Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'The Real' Africa Pt. 2

So to begin with this is post No. 100 on this on again, off again blog. I figured it's best to spare you all my ranting about job hunting so those months when I'm sitting for hours at a coffee shop sending out resumes I think it's best you spend your time reading something else. But while I'm on the road it's a good yuk, so I would really like to thank the 50 to 100 of you who read it nearly every time I publish. In total I'm up to 18,000 reads so I'll keep going as long as there's something out of the ordinary to report. 

After the busy day in Tamale I made contact with John Alo, the director of the Garu Community Based Rehabilitation Center (GCBR). Garu is a village of 15,000 people located ten kilometers south of Bakino-Faso and ten kilometers west of Togo. It's 135 miles north of Tamale but the drive is broken up into two parts. You can easily cover the first 100 miles in two hours. This takes you to the village of Sakogu which is located on a 400 ft tall escarpment looking out over the plains that eventually lead to the Sahara. Once we started descending the escarpment, the roads become nearly impassable at points with creeks, boulders and huge chunks of cracked pavement reducing progress to a crawl. The last 35 miles also take close to two hours - and there is virtually no traffic on these roads. Only the occasional supply truck and random cyclists.

Along the way the villages transform from cement brick buildings to complexes consisting of several circular red-clay huts with grass roofs. Colorful, nearly psychedelic, traditional African dress is the norm with women carrying goods in baskets on their heads. The main streets are lined with shops selling everything from TV remotes to truck parts; dresses to cell phones. Nearly all these stores can sell you a small bag of cold water and there is usually a table where you can sit down, relax and gossip.

When we finally arrived in Garu Mr. Alo took me to the guest house operated by GCBR. This being the most remote location I've ever been to, I assumed I would be relegated to a sweaty bunk room far from an accessible toilet. But the GCBR takes disability advocacy very seriously and they have painstakingly made their guest house 100 percent accessible. Everything from the ramp, to the bathroom to the shower proved no obstacle to me at all. On top of that they had a 50" flat screen hooked up to a satellite dish  with 40 channels including a 24-hour soccer channel (my guest house in Accra had only 4 channels of broadcast TV). My room had a huge raft of a bed encased in a mosquito net. Malaria is quite prevalent in the North and most of the bites come at night while people are asleep. Contrary to myth, Ghanian mosquitos are not gigantic aggressive winged demons with 8-inch long stingers. Rather they are small and soft and you barely feel them or their stingers - which, of course make them much more deadly. Also the stings last only a few hours so it's very possible that you are stung w/out ever knowing it. 

I had a bit of time to kill before going to the local chapter meeting of the Garu Society of Disabled Persons so I went out into the neighborhood to shoot some standups. A person in a wheelchair is not an oddity here, but a big white guy in a wheelchair talking to a camera will draw quite a big of attention. While I was shooting a standup against a thatched roof house I noticed a group of about 50 blue-uniformed 3rd graders had stopped in their tracks trying to figure out what had just invaded their village. I turned off my camera, looked at them with a big smile and yelled, "Hello!"

This apparently was the signal for them to rush over and assume control of my chair. In seconds I was being whisked away with the kids chanting anything I said. If I said, "One-Two-Three" they would in turn scream "One-Two-Three!" If I howled like a wolf, they would howl like a wolf. I got them into a nice round of Johnny B. Goode as well as Franklins Tower. Mr Alo and his assistant Isaac were returning from their morning rounds when they came across me being escorted back to the childrens school where they wanted to show me to their teacher. Mr. Alo pulled up to me in his truck, and with a big smile said, "Well I guess you found your way to the clinic." Unbeknownst to me the clinic was right across the main road from the school. He then said something in the local language to the kids who dispersed and went back to their classroom. Then he told me that I may be one of only 3 or 4 white people they see all year - and certainly the first white person they've ever seen in a wheelchair.

Later in the afternoon Mr. Alo took me to the meeting of the Garu Society of Disabled Persons meeting where I was invited to speak. I told them about my film, but I was much more interested in hearing about their issues. Of course equipment is a big problem but most of them had solved their issues with crutches and hand bikes. Most of them suffered from birth defects and not spinal cord injury. So they could manage the short distances on crutches, but used hand bikes for getting from place to place. Eventually I saw more than a dozen hand bikes in this small community - all thanks to the work of the GCBR.

