One Ambassador’s Mission to Inspire Peace and Self-Acceptance
by Kirsten Steenkamp
21 September is the International Day of Peace – a worldwide recognition of the importance of peace for repairing conflict, community building and nurturing forgiveness. To individuals who perpetuate prejudice, discrimination and violence, peace may be an intangible and abstract concept. But for those who walk the path of being ‘othered’, social disharmony is as real as the lack of sunshine on an overcast afternoon. In this Story of Hope, we explore the journey of a young man who has become a peacemaker in his own right.
Akhanya Nombila first came into The Chaeli Campaign’s realm as an ambassador in the Phillippi chapter in 2012. Describing his experience being the only disabled youngster in his group, Akhanya – born with cerebral palsy – was uncomfortable at first, expecting judgement from others. However, once the new faces became more familiar and he was assured that they would not tease or laugh at him, he expresses shock at their supportiveness.
His new friends were so encouraging, in fact, that they decided to focus their social entrepreneurship project for the year solely on raising funds to buy Akhanya a laptop. As he cannot write with his hands, this assistive device would enable him to complete his schoolwork without the scribing aid of his teacher. Once home, Akhanya could tackle his homework while his mother was working nightshift and his cousins were managing their own high school studies.
Accomplishing larger amounts of work and improving his typing speed each day, he quickly caught up with his peers.
While selling Chaeli Campaign socks and lollipops in their respective neighbourhoods, there arose an additional opportunity for the young activists to spread the message of their collective mission: together your dreams are possible!
Sadly, many people in Akhanya’s area are unaware of this bright young man’s potential, laughing at his appearance or simply assuming that he is “mentally disturbed” or “crazy” because of his speech and movement.
The first outcome of the Chaeli Campaign’s Pay-It-Forward year-long social entrepreneurship programme is learning to tell your own story, which Zelda Mycroft, CEO of the organisation, says is the most significant story that each of us will tell in our lifetime. Becoming an ambassador at the age of 9, Akhanya was challenged early on to think about his life story. And by exposing the darkness he has faced in his life, we learn about where he derives his self-confidence and inner belief.
For Akhanya, self-acceptance began at home. Since he could remember, his loving parents believed in his dreams. “It’s all about them believing in me,” Akhanya says, furthering that it’s important to be accepted by people you put in your inner circle. It starts with your parents, who enable you to accept yourself. Then your siblings learn to accept you, after which comes your friends and the new people with whom you interact. “If people see that I have self-belief, and my parents believe in me, why can’t others believe in me?”
The story that Akhanya held in his mind about himself, he soon realised, was not in line with how others perceived him. “I thought everyone saw me as a ‘normal’ person, as I saw myself like the others. And I used to cry a lot when I got teased by others. I learned that people are not the same. There are people who are kind-hearted and there are those who are not.”
Disturbingly raising the example of Hitler’s order to exterminate all disabled people, Akhanya illustrates that the belief that disabled people are useless runs deep… He is used to being laughed at when he passes people in the street; being mocked for the way he walks or talks – “people first think you can’t do anything”.
While acknowledging the hardships that he has faced, Akhanya came to learn other ambassadors’ stories too. Some told of abuse and rape, others of car accidents and their paralysing consequences. Each life story uncovered the suffering that would live within them forever. But it also revealed the resilience and strength that was liberated in conquering your internal battles.
“I can’t make people accept me.” Akhanya says he can only offer for others to hang out with him to see how cool he is! “Then they can decide on their own if they want to be my friend or not. Get to know me first and then you can judge.” He adds with a great sense of humour that “disability is not a disease; it does not spread. You won’t get infected if you are my friend.”
“People have their own beliefs, but it’s not up to other people, it’s up to us. Sitting down, feeling sorry for yourself, feeling scared and being negative – it doesn’t help. Being positive opens a lot of opportunities for you. The bad will come – and we do prepare for the worst – but you are positive in your mind. You will overcome it. You are using your positivity to overcome the negative – you need to be confident. Trust and encourage yourself. Train your mind to think about the positives. Dream big, chase your dreams and shock the world!”
Would you believe that to this day – 11 years after receiving his first assistive device – the very same laptop is still being used to support his education! Akhanya hopes to finish matric next year, encouraging other disabled people to believe in their dreams and realise that they matter too.
Learning about Chaeli’s story, the humble beginnings of the organisation and the tremendous impact of changing one life at a time, Akhanya says he feels lucky to have friends who chose to support him. The gift of technology has been life-changing – and a powerful demonstration of how a social initiative can transform the opportunities for someone who may otherwise not receive this access.
Akhanya says that “Disabled people should use whatever they have – technology, skills, art – to express themselves and so that people can find a way to interact with them. Go out there, show them who you are, how you think and how powerful you are.”
To commemorate World Peace Day, it my hope that each one of you reading Akhanya’s story will be inspired to promote peace and harmony wherever you walk. We may not be able to appreciate the effect that our non-judgement, acceptance and kindness can have on another’s life, but one person at a time, we can step together towards global peace.