Turning the Tide in Sierra Leone
A Day at the Beach: A once stigmatized population is now celebrated, and their voices are being heard!
As the unofficial start of summer in the United States begins with Memorial Day, and millions make their way to beaches to relax and enjoy fun and sun with family and friends, there is something happening on the ocean shores of Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa near Freetown that is so much more than a day at the beach.
In Sierra Leone children living with disabilities or a simple birth defect are often seen as devils or witches. These children and their families are usually ostracized in their communities, and can be abandoned by their own families, most often by the father.
That is why World Hope’s Enable the Children (ETC) workers are so passionate about organizing something as simple as a public day at the beach for these families. Starting in 2008, ETC’s Beach Day is now an annual event, although it might be better described as a movement. This movement is so profound in its simplicity; in a matter of a few hours, it is changing long-held beliefs and perceptions that have been passed down over generations.
The goal is to change hearts and minds by seeing children living with disabilities being loved and celebrated with a morning of fun, testimonies and encouraging statements at a public beach in Freetown. And it is not just for the children – caregivers bear a heavy burden that can lead to deep depression. That’s why we focus on therapy, psycho-social support and counseling to alleviate the feelings of isolation for both the children and caregivers. On Beach Day, families truly see they are NOT alone.
Imagine being the parent of a child with a disability but having no access to the Internet to learn about it, or to even know there are other children in your community with similar disabilities. But you decide to participate in Beach Day, make your way to the ocean and see 700 children with varying disabilities, some similar to your own child’s. It is this communal connection that provides hope to parents and caregivers alike.
For those 950 caregivers who gathered on the shores of Sierra Leone on March 18, 2023, and shared stories with others going through what they are going through, it makes an enormous difference, both in their courage and their outlook. These families also hear inspiring words from many of the 125 prominent stakeholders and dignitaries who attended, who in turn were inspired to support and advocate for the children and their families.
Planting Seeds of Persuasion
The children themselves unknowingly plant their own seeds of persuasion to ensure this movement continues beyond Beach Day. Some who attended, including players on two popular local soccer teams, were touched by stories such as Alhaji’s testimony, one of the ETC children, who said: “I don’t know why people say bad things about us, but please remember, when you say bad things, we hear it and believe it, and start to think the same bad things about ourselves too. Please stop looking down on us. We are also important, and we can do things that other children can do.”
It wasn’t just the dignitaries and the soccer players who were inspired by the children. Many passers-by stopped, watched and listened. I am convinced that they have never seen anything like this in their lives, and it will cause them to question their beliefs as they see this stigmatized population being celebrated and their voices being heard.
One family that attended with their daughter, Shalomy, has been in the ETC program since 2016 and has attended many of the beach outings. The reason Shalomy’s parents keep coming back is because of the utter joy they see in Shalomy’s eyes when she is having fun playing in the sand with other children living with disabilities, and because of the encouragement they receive as a family.
For another little girl, Elizabeth, Beach Day 2023 was special for two reasons—the first being that it was her first Beach Day outing. The second is that ETC has had a profound impact on changing her father’s attitude toward her since he attended an ETC Dad’s meeting, and as a result, he is now much more involved in her life. Elizabeth’s mother shared her story at the beach about what an impact her husband’s changed attitude toward Elizabeth has had in their lives, which gave courage to several other families.
These stories remind us that educating families, helping to shift their way of thinking has a profound impact on a child’s life. Through this one event, we see so much more than a child’s life changing, we see a movement happening, a tide turning. We know without a doubt that Beach Day is something that must continue and grow for many years to come, until that one day we work toward, when children with disabilities across Sierra Leone and neighboring countries are no longer stigmatized but celebrated!
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Director and Physiotherapist Enable the Children Program
World Hope International