DWA gets Wales Africa Award!

Africa Gold Star Awards 2014

Almost 30 organisations and ten individuals from across Wales were recognised by Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) for their work on tackling poverty in 13 African nations at a celebratory event at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay on 4 December.

Disability in Wales and Africa was awarded a learning link award for the work we have been doing with our partners to successfully advocate and campaign for disability to become an integral part of the Wales Africa sector.

Africa Gold Star Awards 2014Africa Gold Star Awards 2014

The DWA coordinator, Paul Lindoewood, was also presented with an individual award for his personal contribution to the disability and inclusion agenda within the Wales Africa sector.

Africa Gold Star Awards 2014

Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister of Wales addressed the ceremony and gave the Welsh Government’s commitment to support Welsh organisations in fighting global injustice and poverty into the future.

Our organisation is part of the country wide Wales Africa network that involves over 150 voluntary organisations and several thousand volunteers, who work with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to address a variety of challenges including, health, education, environmental degradation and the rights for marginalised people.

Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister of Wales said
“I am deeply proud of what we have achieved through our Wales Africa Community Links programme. None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of the organisations and individuals who have been involved.

“These awards recognise the lengths they have gone to improve the lives of people in both Sub Saharan Africa and Wales.

“This was a chance for us to come together and celebrate the success that they have built over the past 6 years and re-affirm our commitment to fighting global injustice and poverty.”

These awards are the culmination of over six years of support that has been provided by the WCVA’s Wales Africa Community Links programme, which has supported over 150 organisations to deliver around 350 projects across 25 Africa Nations. This year’s awards will also include awardees that have been supported by the Wales International Development Hub, Wales for Africa Health Links Network, Fair Trade Wales and the Sub-Saharan Advisory Panel.

Paul Lindoewood, DWA coordinator said

“Disability in Wales and Africa is delighted to be recognised through these awards. We are not a Link in ourselves, but rather seek to be a catalyst to enable Community and other Links to include disability as part of their work . These awards are a recognition of the work DWA has done in raising awareness of disability issues within the Wales Africa sector. They are also an important milestone in the development of this agenda within Wales and encourage Links to include the needs of disabled people within their activities.”

“It is estimated that 15% of the global population experience disability in some way. The current challenge for groups working in the Wales Africa sector, is not just to mainstream disability work, but also to ensure that whatever initiative they are involved in includes the needs of disabled people.”

“Disabled people are part of every community and they need to be involved in every development initiative.”

We are incredibly grateful to Craig Redmond, a photojournalism student at the University of South Wales, for photographing the awards ceremony for us.

DWA Meets Amadou and Mariam


Amadou and Mariam are no strangers to Wales, performing at the 2013 Hay Festival.  Their career, to date, has included appearances at Glastonbury and the opening ceremony of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup.  Their diary has them regularly travelling between Europe and the Americas. All this means that Amadou and Mariam can claim to be a successful African export.  With beginnings in Mali, it may understandably be assumed that a key interest of theirs will be in Hay Timbuktu activities.  However, it was their direct experience of disability from a West African perspective, added to how it influences their music, which was of most interest during the meeting.

So how did the “blind couple from Mali” emerge from one of the poorest countries in the world to become one of the biggest acts on the international music scene?  What obstacles have they faced as they have climbed the greasy pole from the poverty and need of Mali to the relative affluence of the music industry?  Finally, what does their experience have to teach Disability in Wales and Africa as well as the wider Wales Africa sector?  I went behind the main stage, at the Greenbelt Festival, to try and find some answers.

The story of the duo goes back to the Bamako Institute for the Young Blind in 1975, where they first met.  It was early days for the Institute and there were only five students being trained.  Things were clearly hard for blind and other disabled people, with severe poverty and negative views as to what could be achieved.  Indeed, within the Institute, students were given a choice of carpentry training for men and the dyeing of clothes if you were a woman – an interesting choice given the nature of people’s impairments! 

