By Meritt Buyer, a proud sister
My brother, Jeffrey, was born when I was seven years old. He was six weeks premature and the doctors predicted that he would not live. Once it was clear that he had decided to stick around, we were told that it was unlikely that he would ever learn to walk or talk. By the time he was five, he was so active that it became a family joke that now we couldn’t get him to shut up or sit still. Jeffrey has since grown into one of the most delightful human beings you will ever meet.
Like many children with intellectual disabilities, Jeffrey perseverates, meaning he gets stuck on a subject and that is all he will think or talk about. There were a few years during which I am pretty sure Halloween and roller coasters were the only topics of conversation in our house. Jeff also perseverates about things he is anxious about, like flying. Due in part to his fear, Jeffrey can list more airlines than most people have ever heard of and describe the specifications of every large passenger jet. For years, he would vomit immediately every time he arrived at his destination and then tell you how much he liked the plane. So when I took this fellowship in Tanzania, I pretty much wrote off the idea of a visit from Jeff. Even though I should know better by now than to underestimated him.
When my family bought their plane tickets, I spent weeks exclaiming, “It is so amazing that Jeff Buyer gets to go on safari in the Serengeti!” (Until my husband eventually pointed out that he was well aware, and perhaps I did not need to remind him so regularly.) The safari excited me for two reasons. One, a trip like that seems like the quintessential journey, the dream destination, and my brother, who had overcome so many barriers, was going to get to do it. Second, The Lion King had been one for Jeff’s subjects of choice when he was little. We watched (and quoted) it so many times that some twenty-odd years later, Jeffery, my sister and I can still recite entire scenes and they never fail to make Jeffrey laugh, which in turn makes us laugh. So there he was, a boy who was never supposed to walk or talk standing in the back of a safari truck, shouting the relevant lines from the Lion King to every animal that we saw, and as always defying expectations.
After our Disney-themed adventures, my family and I spent spent two mornings with the young adults from the Rau KDC center. Jeff had been practicing basic Swahili during the week leading up to his visit, so by this point he could proudly greet the other kids. He helped plant seedlings in the garden and pull weeds. His crowning achievement was teaching everyone how to play two of his favorite games, Uno and Skip Bo, that he brought for the kids. He melted my whole heart, sitting there in the center, doing his best to count in Swahili as the BCC kids watched and listened intently. There weren’t any barriers that morning, just a group of guys playing cards together, having a good time.
I think that one of the hardest things for me working here in Moshi, is that people constantly dismiss the potential of children with disabilities. (Studies have shown that if people have low expectation for children with disabilities, the outcomes are disastrous.) Out of ignorance, people assume that these kids cannot learn to communicate, read, write, count, follow a routine, or participate in social activities. And I cannot begin to imagine my life if that was how the world had viewed Jeffrey. Jeffery has graduated from high school and become an Eagle Scout. He cooks dinner for our parents every week, goes to work with a peer group, bowls, sails, rides horses, plays five instruments, and ice skates; among many other talents. Yes, he had opportunities that the children here will never have, despite the amazing efforts of BCC and other local organizations. But of equal importance, he has a support system poised to ensure that he can take advantage of every single one.
It will likely take decades before the perceptions and stigma against people with disabilities shift here in Tanzania. Due to the efforts of BCC, we are already beginning to see changes. Mothers are brining their children to us in search of help instead of hiding them in their homes. We have staff who patiently teach the children to count. We have vocational training for our young adults who are now contributing financially to their households. The children in the BCC program are all such amazing individuals and I am confident that given half a chance they will exceed even the loftiest expectations. I know it is possible because my brother has demonstrated it repeatedly.