Miriam Elao is a self-employed woman aged 33. She is a happy woman but life has not always looked bright for her.
She was born a healthy baby in Onangela Village in the Oshana Region but at the age of one, she contracted poliomyelitis (polio). The sickness left her with weakened muscles and flaccid paralysis, which destabilised her limbs.
Her parents took her to Oshakati State Hospital in 1993 when they became too burdened with taking care of her. She was later transferred to Windhoek Central Hospital. She stayed there for a year. In 1994, she was transferred back to Oshakati. Within that period of treatment, her parents did not visit her, even after she returned to Oshakati. In fact, it would be the last time she would see her father, because he died later that year.
She stayed in the hospital for another year and even started schooling there. After a few years, a doctor who also had a disabled child recommended that Elao be transferred to Anamulenge School for Children with Disabilities in the Omusati Region. For the first time, she met the outside world.
“When I was in the hospital, it did not really occur to me I had a disability. I was being looked after by nurses all the time,” she recalls, however explaining she also took the experience with a novelty.
“I felt free at the school, because the hospital made me feel trapped. I could never go out at the hospitals while at school after lessons, we could visit other places around town.”
After completing her Grade 10, she transferred to Iipumbu Senior Secondary School in 2005 to begin her Grade 11, as her previous school did not have a higher grade. This was her first experience being in a school with able-bodied students and it was terrible.
She quickly found out not everyone in the world was as caring or understanding as her former nurses. Most learners constantly made fun of her. Things got so bad that some students once drew a caricature of a fellow learner and claimed Elao had done it. Unable to take the bullying, she dropped out of school.
She would return to her Ombalantu home but never felt accepted there either. She eventually grew weary of lounging around the house. In 2009, she enrolled at the Namibian College of Open Learning (Namcol) in Oshakati.
“To date, my parents have not yet accepted me as their child. Maybe things were different before I got sick, I wouldn’t know,” she says sadly. “But I have accepted myself for who I am.”
Her relationship with her family became further strained, because as a devout Catholic, she did not want to join Four Square church that her whole family attended, as she felt begrudged there.
However, in 2010 when she visited the Four Square church, she landed the church’s Project Hope Foundation scholarship to study a course of her a choice. For the first time in years, there seemed to be a small glimmer of hope.
She enrolled at the Ovalombola Vocational Training Centre (VTC) in Ongwediva to study office administration. After completing her first semester, she returned to the church for funding for the next semester but was told there were no more funds, despite it stating the scholarship was for the entire course.
“The person who was administering the money was much older. So out of respect, I decided not to pursue the issue further,” she comments.
Knowing she had to fend for herself or suffer dependence forever, she decided to “stop feeling sorry for myself, as I can walk and use my hands. It was time to grow up.”
Her salvation had always been close at hand. She began making clay pots and plates and weaving plates called ‘iililo’, in Oshiwambo.
In a month, Elao makes around N$3000 to N$4000 and with that, she is able to sustain herself.
Elao, who enjoys dancing, knitting and making her clay pots has, since October, been volunteering at the Youth with Disabilities in Oshana. She is the second in command at the centre and takes over whenever the chairperson is unavailable.
“I encourage the youth, especially the disabled to make something out of themselves despite life’s challenges. I hope they draw inspiration from me.”
Late last month, she was chosen as part of a delegation from the Oshana Region to attend the first official National Young Women’s Association (NYWA) where she gave her input on issues, such as gender-based violence and baby-dumping.