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‘Water Babies’

by Chris Tse

Children with Mental Disabilities in Ghana are being abandoned by parents and the government

ACCRA: Children in Ghana struggle to get equal and proper treatment. Photo by Chris Tse

M’Adyoa was just three years old when she was left on the doorstep of the Osu Children’s Home in Accra, Ghana. Her file says she was dropped off. Her condition says she was abandoned.

M’Adyoa was born autistic and suffers from epilepsy. Both illnesses are misunderstood, and consequently ostracized, by the majority of Ghanaians. After seven years of being bullied and mistreated at the Osu Children’s Home, M’Adyoa was finally transferred to Operation Hand in Hand, a shelter for mentally disabled children, in 2005.  She is still there today.

“We have some adults who have been here since we first opened,” says Samuel Beffo, Operation Hand in Hand’s project director. “It’s difficult to take in new people, especially when there are so many sent to us.”

The reason so many find themselves at Operation Hand in Hand is simple – in Ghana, many children with mental disabilities are thought to be ‘water babies,’ or demon-possessed witch children. Traditional beliefs surrounding these kids still persist in much of Ghanaian society, and most parents will leave such newborns at orphanages or children’s homes, as in M’Adyoa’s case.

Occasionally, kids are simply left in the bush to die. Education about mental disabilities in Ghana remains underdeveloped, and according to the few workers advocating for increased awareness of the issue, the government needs to do more.
“They [the government] don’t really support us or what we do,” says Joshua Otu Abankwah, assistant director of the Garden City Special School in Kumasi. “Funding is delayed, if it even arrives at all. We cannot operate programs for these special children without funding.”

Operation Hand in Hand in Nkoranza, on the other hand, runs entirely off donations. The camp was started as a shelter for mentally disabled orphans by a Dutch doctor named Ineke Bosman in 1992. Now it’s a permanent care home for 65 kids and adults with 31 caregivers. It exists as a sad yet hopeful world of 65 people who have been marginalized by their society, but accepted into a new one. While inspiring, the camp is also a painful reminder of the challenges that still face mentally disabled people in Ghana.

“People are afraid of these children,” says Beffo. “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 syndrome or autism. Beffo says 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,” says 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 says donations roll in from as far away as Germany and the United States, and that children are sponsored by “adoptive families” who send about $50 a month. The kids’ caregivers are comprised of international volunteers and Ghanaian workers.

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 admitts 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,” says Asabea, “but one of my friends told me, ‘Just come and try it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”

ACCRA: Garden City Special School. Photos by Chris Tse

Eight years later, Asabea is still at the shelter, where she is the head hostess and also the caregiver to M’Adyoa, who is now 16.  During the days, M’Adyoa spends hours in the craft workshop, where she, along with other residents of the shelter, make bead jewelry and weave clothing to sell to visitors of the shelter. According to Beffo, most of Operation Hand in Hand’s residents have nothing outside of the community to return to.

“If nothing happens to this project, they will live here until they die,” says Beffo, who noted that the age range of the shelter’s residents varies by at least thirty years. “What else is there left for them to do?  Their families don’t want them. Society doesn’t want them. They will just be a burden.”

Garden City Special School aims to change this mentality by helping mentally disabled children achieve independent or semi-independent living. The school does this by teaching its students life skills, ranging from cooking and cleaning to relationship skills and holding jobs.

“These children can and need to be helped,” says Abankwah. “Every child is unique, and while some of them are severely affected, there are others who can go on to marriage or family life.”

“Some of our graduates have jobs as carpenters and tradesmen, and they are showing their fellow Ghanaians that they can contribute to society.”

According to Abankwah, this success rate has made believers of many Ghanaian parents with disabled children. The waiting list for Garden City Special School currently sits in the hundreds, which Abankwah says is a testament to the changing perceptions towards mental disabilities.

“They’re learning to love these children where before, there was no love, just anger,” says Abankwah. “That’s why there are so many single-parent families, because the two parents usually blame each other for these problems. But now they are learning to love, and it’s changing these children’s lives. If you don’t have a love for the children, it’s difficult.”

Asabea attests to this fact. Throughout the past eight years, she has gained an understanding of mental illness and sincerely appreciates the opportunity given to her.

“I really love this place [and] I don’t want to go,” says Asabea of her time at Operation Hand in Hand. “I love the work and I love the kids. I’ve begun to advise other people in the community to come and give these children another chance.”
But, like any mother, Asabea reserves a special love for her own adopted child.

“She calls me ‘Mommy,” says Asabea of M’Adyoa, who has been with Asabea since her first day at the shelter. “I just call her M’Adyoa.”
When asked M’Adyoa’s last name, Asabea smiles.

“Bosman,” she says. “All the children here are named after Dr. Bosman, because when they came, they were orphans. Now, they have joined a family.”

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