They also wanted to introduce themselves to me and tell me what they did with the organization. Again the depth of the Ghanian Society of Persons w/Disabilities blew me away. This group, in the most remote part of the country, was directly tied in to the national organization and was receiving the two percent of the annual local govt. budged that the Ghanian Persons with Disabilities Act insures them. The money is spent on education and mobility giving most of these guys not only a job, but a way to get there and back. Their leader was a blind school teacher who has also won two terms in the local assembly Oddly they seemed to be even more proud of the fact that he has two wives, who they were quick to point out,  are not disabled!  Cultural changes come slow.  I'll take the disability advocacy for now and I'll leave the polygamy and women's rights issues up to some other group.

I had no more appointments left and a big long day in the morning so I watched some local football, had a beer at a local bar (actually got a great interview w/a male nurse at the bar!), then went back to the guest house to turn in early. Ghanians are very early risers. 5 a.m. is the norm and it is not unusual to schedule 7 a.m. events.

I woke up around 5 and rolled into the main room to watch the news only to discover the flat-screen was missing. I assumed one of the teachers needed it for a presentation, but that was not the case. It got pinched! In the middle of the night with a full house full of guests! So instead of meeting the GCBR staff, Mr. Alo and I were talking to local police. The house was locked and there was no forced entry so for sure it was an inside job - which made me quite paranoid about my camera equipment!

Eventually we made it to the GCBR center where the meeting started with a 30-minute prayer session. Ghana is HYPER Christian and everything starts with at least a prayer. After that I spoke to the staff about the film and how they could help me. We broke the meeting and I got to go on rounds with Isaac and two other staff members. For the next 3 hours they took me all over the region to interview disabled people who have been helped by the GCBR. I interviewed students, street sellers, farmers and garment workers, all with moderate to severe disabilities, all who now have a trade and earn a living.

But the most impressive was an elderly woman who even when she sat on her tiny useless legs was less than three-feet tall. Her daughter suffers from the same congenital condition and up until five years ago they only made enough money off their small farm to feed themselves. But with a micro-loan from the GCBR they bought sewing equipment and started making dresses. Neither of them are tall enough to take measurements, but all they need to do is size you up with their naked eye, cut fabric and start sewing. Their technique and quality are beyond reproach and now they both are making big profits and have more orders than they can fill. They too, have a hand bike so they can pack their finished goods in to a sack, climb onto the bike and take their wares to market.

The two-day stay in Garu was way too short. Oddly enough of all the places I've visited it was THE MOST accessible. Because everything was on the ground floor I could get into every house, business, school and government building. I was afraid before I left that I would need lots of help to get around, but in fact it was here where I was most independent.

Mr. Alo and I drove the 4 hours back to Tamale in the afternoon stopping off at his parents house for tea and sandwiches. Instead of taking the main road, Mr. Alo told me he had a short cut that avoided some of the big crowded villages during rush hour. We turned off on a dirt road and spent an hour driving through corn and melon fields. Occasionally we passed through tiny hamlets where young children locked eyes with me and often times screamed for their parents to take a look. Mr. Alo told me it was very possible I was the first white man they'd ever seen.

So from a land of no pavement and grass huts, I'm off to Beijing where the hyper-urbanization and caustic pollution will most likely take a chunk of my soul.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going to 'The Real' Africa Pt. 1

(Again I apologize for the lack of photos and videos, but believe me, when I get home I'll make you all watch my vacation slides)

This is my third trip to Africa, but not until this week did I really get to see the way most Africans live. In 1989 I spent eight hours in Tangiers, got held up three times and went running back to Spain w/my tail between my legs. Then in 1997 I spent a week in Cairo, which was my first solo trip into a third world environment in a wheelchair. (btw - 'Third World' has been labeled a derogatory term by many and is supposed to be replaced by 'Developing Nation' or 'Low Resource Environment'. But here in Ghana they say, 'Third World')   I took an all-night bus from Tel Aviv and would have been totally screwed had it not been for the help of a German and a Cypriot who carried me up stairs to a guest house not far from Tahrir Square where the Arab Spring riots took place. Seeing the Pyramids was amazing, but I'll take a pass on the muggings.

This trip to Ghana, however is getting closer to what I'd envisioned all my life. First and most obviously EVERYONE here is black. And I'm not talking about a huge majority - I'm talking EVERYONE. In three weeks, aside from airports and hospitals I have seen exactly four white people. Two of them were French expats working an agriculture gig in Garu, and the other two were professional football players I saw yesterday at a charity football match at the Accra Sports Stadium (Michael Ballack and a Danish striker who's name I can't find) It's the most homogenous population I've ever experienced in my life. Even Denmark and Taipei have black communities. If there is a white community in Ghana, I missed it.

