Kekeli founder/director Carrie with her mother and president, Mary Jane Brown. Diego Cagara / Spotlight News
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BETHLEHEM — In the distant country of Ghana in West Africa, people with disabilities, particularly young children, are seen as cursed and a burden to society. But Kekeli, Inc., an American non-profit organization, hopes to continue battling that stigma.
Kekeli, Inc. aims to raise money to help marginalized people there, assist disabled children, address human rights issues, improve the country’s educational system to become more inclusive, and change the general societal mindset regarding such disabled people. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this week, its founder and director Carrie Brown, who typically spends her whole year except October in Ghana, wants to continue with its advocacy-based mission.
“When it comes to having disabilities, most schools there are not equipped to handle the students with them,” she said. “They don’t have resources to have appropriate teachers or equipment out there, so very few children with disabilities are accepted into primary or elementary-level education.”
Brown had attended Bethlehem Central High School and began first traveling to Ghana in 2002 to study photography as an intern at a non-profit volunteer organization named Cross-Cultural Solutions. She later returned to Ghana in 2003, courtesy of the First Reformed Church of Bethlehem helping to raise money for her trip, to continue pursuing photography in Ghana’s Volta Region. While there, she began realizing how disabled and similarly-marginalized children were treated.
In Ghana, she said that the mother is often blamed when having a disabled child, and such children are encouraged to go to “healing at churches or shrines.” While most parents try both to “cure” their child, it speaks volumes as to how differently people treat those with special needs or disabilities. As such children grow into young adults, Brown said that many still completely depend on their parents and find it challenging to go through everyday life or seek a job.
Brown also brought up how people with disabilities may get locked away, either being stuck inside their houses or sent to “prayer camps.” Concerning the latter, “they’re supposed to be for ‘spiritual healing’ but the people who run them often chain persons with mental health problems. They also medicate them with whatever they have.”
She described a “very terrible” experience where she encountered a young woman, who clearly had a mental problem, at a prayer camp. “She had just got into the taxi that I was in and she was saying, ‘Help! Help! Help!’ and one of the camp’s pastor came out and dragged her out of the taxi and he told me, ‘You shouldn’t mind her. She has a problem.’” Exiting the taxi, Brown followed them and got to speak with the woman briefly, learning that she had relapsed after not taking her appropriate medication.
At these camps, people are not able to easily escape and are often literally chained — such an image can easily be found on Google — without receiving good medication. Pastors who work there rarely speak with anyone, including Brown, when asked about the conditions and often rush them off the camp to prevent them from learning more. Brown herself has disturbingly seen people chained to trees.
“We should not lock those children away, they’re still people and they should be a part of society,” she said. “It’s better to include them in society and be able to contribute, than be seen as a burden.” However, the government does not monitor the camps, which are organized by churches instead and they “pretty much get away with what they do and they defend chaining those people.”
Brown also wanted other schools and businesses across Ghana to be more open to teaching or hiring people with disabilities. “For example, such a woman may not be able to sell dresses, but she can do some basic things within a shop which will help. She could sew dresses, pillows, and sheets too, and someone else can help her sell them.”
Kekeli, Inc. hopes to raise money to set up resource centers to assess children’s hearing or visual impairments, or disabilities, which would be supervised by special education officers, thanks to a collaboration with Ghana Education Service. Concerning education, it wants to attach more specialized teachers and build a volunteer base to help engage students, including those with disabilities, more in the classroom.
By the end of 2018, Kekeli, Inc. would have set up a Resource and Assessment Center, while working with Ghana Education Service, and encourage more students who are not in school to come. In 2019, it hopes to raise enough money to start a kindergarten and primary school.
“It’s a fairly large project and we want it to be a center of excellence for education so that people can see that with the necessary teachers and curriculum, children can feel included although we know there are challenges,” Brown said, wanting to expand this model into other neighboring African countries.
Mary Jane Brown, Carrie’s mother and the organization’s president, added that it is working with physical therapists at a regional hospital there to come support those in need and within a year, there is hope for an actual physical therapist on location.
“We’re getting donations of equipment for physical therapy so that we don’t have to go to the hospital so that parents and their children can use those services everyday,” she said.
Carrie also said that Kekeli, Inc. has been working on a more-inclusive school curriculum where kindergarteners can start learning Braille and sign language, so that regardless of visual or hearing impairment, they can still communicate with one another.
“But most people are convinced that all this would never work in Ghana, so already we’re facing a big battle ahead of us,” said Carrie. “That’s why as an organization, we wanted to establish a model school to show the government that it can be done and that there are ways to get children into all the classes and get support.”
Humanitarian photojournalist and the organization’s secretary Connie Frisbee Houde acknowledged how important humanitarian aid and donations are. “Kekeli is making a difference by empowering families and whole communities in Ghana, and to see children with disabilities accomplish things is powerful,” she said. “We’re an extremely small group of people doing a lot of work for many people.”
However, she recognized how challenging it is to raise funds nowadays for international projects in a local area here.
Lois Wilson, one of the organization’s board’s first members who has since retired, expressed awe at how Carrie has evolved over the years to continually help disabled children by making connections with locals in Ghana and offering support.
“Initially, Carrie wanted a photography project there but she realized the enormous need to help disabled children,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful she’s been able to do all that work.”
While the organization’s goals remain ambitious and seem long-term, it is marking its 10th anniversary here in the Capital District. There will be photo exhibition called “Ghana’s Spirit Children,” all of whom were photographed by Carrie herself, from Friday, Oct. 26 to Sunday, Nov. 11 at the Photo Center of the Capital District on 404 River St in Troy. Its Oct. 26 opening will be from 5 to 9 p.m. as part of Troy Night Out, a local monthly arts and culture event.
Also, Carrie will host a presentation of her work in Ghana in the organization’s third annual fundraiser on Sunday, Oct. 28 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Delmar Reformed Church on 386 Delaware Ave. This family-friendly event will feature drumming, dancing and a silent auction. Admission is $5 per person and $10 for a family.
For more information in general, visit www.kekeli-ghana.org.