. It was at this point that I again started going to school,” he says.
Mr Habaalu stayed for over five years in the village cycling a distance of 22 kilometers every day to school, which was 11 kilometers away from the village.
The struggle for his consistence in school attendance continued.
“I changed schools time and time again. In 1976 when I went to stay with my brother who was a journalist working for the then Zambia Information Services in Monze, he too had to further his education and went to now Mulungushi University and again, I had to stop school and went back to Monze Primary in the village to continue with school.
“I had several hiccups and in 1982, my brother completed his course and picked me to continue school in Grade 7 at Kansenji Primary in Kafue. He was transferred to Kabwe and we moved again and went to Mkushi for my grade nine to 12 where I complicated secondary education in 1988,” he says.
After the demise of his brother in Kabwe, Mr Habaalu relocated to Lusaka in 1989 and enrolled at Mindolo Ecumenical for a certificate in business management.
Two years later, he underwent an operation at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) to reposition one of his feet and at that time, he lived with another older brother in Kamwala in Lusaka.
And one day his brother took him a copy of the Zambia Daily Mail since he was confined and he used to bring lots of reading materials.
It was in that newspaper where Mr Habaalu found a job advertisement on voluntary basis and when he approached the advertiser, he was considered.
“My parents taught me to have self-respect, and God taught me to believe I could do anything I dreamt of. So, instead of letting polio break me or kill me, I fought it hard. The more it would knock me down, the angrier I would get. That anger, I have often said, is what kept me alive,” he says.
Mr Habaalu, who is married to Maureen and a father of three boys, says living with a disability is not easy.
“I remember even when I wanted to marry, there was so much opposition from all,” he says
To make matters worse, it was hard for him to find work.
“When applying for jobs, I never had any success. I managed with only the ones that clearly stated that they needed a person with a disability,” he says.
His work at APTERS involves measuring children with cerebral palsy and making various mobility aids for them.
“The people that come to APTERS are mainly the vulnerable and despite us making the mobility aids under very difficult financial circumstances, we give them out for free because most parents cannot afford even their transport to go back to their places,” Mr Habaalu says.
Despite his health set-backs, and the need to work fewer hours, Mr Habaalu continues to work and loves his job.
“I like to feel useful and I like helping people it gives me such a feeling of worth.
APTERS was started in late 1990 by a physiotherapist, Archie Hinchcliff whose husband, Peter Hinchcliff was at the time British High Commissioner to Zambia. When she left Zambia, Archie left Mr Habaalu in charge of APTERS.
For him, it’s a story that he will live to tell the rest of his life.
“Nothing beats personal experience. People with disability face numerous challenges and the struggle is real,” he says.
He says his experience has taught him that while it is common for individuals to experience frustration or discouragement with the loss of physical function, unresolved memories from the original polio experience may amplify the intensity of emotional responses.
APTERS is an organisation based in Lusaka, Zambia. It was set up in 1990 to produce mobility aids with recycled paper and cardboard to assist physically challenged children while empowering physically challenged adults.