But even here in Accra, the capitol, everyone kept telling me I had to head north to see the real Africa. One thing I know about living in third world environments is that the cities are all pitts and the countryside can be magical. So it was with great pleasure that I booked a flight to the northern city of Tamale, about a four-hour drive from the Bakino-Faso border. But booking the flight was not as simple as going on-line and buying a seat. I had to go to the airport and find out which carrier would take someone in a wheel chair. Antrak, the first airline I spoke with flat-out refused because they didn't own an airplane lift. Starbow, the next company  in line also refused, but this is where we (my Ghanian contact Gifty, a physical therapist,  was with me) started pressing and telling them what they were doing was illegal. They asked me if I would be flying with a doctor (very common request for disabled persons at third world airports) to which I scoffed and Gifty stepped in assuring them I was quite healthy.

Eventually they allowed me to buy a ticket, but they told me I had to climb up the stairs of the plane by myself. When I showed up for the flight, I saw the lift that takes disabled passengers up to the big jumbo jets parked just outside the gate. When I asked why we didn't use it, I was told it was owned by the big airlines and it would cost $300 a flight to use. So instead I climbed up the stairs on my butt and slid along the floor of the plane to the first open seat in coach. Thank god I had good elastic in my sweat pants!

It was a short one hour flight, but the option of taking a bus would not have been very practical. It's a 30-hour trip that in recent years has been menaced by bandits who take everything  - including the bus - and leave the passengers stranded. Lately the police have been waiting for groups of 100 cars to cross through the jungle and they move them in one slow caravan. So instead of riding magically through the jungle you are in a 20-hour traffic jam.

Tamale has a dinky airport with a huge runway, so although it can take big planes (doubles as an airforce runway) the actual airport has virtually no services. There is one computer, one clock and one big scrren TV showing BBC. And of course, no handicap lifts. So once more on my arse, along the plane, down the stairs and into my chair.

My contact in Tamale was Dr. Dziffa Ahadzi, a resident at the Tamale teaching hospital. I grabbed a cab into town and met her while she was giving an exam to an elderly patient. As soon as she was finished she gave me an extensive tour of the 'old' hospital which was in it's last days as a brand new and very impressive 2000-bed hospital would be opening on Friday. Nearly everything in the huge hospital complex was accessible so I rolled around exploring, while Dr. Ahadzi attended to other patients and students.

Now this 'rolling around' was quite simple but only because I am now rolling on a relatively new wheelchair. The chair I brought with me from Portland experienced yet another melt down, but this time it was quite serious. My left front wheel was continually loosening and impeding the large wheel, as well as forcing me nearly out of the chair. Gifty and I were directed towards a welder who said he could do a spot weld and fix the problem. We took the chair to him, but I was unable to observe the process. When he came back several of the main pieces were snapped in half and he informed me he thought he had the wrong kind of torch (not one for aluminum). So I took the pieces back, bought a few washers and rigged up a solution that temporarily appears to be holding. But I did NOT want to travel deep into Africa on a gimpy chair. So Gifty found a reasonable substitute and I've been riding on a borrowed chair for about a week. It's quite wide making most bathrooms inaccessible, but it's really stable and I'm not afraid of falling out when I see a curb.

The new chair was also riding in a much more agreeable city. Tamale has very little traffic and the roads are well maintained and dry. For the first time since leaving France nearly a month earlier, I actually did a workout. If I ever come back for an extended stay it will certainly be in Tamale, not Accra.

Dr. Ahadzi found a guest house that was a bit pricey and not at all accessible, but for two nights it was fine. It also had an American TV channel on the cable so after dinner I planted myself in front of the tube and mindlessly watched NCIS and CSI.

In the morning, another doctor picked me up and took me to the lecture hall at the teaching hospital. I was on the morning lecture itinerary along with an ophthalmologist from New Jersey. The ophthalmologist opened up with some graphic slides of eye operations that although quite gruesome, drastically improved hundreds of lives. I was up next and spoke to the group of 70 medical students and ten doctors about the goal of the IRF and why Andy and I started it. I then went into a practical talk about what happens when you are the victim of a spinal cord injury. I've given this talk to medical students and physical therapists in the past. Oddly enough the PT's are well versed in SCI, but the med students know nothing more than the anatomy. The actual devastating effects to the patient including bowel, bladder and sexual function are all news to them. Usually I finish up with a couple of slides from India, Turkey or some difficult area for SCI patients. But seeing as I was in the most difficult country I'd ever been to, I decided to leave those slides out.

After lunch I got to speak to a very dedicated group of physical therapists then conducted a series of with  doctors and physical therapists. Eventually I got to go on the Internet for an hour before I had to say good by to Dr. Ahadzi and head back to the guest house. Although Tamale was quite different from Accra, it still was not the Africa I'd imagined. That would come in the morning.