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Andrea’s breaking the stigma of disabilities in Africa

AN inspirational Omagh teen, who travelled to Tanzania to help improve the lives of those living in poverty, says that teaching a disabled three-year-old how to walk and talk is one of the proudest moments of her life.

Andrea Lee travelled to the East African country during the summer for 12 weeks with international development organisation VSO, as part of the UK government-funded International Citizen Service (ICS) programme, where she worked alongside young volunteers from Tanzania and the UK.

The 19-year-old lived with a local host family to immerse her fully into the local community, and gain a better understanding of the challenges people there face. As well as learning their native language of Swahili which allowed her to communicate with the locals and ignite lifelong friendships, Andrea also experienced many weird and wonderful foods – and even taught a three-year-old child who suffers from hydrocephalus (a condition characterised as an excess of fluid build-up in the brain) how to walk, stand and talk.

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Andrea Lee.

The latter, she said, is something she will never forget.

“We achieved many big things in Tanzania, but this is my personal most-rewarding experience,” Andrea said. “When I first visited the home of this child, he was unable to move. However, I visited his house regularly to encourage, support and teach him how to walk and talk, enabling him to gain life-long skills, and I gave his parents exercises for him to complete.

“I also recommended leg braces for him to use, which were made by the CBR officer.

“At the end of my placement he didn’t want to stop walking!”

However, it wasn’t just that little boy who’s life was changed for the better by Andrea’s visit: She also created ripples across the whole community by helping to break the long-standing stigma around disability.

“Many families believed that children with disabilities, along with the mother, were cursed,” Andrea explained. “This caused children to become neglected and socially-shamed within the community.

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“Though this was ingrained into their culture, my team and I did manage to overcome most of these beliefs by teaching in primary schools, and by carrying out informative talks about disabilities for the families and local communities.

“I found this to be extremely rewarding as I saw an improvement in how the attitudes of the communities and families had changed towards the end of my placement.

“I had the most incredible and awarding time in Tanzania as I really feel like helping children with disabilities had a positive lifelong impact on the children, the community and myself,” she added. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

As such, Andrea has encouraged any young person who is interested in volunteering overseas with VSO ICS to take the plunge.

“It will be the best 12 weeks of your life!” she smiled. “I strongly believe that it is extremely important for young people to get involved with projects like this as it will change your life as well as the lives of others.

“More than half the population is under the age of 25 – so we are the ones with the power to change things!”

• ICS is funded by UK aid, so young people aged 18 to 25 don’t need cash, qualifications or work experience to take part, just the desire to make a difference to the lives of some of the world’s poorest communities. To find out more about ICS or to apply,visit www.volunteerics.org.

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