A student committed to empowering disabled youth

Undergraduate student Emmanuel Gweamee, 24, knows how it feels to be the victim of discrimination and misfortune, but he is not letting the experience shape his life in a negative way.

He developed his disability overnight while living in a camp for people forced to leave their homes during fighting in Liberia, West Africa.

It was 2003. The country, situated on the Atlantic coast, had been embroiled in civil war on and off since 1989 and Gweamee had been living in camps for internally displaced people near the capital, Monrovia, for two years when he first developed an infection in his leg.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

“I woke up one morning and my leg started to hurt,” he says. But in the camp he could not get access to the right medical care and the problem spread to his other leg. He later moved to get treatment from a traditional herbalist, but it did not cure him.

“Now the right leg is a bit shorter than the left and I use a crutch to walk to school. If I walk a long distance, I feel pain in my hip.”

By 2008 Gweamee was one of the 16% of people in his country who were disabled.

Many were disabled directly by the conflict that left 250,000 dead and thousands mutilated. But many others were disabled indirectly, due to the collapse of medical services that war brings.

Stray bullets

“A lot of people had amputations due to stray bullets, but others, because the entire health system was broken down, could not access good medical care, so as a result of different sicknesses they became disabled,” Gweamee says.

Born in the central region of Liberia, he was eventually brought up in Mango Town, Virginia, in Liberia where his parents are teachers.

The name of the district is a legacy of historical ties with the United States, from which many freed slaves were repatriated to West Africa after the abolition of slavery. Other townships include New Georgia and Maryland. Similarly, the capital, Monrovia, of which Mango Town is a suburb, is named after the fifth US president, James Monroe, who supported the sending of freed slaves to settle the colony.

In Mango Town he resumed his primary education and earned a scholarship to a private school that his family could not otherwise have afforded, from fifth grade. He eventually earned a place at a local university in 2014, but it was shut down because of the Ebola crisis.

That’s when his family heard of a programme called Bridge2Rwanda – a partner programme of the African Leadership Academy (ALA) – through which he spent a gap year in 2015-16 on their training programme for high school graduates in servant leadership (which he describes “as selfless leadership style, serving diligently in any capacity you can”) and entrepreneurship, which allowed him to apply to universities in the US and other parts of the world.

He was awarded a place at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, majoring in international relations with a minor in sustainability, and supported by a Mastercard Foundation Scholarship.

He arrived a month early at Rochester to join other students in the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program in a month’s intensive training in transformative leadership as well as to prepare for studying in college. Through that course, and other training programmes offered since by the foundation in collaboration with ALA, he says he has been helped to understand the concepts of transformative leadership and giving back to his community.

Making an impact personally

“Transformative leadership to me is pretty much about getting involved with your community, understanding the commitment to make it better, to make an impact in a way that has not been done before,” he told University World News.

“It does not have a fixed definition. But it is about community engagement, making an impact from the bottom up, not a traditional style of leadership from the top down. So you see what little contributions you can make, starting with your family, your church or any institution you find yourself in.”

In 2017 with Rwandan student Aime Laurent Twizerimana, who was also at Rochester and was trained at Bridge2Rwanda, he established a small project called ‘HORN for Peace’ – which stands for Hope Restoration Initiative for Peace – and applied for a peace grant from Rochester. They were awarded US$10,000 to go home and train and encourage disabled youth to participate in the electoral process.

“Liberia was having an election that year in October, so having lived there and observed how people with disabilities are usually excluded in so many ways, we wanted to provide civil education to bring a message to people with disability about their responsibility to participate and the importance of participating.”

They invited stakeholders from the National Election Committee to talk to the 45 participating young people about the general election process during a four-day workshop in July, several months in advance of the election.

While running the workshops the duo became aware that on the day of the election disabled people would struggle to access polling centres. So after they returned to the US they arranged to provide transport, via an organisation on the ground, for 100 disabled youth from across four counties in Liberia to participate in voting.

“It was a unique learning process,” Gweamee says, looking back. “As a young person it was a struggle to accept my disability because of the stigmatisation, especially back home, where disabled people are called names and many end up as street beggars.

“It was great to work with young people and make an impact directly in their lives but also to understand some of the challenges they encounter, one of which is empowerment – people with disability are not empowered. That is one thing that stood out to me.”

Causes of disempowerment

The pair also realised that to make a bigger impact they needed to address the root causes of the young people’s disempowerment.

For example, one or two workshop participants had graduated from high school or university but were unemployed “because they were discriminated against; people won’t recruit them” and they ended up begging on the street. In Monrovia a lot of street beggars are disabled people because most of them are homeless, Gweamee says.

He and Twizerimana printed a petition during the workshop to raise awareness, but the following week they spotted the participants still wearing the workshop T-shirts while begging on a street corner.

It was from this eye-opening experience that they realised they needed to do more to help these young people help themselves and they created a new component of the HORN project to train disabled youth in entrepreneurship so that they could generate a modest income to support themselves.

“We have to understand the level of discrimination disabled people have encountered, especially in Liberia, and in developing countries,” he says. “To bring economic freedom to them, people need to be trained to be self-employed. It is good for promoting human rights and restoring human dignity to them.”

Challenges ahead

Gweamee is realistic about the challenges ahead – there are financial constraints; they need to raise funds and they need to identify potential beneficiaries.

For now, they have renamed their project ‘HORN Empowers’ and are seeking funding to top up some initial support provided by the university with a view to providing training in the summer.

“It is about social inclusion, including those who have been forgotten in development, in society and not treating them as second-class citizens. It’s about incorporating everyone in the development agenda of a country that has gone through a lot,” he says.