Wheelchair users in Africa are waiting for the Pope

GOMA – When Pope Francis arrives in Congo and South Sudan next week, thousands of people will pay special attention to a gesture more grounded than the sign of the cross. As they watch from their wheelchairs, they will relate to how he uses his.

The pope, who began using a wheelchair last year, is visiting two countries where years of conflict have disabled many, yet they are among the most difficult places in the world to find access and understanding. His visit encourages Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“We know it’s an affliction, but it’s also comforting to see a great figure like the Pope in a wheelchair,” said Paul Mitemberezi, a market vendor in Goma, in the heart of the eastern Congo region threatened by dozens of armed groups. “Sometimes it gives us the courage to hope that this isn’t the end of the world and that one can survive.”

Mitemberezi, a Catholic father, has been disabled from polio since he was 3 years old. He works to support his family because he cannot imagine a life of begging. On the way to the market, his three-wheeled chair crunches over the stones of dirt roads. Without a ramp at home, he has to leave the brightly painted vehicle outside if there is a risk of theft.

Every morning before he leaves for basketball practice, he makes sure the chair is still there before crawling out his front door. “It’s my legs that help me live,” he said. He attaches a bicycle pump to the wheels and off he goes, weaving through the traffic of motorcycles and trucks.

Pope Francis is still adjusting to a life that Mitemberezi has long accepted. The pope was first seen publicly in a wheelchair in May, with an aide pushing him. The 86-year-old pope never pushes himself. He sometimes walks with a cane, but for longer distances he uses the chair and has a wheelchair lift to get on and off airplanes.

Francis has insisted his mobility limitations will not affect his ability to be pope, saying “You lead with your head, not your knee.” He has bemoaned how today’s “throw away culture” wrongly marginalizes people with disabilities. He makes a point of visiting institutions for the disabled during his trips abroad and regularly spends time greeting wheelchair users at the end of his general audiences.

“No disability – temporary, acquired or permanent – ​​can change the fact that we are all children of the one Father and enjoy equal dignity,” wrote Pope Francis in his annual United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities message in December. He said people of different abilities enrich the church and teach it to be more human.

Such messages are eagerly awaited by wheelchair users in South Sudan, where a five-year civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. As in Congo, there is a lack of data on how many people are disabled by conflict or other causes.

While the road to the Vatican embassy in the South Sudanese capital Juba was paved by city authorities this month to make travel easier, residents who use wheelchairs said they have long had no easy access to schools, health centers, toilets and other public facilities have facilities.

Unlike Congo, South Sudan has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, both countries face enormous challenges, including underfunded health systems, poor infrastructure and conflict, which leave many disabled people vulnerable while others flee. Even refugee camps and shelters are often inaccessible, according to the United Nations, and wheelchairs aren’t always available.

Discrimination is another problem. “People see those who use wheelchairs as useless,” says James Moses, who runs a local organization for disabled people in South Sudan and uses crutches after being injured by a landmine.

He and others urged the South Sudanese government to give them special consideration during the Pope’s visit, and they hope Francis will intercede on their behalf. “He’s close to us,” said Susan Samson, a wheelchair user and mother.

They hope to greet the Pope at the airport with congratulations and flowers. “Put us in front so that the Pope can see us,” demanded wheelchair user Seme Lado Michael.

The Vatican’s ambassador to the Congo, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, said he believes the sight of a wheelchair user could be a powerful lesson in a culture where disabilities are often viewed with suspicion and superstition.

Families often abandon their disabled children, he said.

Seeing someone like the pope suffer should make Francis more approachable to people during his visit, Balestrero said. “You identify with him even more in a way.”


Machol reported from Juba, South Sudan. Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this.


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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2023/01/28/hes-close-to-us-wheelchair-users-in-africa-await-pope/ Wheelchair users in Africa are waiting for the Pope

Sarah Y. Kim

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