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Being Different: Ugandan students on disability and relationships

by Geoff Adams-Spink

27th November 2003

It's not called 'Ugandan discussions' for nothing: the group of students I met from Kampala's Makerere University had sex on the brain. You know what it's like when a bunch of guys sit around talking.
We were in Uganda's splendid parliament building, where the students had come to lobby their MP.

The great thing about Uganda's political system is that disabled people are represented by disabled MPs. It's a stunningly simple idea that others (including Rwanda) are starting to copy. It may take less advanced civilisations like ours a while to cotton on. Be patient.

I was in Uganda making a programme for the BBC World Service about the MP who'd had the bright idea in the first place - James Mwandha. Thanks to him the parliament has a ramp to the entrance and two accessible toilets - the only two I saw anywhere in the country.
Geoff and James Mwandha in Uganda's parliament
The students were telling James about how inaccessible the university library was, when suddenly he was called away. I decided to record a quick discussion with the students to fill time, and that's when the empassioned talk of issues relating to sex and relationships within their culture all started to come forward. Sadly, these thoughts from Francis, Henry and Godwin didn't make it into the final programme, but they are well worth sharing.

The chairman of the disabled students' association, Henry, said they encountered a good deal of prejudice:

"One of our members was kicked out of a disco," he told me. "We made a huge fuss and we got him an apology. He was even given life membership of the club."

Henry's main point here was that if you can't access the places where your mates go drinking and dancing, you don't stand a great chance of meeting a girlfriend.

The students have a wicked sense of humour - the sort of humour that speaks of years of having to break down doors and educate others.

"You know what we call able-bodied people, Geoff?" Henry asked me playfully. "We call them the temporarily able-bodied. We just like to remind them that they could join us at any time."

According to Henry, the problem comes when a disabled guy wants to date an able-bodied woman:

"It's not so easy to get a girl because of the attitude. From childhood, you're told it's a curse from your mother," he said. "When you grow up, the girl might be interested in you but the influence from her parents can really affect the relationship."

This was what happened to another student, Godwin:

"This girl I was with was influenced by her sister. She said to her, 'how can you tell our father you're bringing a disabled boy into the family?' The relationship ended some years back," he said.

"But currently I have a girlfriend and she's OK and I have no problem with her. We've met with her parents and everything's fine."

Henry found that making relationships work was difficult when he found himself having to break down the prejudices of his girlfriend's family first:

"It was quite a struggle for me. I really had to sit down with this girl and ask her, 'Are you comfortable with me?' She said, 'No'. And so I had to talk to her about the influence from her parents."
Geoff and James enjoy some beer
However, he must have succeeded, because he and Betty have been together for five years now. They plan to settle down and have a family. But he adds mischievously, "She needn't think I'm with her because she's the only one who can accept me. I've had plenty of offers, and I've had to tell the girls I'm already taken."

For Francis, the important thing is to finish your education, get a good job and then you can 'compete' for a partner:

"Having a regular girlfriend's not very important for me at the moment. I'm just here to pursue my academic career," he said.

"As long as I have money ... in Africa, if you have money most ladies can be with you. When you don't have money, you can't. So education is the first priority."

But according to Henry, other people's attitudes are still pretty unforgiving:

"Able-bodied people ... well you know, temporarily able-bodied people ... they think it's not right if you have a beautiful girl. So you're despised."

Francis thinks that, as a group, disabled students should have the strength to shake off their inferiority complex:

"It's up to us as a group to get rid of it. We have to socialise with non-disabled people more," he said, adding that attitudes are starting to alter. "Girls used to think they'd have disabled kids if the father was disabled. So that has now changed. People see us doing serious courses so they no longer think that disabled people's brains don't work." He believes that there are more important things to think about:

"Life still has to go on. You can't go and hang yourself just because someone turns you down."

The students were tremendous fun and very engaging. Henry's destined for a career in the law. And I'm sure that one day, when the call comes, he'll be ready to take James Mwandha's place in parliament.

Listen to Being Different
Geoff Adams-Spink's four-part series, Being Different, starts on Wednesday 3 December on the BBC World Service at 0905 GMT - and at various other times around the globe. Check your guide or the World Service schedules for details.

As well as Uganda, Geoff - a disabled man himself - has also visited India, Britain and the USA to discover how disability is perceived around the globe. You can hear these programmes every Wednesday at your advertised local time.

How to listen to BBC World Service
As well as radio, the BBC World Service can be heard on the web and via Freeview, digital cable and digital satellite in the United Kingdom. Go to the BBC's Digital site to find out more.
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

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