‘Disability is not inability,’ is a common slogan that holds great meaning for 24 year-old Jean Twagirimana who has been handicapped for his entire life.
He was born with a defect in the growth of his hands. Despite his physical, he continued pursue his dreams.
In Rwanda, it is a typical belief that people with physical disabilities are destined to be street beggers.
The reason for the many physically impaired street beggars stationed along most busy roads within Kigali City and many town centres.
This is probably supported by beliefs carried on from ancient days; for example, in the Holy Bible, the oldest book in history, mentions various incidents where crippled people or physically impaired people were discriminated against in society.
As a result they could not compete favourably in job opportunities and ended up sitting on street corners and at the temple or city gates begging for money.
This scenario is not different in Rwanda as well as many countries worldwide.
According to Twagirimana, this common belief in society about the disabled was what he dreaded the most.
As a child, growing up in Bugesera District in Rwanda’s Eastern Province, he succumbed to the fear of asking for scholastic materials from his parents because he thought he was begging just like people on the streets.
“This was my greatest nightmare because I did not want to be like other disabled beggers in Bugesera,” he narrated.
“When I was 8 years old, I never told my mother about my fears. I was always afraid of being at anyone’s mercy and I did not want any sort of favors because of my condition,” he said.
This mindset for Twagirimana, was what pushed him to perform. Being the last born in a family of five children he ensured that he always run his personal errands.
“Right from my childhood, I have been reserved and I always anticipated for positive things to happen,” he recalls.
His parents played a vital role in building his confidence and self esteem. From birth, his parents had loved him dearly like any other of their children.
However, they had doubts about his education. While his siblings started school, he had to stay behind because his parents did not see how he would study without writing.
Twagirimana said that his dad always convinced him to stay at home every time he brought up the school topic saying that it was of no use to go to school when he won’t be able to write.
“I reluctantly asked him if they only wrote hands at school,” Twagirimana said.
Though his dad laughed at this, he promised him that they would find a solution soon.
“This hurt me and the pain was unbearable. At night I rarely slept, as I tried to figure out an immediate solution.”
“That night, I realised that I was really helpless about my situation yet life had to continue. I concluded that my disability had caused me to miss school yet people my age were in middle primary,” he narrates.
He wanted so badly to be just like the rest of the children and later he managed to convince his parents that he could write.
Twagirimana then took a leap of faith to which he owes to the Catholic priestat his home parish.
Twagirimana said that the priest offered to enroll him in school if he promised to learn how to write using his toes.
He told him that many people with upper limb problems like he had writen with their toes. He however warned that the process needed lots of provisions and dedication.
As he speaks of his childhood, Twagirimana facial expression brightens up. “I even took myself to school on the first day!” he happily said.
During his first days in school, Twagirimana said he felt like giving up. While the teacher was teaching writing skills, Twagirimana said, he used his toes and his handwriting seemed not to improve.
Whenever he thought of quitting, he would think of the promise he made to the priest and his heart shrunk but he never gave up.
Currently, Twagirimana is a second year student in Kigali Institute of Education (K.I.E) majoring in Swahili, English and Education. He has only two years to complete his degree and this he said is a dream come true.
“If people with better brains and all physical features can fail, who am I not to try!” he beams in amazement.
As he displays some of his artistic drawings done with his toes, he reveals that he is passionate about art.
Twagirimana uses his big toe and second toe to hold pens and pencils while he explores various possibilities.
Apart from writing and drawing, Twagirimana recently won a certificate in computer literacy.
More still, his leadership skills have not gone unexplored. He is also chairman of the ‘Committee of Students with Disabilities’ at his University. He aspires and is still ambitious for better goals.
“I am targeting the parliament within the next five years,” he said.This is his vision; to represent the disabled at the parliament level.
“Not being able to do anything with my hands is a blessing in disguise, I get all the time to exercise my writing and computer skills,” he said.
With his motto of ‘Seizing all Opportunities,’ Twagirimana is soaring higher than many with a determination to acquire a better future as he proclaims that ‘Disability is not inability.”