This past week was a bit of a learning experience.
I learned that in Ghana, many children with mental disabilities are thought to be ‘water babies,’ or demon-possessed witch children. I learned that most parents will leave such newborns at orphanages or children’s homes, though occasionally, kids are simply taken into the bush and left to die. I learned that education about mental disabilities in Ghana is still relatively basic, and I learned that the current state of affairs can only improve if there is an improvement in public awareness.
I also learned that there is hope. Operation Hand in Hand was started in 1992 by a Dutch doctor named Ineke Bosman as a shelter for mentally disabled orphans. It’s now a permanent care home to 65 kids and adults and 31 caregivers. Leah and I had the opportunity to visit and stay overnight at the shelter’s guesthouse in Nkoranza this past weekend, and it gave us a glimpse, albeit fleeting, into the world of 65 people who have been abandoned by their families, but adopted into a new one. To see more of the Operation Hand in Hand community, check out Leah’s video blog here.
What we saw at Operation Hand in Hand was inspiring, but also a painful reminder of the challenges that still face mentally disabled people in Ghana.
“People are afraid of these children,” said Samuel Beffo, Operation Hand in Hand’s project director. “When they have children like this, they send them to the hospital and then run away so [hospital authorities] can’t trace the family.”
The kids, who come from all over the country, are affected by a variety of illnesses, most commonly Down’s Syndrome or autism. Beffo said the majority of cases are sent to Operation Hand in Hand by either the Department of Social Welfare or Health Services. However, he stresses that merely sending mentally disabled kids to the community is not enough.
“Ghana is not helpful to the mentally handicapped,” said Beffo. “The government simply [doesn’t] care. Even the funds we are using to support this place, none come from the Ghanaian government.”
Instead, Beffo said the camp is funded by donations from all over the world, including Germany, Holland, and the United States, and the children are sponsored by “adoptive families” who send about $50 a month. The kids’ caregivers are comprised of both international and Ghanaian volunteers.
Charity Asabea belongs to the latter group. The 31-year-old Nkoranza native was originally hired at Operation Hand in Hand in 2003 to be a receptionist. Asabea admitted that at first, she had reservations about working at a shelter for mentally disabled children.
“Before I came here, I had never seen such a child before,” said Asabea, “but one of my friends told me, ‘Just come and try it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”
Clearly, Asabea liked it, and eight years later, she is still at the shelter, where she is the head hostess and also the caregiver to a child, 16-year-old M’Adyoa.
“She calls me ‘Mommy,” said Asabea of M’Adyoa, who suffers from autism and epilepsy. “I just call her M’Adyoa.”
When I asked her M’Adyoa’s last name, Asabea smiled.
“Bosman,” she said. “All the children here are named after Dr. Bosman, because when they came, they were orphans. Now, they have joined a family.”