Amadou and Mariam decided that their skills lay outside these expected norms and decided to focus on music.  It was music that brought them together and allowed them to travel and give concerts. It was through music that they were able to give the message that people with disabilities have real contributions to make to their communities and society in general.  It was their music that allowed them to present people with disabilities in a positive way to the public.

It is worth noting that when asked how difficult it had been for them, as blind musicians, to perform on the West African and world stage, they did not identify a significant problem through their visual impairments.  However, had they not chosen music; life would have been rather different.  Music had not only helped them, but also assisted other blind people to move forward, communicate their ideas and, in some situations, make a living.  It has also been shown to be a regular mechanism for social change.  Being globe-trotting superstars may not be everyone’s realistic aspiration.  Nevertheless, developing the skills you have, rather than those that other people think you should have, is crucial when combating the negative attitudes which many disabled people face. 

An important aspect of the Amadou and Mariam message is to assist their audience to understand what it is like to be blind.  Although it was not possible to do this at Greenbelt, as they performed on an open-air stage, they have been known to turn the lights off during their act.  This, they said, enables some understanding of blindness.  It encourages people to adopt different terms of reference with the world around them, and consequently engage with their music in alternative ways.  Mariam explained that “the concert in the dark is a way of achieving equality with the audience who are enabled to understand our feelings”. 

This part of their act is known as “Eclipse”.  It is named after a mixed sighted and visually impaired band they played with as students.  However, it has a second important purpose in that it can introduce outsiders to the smells and sounds of Mali, for example, mosquito spray and the bustle of the marketplace, both particularly strong at night.  How might these compare with Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, or rural mid-Wales?

Amadou and Mariam describe their music as African but influenced by Blues and Rock.  This mixture has been developed to enable their appeal to a wider audience.  Some people may enjoy the rhythm, others the guitar work, and still more the West African tradition of dance and drums.  All of these came over clearly during their act.  However, music is not just for entertainment; it is about communicating the realities of life and so it has become crucial for Amadou and Mariam to tell stories from Mali and Africa.  Stories so often not told by the media of the North.

I was able to discuss with them a little of how we in Wales could support disabled people in Mali and Africa in general.  A key aspect of their response was the empowerment of disabled people by developing self-confidence and providing resources, which enable them to achieve their potential.  This development, of course, must spread out into the wider community.  The community needs to learn about the potential of disabled people.  They need to understand the barriers disabled people face when trying to participate in community life.  If they do not know where the barriers are, how can they be expected to remove them? 

Every year Amadou and Mariam organise a festival to link Paris with the Bamako Institute.  It raises money to enable disabled people to establish what they are capable of and to move nearer to fulfilling their potential.  They asked people in Wales to establish similar Links with Bamako, providing both resources and moral support.  This support will assist the Institute as it works with, not only visually impaired individuals and their families but the whole community; attempting to develop a more inclusive society. 

What struck me about our discussion, and their act which followed, was that there was no attempt to hide Amadou and Mariam’s blindness.  It was there for everyone to note, down to the guides who helped them on and off the stage.  Also, the act came over as authentically African.  Although they utilised some characteristics of Afro-American music, their identity and their roots are clearly in West Africa.  So often a regular view of disabled people is that they can be accepted if they become a little more “able-bodied”.  Likewise, do we sometimes perceive Wales Africa as a mechanism to move the latter nearer to the former?  It is interesting, and maybe a little disconcerting for some, that Amadou and Mariam’s success, as disabled people, has been based on them developing and adopting their own agenda.  They chose music, rather than carpentry or clothes dyeing as their route, despite what the status quo said.  In their case, this has led them to international fame.

It rained during the Amadou and Mariam act.  The rain had been expected between 3 and 6 pm.  It came between 9 and 10.30 pm.  This did not seem to dampen the spirits of the people who came to experience an act full of rhythm, dancing, and passion.  It is sometimes said that music communicates where other languages fail.  This certainly seemed to be the case here, despite my inability to speak French.

