A child with a disability in Cameroon is often considered to be cursed. Some of are abandoned and left to die. Others are hidden at home.
Muluh Hilda Bih was blessed with a family that had a different attitude. She developed muscular dystrophy at age 4, losing the ability to use her hands and legs. But the support of her parents and siblings made all the difference.
Before she had a wheelchair, they literally carried her on their backs. “There was a lot of lifting,” says Muluh, now 34, with a chuckle.
With her family’s support, she’s gone on to become a radio journalist who is one of her country’s most familiar voices. She’s an activist as well, seeking to help those with disabilities and mentoring young women through the Esther Project, a program she founded to empower girls to pursue an education.
Muluh was surely inspired by her own parents, who did everything they could to find out what was causing her weakness. They took their second child to hospital after hospital, hoping doctors could explain what was wrong. Each visit proved fruitless.
“Just diagnosing the problem is a problem in itself,” she says. The family even visited faith healers and witch doctors. One said her disability was a sign of special powers. Others blamed her parents for passing on a curse.
Meanwhile, Muluh’s disease was progressing. With no answers and no cure, she began losing hope for her future. Children at school taunted her, and people in the streets gawked at the sight of a little girl who had to be carried.
At 16, she even thought of suicide. “I just thought that I was not going to ever achieve any of the dreams I had,” Muluh says. “I got frustrated and I thought, ‘Well maybe there’s no point in going on with this life.'”
But it was her faith and the thought of her family that kept her going. Her eight brothers and sisters often dropped what they were doing to help her, while her parents tirelessly searched for answers.
“I thought about [my father’s] sacrifice, and I continued because I knew that it would please him,” she says.
Today, Muluh uses her voice to push for better enforcement of legislation that’s supposed to help disabled people. According to the World Health Organization, they’re roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. But while Cameroon has a law that requires ramps to be installed in all buildings, most offices and schools aren’t wheelchair accessible.
Not even Muluh’s office at Cameroon Radio and Television Corporation, where she worked for roughly eight years. Her brothers had to carry her up the stairs.
“Our government sees what is happening in other countries,” she says. “They copy and paste, but they do not implement.”
Muluh also aims to change the way disabilities are perceived.
She remembers reporting on a severely disabled woman whose family had wanted to kill her when she was born. “The family suggested that because her body was so distorted, she must have been a bad omen,” she recalls.
Luckily, a great aunt took in the girl, who learned to use her feet for daily tasks like cooking and laundry. The woman, now 28, never went to school but has started a successful business selling rice, beans and cooking oil.
When the story aired on the radio, people were shocked to hear an in-depth story about an issue that rarely goes public. Many listeners reached out, wanting to support the woman’s business.
The more stories she shared, Muluh says, the more people she heard about people accepting their children. “A mother came to me and said, ‘I never used to know that my son could be useful. Now that I heard your story, he’s going to go to school no matter what it takes,'” she recalls.
That kind of family support makes a tremendous difference for a youngster — and for an adult as well.
At the hotel where Muluh and her sister, Honourine, are attending the Young African Leaders Initiative conference, Muluh gets ready to pose for a photo. Honourine quickly reaches over to fix her sister’s hair, adjust her necklace and even cross her legs for her.
Just as quickly, she steps aside — out of the frame. As Muluh and I head toward the hotel lobby after our interview, I peer behind me. And there’s Muluh Honourine Tewah, always one step behind her sister.