Disabled after political violence, Zambian student fights for rights
4 years ago
Daniel Nsomekala sat in a wheel chair patiently waiting for the UTD 883 shuttle on a warm November morning. The bus arrived and the driver got up patiently, moved to the middle of the bus and opened the door while activating the disabled access ramp that lowered onto the pavement.
This is a very routine, day-to-day affair here in North America and nobody even batted an eye-lid. However, this is not the story for disabled people in many other parts of the world.
“Anyone who comes to America will be amazed at the disability access available everywhere for disabled people, it is hard not to,” said Nsomekala.
Nsomekala, a political science senior comes from Zambia where disability access is a concept that is being fought for and he along with others are trying to bring about a change that allows integration of disability access everywhere in Africa
The name Nsomekala means, “trigger”, which he said came down from a hunting heritage from generations ago. He grew up in the western province of Zambia to a small farming family who also raised cows and had a small shop. At that time, there was only one political party in power who controlled both the executive and legislative functions of the government.
“When I grew up, we heard about the term democracy for the first time in 1991, before that there was only one party, a president and his flock,” Nsomekala said.
The move for a multi-party democratic system led the country into civil strife and unrest until 1991, which saw the advent of the multi-party system. The political party climate was constantly changing.
“Whoever does not agree with you was seen as your enemy,” Nsomekala said.
Nsomekala got into politics in 1994 as a youth advocate in human rights for minority groups. In 1995, he lost the use of both of his legs in a violent attack.
His close friend at UTD, fellow political science senior David Dambre, talked about the first time he heard about the attack on Nsomekala.
“I mean Africa is not like here, things happen here, we are bound by laws and they protect us,” Dambre said. “Had it been here in the United States, things would have been different.”
As Nsomekala recovered at the hospital he saw that there were patients at the hospital who needed a lot of help.
“The only thing that helped me through it was meeting a lot of disabled people who were in a far worse condition than I was in,” Nsomekala said.
Nsomekala decided to focus his time on becoming an advocate for disability rights. Like Nelson Mandela, who is a strong inspiration for Nsomekala, he talked about forgiveness. He is not keen on lingering in the past and said it was not fair to focus on his problems when he knew there were so many people that are suffering every day.
With a renewed vigor, Nsomekala formed the National Congress Party from 1992-2000. The party was a small one, which he described as a “briefcase party” with little resources, dependent mostly on passionate volunteers. He also formed the National Christian Association for the disabled, which worked with Habitat for Humanity and Lions Club International to build about 100 houses for disabled people in Zambia, since many of them are homeless.
In 2005, Nsomekala came to Dallas, after qualifying for asylum in America, since he was viewed as a problem in Zambia due to his vocal open advocacy for disability rights he said. He then embarked on a journey to start his formal education by taking classes first at Richland College and then transferred to UTD in 2010.
“I came here, looked at UTD and I was really happy with the admissions department who were extremely nice to me,” Nsomekala said. “Sometimes my health has gone up and down but my professors are so nice in working with me to help me.”
Nsomekala enjoys discussion-based classes and said he truly enjoys the diversity he finds here at UTD. Classes are not just about theory at UTD, but also about learning to apply it in the real world, he said. He feels that the political science department has done well in helping him sharpen his future in advocating disability rights in Africa.
“Diversity is not just looking at each other in the face but talking to each other and in the process learning about each other,” he said.
Nsomekala plans to study theology in graduate school. Pastor Nsomekala, as he is known amongst many of his friends, is a devout Christian and holds strong views that there should be a mandate for Zambia, which is officially a Christian country, to live up to Christian ideals of equality and compassion.
Although he is deeply inspired by Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., he does not consider himself as a Moses for African disability rights or as a hero.
“I am just a drop in the ocean, but many drops make an ocean,” Nsomekala said.
Nsomekala and Dambre have founded the organization Disability Integration Initiative for Africa that will be their base for disability rights advocacy and are presently working on building the website which will be named www.dii4africa.org.
“Disabled people face a lot of prejudices and enjoy poor rights,” Dambre said.
Dambre went on to talk about how disability access is not planned for when buildings and roadways are designed. Nsomekala added that since they are mistakenly perceived as non-productive members of society, their rights are often not cared for.
Nsomekala aims to use the organization to help African governments realize that disabled people are an integral part of any nation and as such should enjoy equal rights. Disability access is a crucial part of that, Dambre said and it helps with nation building. The organization, as it is being built, aims to work with many International agencies in Africa to help local governments increase disability access and improve living conditions for disabled people. Nsomekala, along with Dambre is also a part of the African Young Leaders Association, an organization that is for promoting young leaders in Africa.
“If you can breathe air by yourself every day in the morning when you wake up, then you are better off than someone who cannot and that makes it your duty to help them,” Nsomekala said.