The Bridge over the Ditch and the Man outside the Window

Some of you may be aware that December 3rd is The UN International Day for Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This date is becoming particularly significant as disability starts to come up the development agenda and organisations like Disability in Wales and Africa continue to promote inclusive practice. However, what does inclusion look like and how does it affect what we do as a Wales Africa sector? A common view of inclusion is one portrayed on the front of the DWA leaflet – a girl in a wheelchair sitting in a mainstream class. This may be simple to understand but does it do justice to the concept? I would like to tell you two stories, one from Kenya and one from Wales, which I hope will help to move our thinking forward.

The Kenyan story comers from 2002 and starts in a market town called Maua at an organisation called the Meru North Disability Community Centre. The Centres Occupational Therapist was called to Athiru Gaiti, a village in the then Meru North District, to assess a girl, who used a wheelchair and wanted to go to school. When the Occupational Therapist arrived in the village, he found the girl and her father in their homestead, a local primary school extremely near, but a big ditch in the road between the two venues. The father’s solution to the problem was to send his daughter to a special school. This would not only have been expensive, and probably requiring donor support, it would also have removed the girl from her community and passed the responsibility for her welfare onto someone else.

However, the OT noticed a bridge, in serious need of repair, which went across the ditch. He suggested a different approach to the problem. The family liaised with the community, explained the barrier that was hindering the girl going to school, and together mobilised workmen to repair the bridge. The girl started to attend the school, using the repaired bridge. Additionally, the community has a better bridge to get from one side of the village to the other. However, perhaps the most important outcome from this story is that the community owned, and took responsibility to solve, the problem that the girl faced in getting to school. A process from which everyone benefited.

The story above took place in East Africa where, as we generally understand, there is not the same level of disability support services that we have come to expect in Wales. We have technology, and vastly more funding to finance services, to enable increased independence. To what extent though, has this development separated disabled people, and their needs, from the rest of the community?

My second story is a personal one which happened, during late September 2013, in Llangynidr where I live. I had been asked to deliver a letter to a house around the corner. My helper was busy packing the car, in preparation for us to go away. Consequently, I decided to set off in my powered chair and deliver the letter by myself.

When I arrived at the house, I was inevitably hampered by a front doorstep which meant I could not get to the letterbox. As people can imagine, as a wheelchair user, I can be quite opinionated about front doorsteps! However, just across the road from the house is the village shop. So, rather than go back home and drag my helper away from the job of packing the car so as to post the letter through the letterbox, I decided to sit outside the shop window and wave my hand in the air. When the shop assistant saw me, they came out and I explained where the letter was meant to go. They were happy to oblige and a simple two-minute solution was activated. The task in question could have taken half an hour, if I had gone home, brought my helper, and so on. Incidentally, the reason I had to sit outside the shop was, well you guessed it, because of the doorstep!

Having specific services is crucial if independence for many disabled people is going to be achieved. However, if not handled with care and thought, those same services and technology can be a hindrance to inclusion. So often we assume that inclusive development costs a lot of money. Although I do not know how much it cost to repair the bridge, it would have been considerably cheaper than sending the girl to a “special school”! It also helped the community to learn a little about the barriers the girl, and others like her, face day by day.

Everyone became part of the solution. In the Welsh situation, taking a letter across the road to be delivered by the shop assistant, cost nothing and enabled me to feel part of the community. The change, in both scenarios, is in the way the problem was perceived and confronted. This change came out of a different way of understanding disability, as a Social rather than a Medical/Functional problem. This alternative understanding led to different solutions being sought.

The Paralympics and Wales Africa Links

For good or for bad the Paralympics 2012 left its mark on the British public. Over 400 hours of TV coverage by Channel Four, an interesting figure when you consider that the Paralympics lasted only eleven days, and there are only 24 hours in a day, made this possibly the biggest ever British media initiative concerning disabled people. Disabled sports personalities were brought into homes in a previously unprecedented way. We were invited to celebrate the local achievements, for example a Welsh tally of 14 medals: 3 Gold, 3 Silver, and 8 Bronze. People started to talk about disability in ways that would have previously generated a bag of nerves. Continue reading