Yeboah returns home a belated hero
THE young man who threw away his home-made clutches to cycle on one leg for 640km across Ghana has returned home from America to a rousing hero welcome. Before his lunch with US President George Bush last Thursday, he was hardly a popular figure in Ghana. But, this week he has been the toast of the media, with several of the capital city's radio stations ignoring the favourite stars, politicians, to interview the former shoe shine boy from Koforidua.
When asked of the reception he has received upon his return to Ghana, Yeboah said it was a big surprise. “I thought people weren't watching. The people are appreciating what I've done,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah met, once again, with Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin, the Okyenhene, the man who had helped him reach his dreams some years ago. This time Yeboah came bearing gifts. He presented Osagyefuo with the coveted ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award which he received earlier this month in recognition for his accomplishments in overcoming his disability. In his reunion with the Okyenhene, the King, normally flowing with majestic eloquence, struggled to find words to congratulate Yeboah. “For you to receive this award for what you did,” Okyenhene said finally, “it's powerful. Keep on. It's all you. Nobody could have done what you did for you.”
This was among several awards Yeboah has received, including the Daasebre Award. Besides the Okyenhene, another traditional ruler who recognised his extraordinary prowess in the past was the Omanhene of New Juaben, Daasebre Dr Oti Boateng.
Now at 28 years old, Yeboah has come home. He has come home to a country where the disabled receive little recognition, let alone support to help the get on their feet and fend for themselves. But he plans to change this. Yeboah hopes to inspire those with disabilities in Ghana and share his story to show that, despite the overwhelming odds which face 10 percent of Ghana's population, one can persevere.
The Statesman asked Yeboah what it meant for him to come home. He replied, “It's something in my heart that I wanted to do to help my people. I wanted to come back to Ghana to support the disabled people here.” He names Herbert Mensah, as another inspiration – the man who sponsored his 400-mile cross country bicycle ride to raise awareness for disability.
Yeboah was born disabled into a poverty-stricken home. A shortened femur and knee dislocation in his right leg meant that he was unable to walk and was destined to fall victim to begging on the streets of Accra. Despite his father deserting him and his mother's death while Yeboah was a teenager, his pride would not allow him to beg, so he made a meager living as a shoe-shine. With help from Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), a United States charity organization, Yeboah pursued his dream of cycling the breadth of Ghana as an inspiration to all of the disabled. This single ride began a whirlwind of recognition. In addition to the ESPY Award, Yeboah was also the recipient of the 2003 Casey Martin Award by Nike in recognition of his efforts to overcome physical and societal challenges. In the same year, he was awarded Most Inspirational Athlete by CAF. A feature-length documentary film, “Emmanuel's Gift,” which chronicles Yeboah's life is due for release in both the United States and Ghana. The film has already received several Audience Awards and Yeboah has personally been recognized at various film festivals in the U.S. for his humanitarian achievements. When asked of his reaction to his accomplishments, Yeboah said that he could never have imagined being where he is today. Osagyefuo still doesn't know what drove Emmanuel. “I kept thinking, 'What makes Emmanuel so special? What thing does he have that enabled him to overcome his meager circumstances and disability? Is it determination or perseverance? His it his iron will, true grit, or God will?' What I learned was that he showed us through his performance the awesome power of the human spirit.” Now that Yeboah is back in Ghana indefinitely, he has several priorities, the first being the construction of a sports academy in Kyebi. With the temporary name, Emmanuel's Academy, this center will provide training opportunities for both the disabled and able youth. Yeboah continues to support fifteen disabled Ghanaian youth a year with school fees—a program which he established in 2004. In addition, a keynote address by Osagyefuo in the United States led to the donation of five hundred wheelchairs, which are due to be distributed throughout Ghana. “Now five hundred physically challenged children will have somewhere to sit and ride instead of crawl,” he said. “I wanted to have Emmanuel come here to distribute the wheelchairs. The message needs to go to every region and, as he is doing that, he can tell his story.” Despite his success in the US, he was widely overlooked here in Ghana. Many obstacles still face his fight for the disabled population. Politics and the pervading stigma of the physically challenged are hindering progress. Osagyefuo lamented the fact that Yeboah had been overlooked by the media, in particular. “Emmanuel once carried the Olympic torch for Ghana—that story got lost somewhere,” he said. “We shouldn't be missing stories like that. This is the story—it is a story that will transform lives.” In fact, he found it difficult raising funds from the government or the private sector to go to Egypt to carry the torch for his motherland, Ghana. Last Friday Yeboah met with President Bush of the US, and efforts are under way to get him to meet President Kufuor. A journalist sarcastically remarked, “This would be a far prettier photo op than the ones with Miss Ghana, Miss Universe and Miss Malaika.” When “Emmanuel's Gift” is released in Ghana, efforts will be made to make it available to the entire community, especially Ghana's disabled population. Osagyefuo recognizes that if they treat this film like any other, it will fail to reach those who need to see it. “The people that need to watch are the disabled people. We will find a way,” he said. It's imperative to get them the message—to tell all the disabled that there is a tomorrow, he said. “It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Yeboah sees that a lot more needs to be done. He admits that the resources available to the disabled in Ghana are nowhere near adequate. “It's a lot easier to be a disabled person in the US. Right now there must be support for the disabled in Ghana. We don't have anything.” Yeboah knows that his accomplishments may grant him more prominence than others fighting the same disability. “I don't want to be supported alone. We must keep hope alive and keep on fighting,” he said.