Ghana from rags to riches
Four years after he completed one of the most astonishing athletic feats in memory and four weeks after he became a film star, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is seven floors above West End Ave., happy to be still. He is looking out the window, at the first snow he has ever seen. He is about to have rice and a tomato concoction he cooked up for lunch. He has journeyed from West Africa to the Upper West Side, a brief stop before heading off to a film festival in Austin, Tex., then to a triathlon today in Yucaipa, Calif.
Yeboah, 27, of Koforidua, Ghana, is a moving target, and a shaker of attitudes. All that separates him from Lance Armstrong is one leg and six Tour de France titles. Otherwise, they've both done extraordinary things on their bicycles, Armstrong with the world watching, Yeboah with almost nobody watching, until now.
"Riding a bicycle 600 kilometers on one leg - who ever heard of that before?" says Gordon Adoboe, 35, a close friend and advisor to Yeboah, speaking on his cell phone from Ghana. Adoboe pauses. "Emmanuel has a very strong spirit to do whatever he wants to do."
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is 5-3 and 115 pounds, a man with cables of muscles and deep Christian faith. His voice is raspy, his demeanor polite and quiet. He is a former $2-a-day shoeshine boy who is changing the world. To label his story rags to riches doesn't give him nearly enough credit.
Yeboah was born into poverty in eastern Ghana, with no lower right leg, his foot protruding from behind his knee. His father abandoned him rather than deal with the shame of having a disabled child. Two million people - 10% of the population - in Ghana are disabled, and they are not only personas non grata, they are widely regarded as cursed, and evil. "Seeing off" is the euphemism in Ghana for purging society of the disabled, whether by locking them in a room, or killing them.
Emmanuel's mother, Comfort, had more than a few friends suggest to her that she poison her son, or leave him by the edge of the river.
Comfort paid no mind, and neither did Emmanuel, whose life is chronicled in the new documentary, "Emmanuel's Gift," directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern, twin sisters from Long Island.
"No matter what people say, I don't listen to them," Emmanuel says in halting English, thickly accented in Twi, his native language.
Yeboah grew up sleeping on a dirt floor, in a home with no electricity or plumbing. His mother was adamant that he get an education, so she enrolled him in the village school. There were 239 able-bodied kids, and Emmanuel. Comfort carried her son two miles to school, each way. When he got older, he'd get there on his own.
"I'd hop on my leg," Emmanuel says.
Emmanuel stayed in school until he was 13, when he dropped out against his mother's wishes. She was sick and the family needed money. Emmanuel went off to the capital city of Accra, where he saw disabled people everywhere, hundreds of them, all of them begging. Emmanuel refused to beg, though it probably would've brought him more money than the $2 he'd make shining 30 or 40 pairs of shoes a day.
The sorry spectacle of those deformed bodies in desperate circumstances moved Emmanuel deeply. So did the last words his mother told him before she died on Christmas Eve, 1997: "Don't let anybody put you down because of your disability."
Says Emmanuel, "What my mother told me was a gift. I want to show everyone that physically challenged people can do something."
Yeboah decided to do that in the most improbable of ways: by riding a bicycle, one-legged, for close to 400 miles across Ghana. First, he needed a bike. He'd heard of an organization called Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) in California. He wrote them the first letter he'd ever composed in his life, asking for a bike so he could start to change people's perceptions about the disabled.
Bob Babbitt, a founder of CAF, was blown away by the letter. Yeboah got his bike, along with shorts, socks, gloves and a helmet. Gordon Adoboe, Yeboah's friend, couldn't fathom Yeboah even riding around the block with one leg, never mind across the country. The first time he and his coworkers saw Emmanuel riding, they gave him a big ovation.
"There are some people who shine brighter than the rest of us, and Emmanuel is one of them," Babbitt says.
Yeboah's ride - in the spring of 2001 - made him a celebrity of sorts in Ghana, and moved the CAF to invite him to a triathlon in the fall of 2002. He rode 56 miles on one leg, and ultimately got introduced to doctors at Loma Linda Medical Center, where he had his right leg amputated and was fitted for a prosthetic leg in April, 2003.
Soon after, Yeboah put on two shoes and long pants for the first time in his life. In August, 2003, he walked into his church in a tan suit. It was a gift from God.
Life has been an eventful blur almost ever since. Lax and Stern, the filmmakers, found out about Yeboah from Babbitt, and dove into the project two years ago. Nike saluted his courage by giving him its Casey Martin Award and a $25,000 check, matched by CAF. Yeboah married his wife, Elizabeth, and had a baby girl they named Linda, after the medical center that gave him his right leg.
Countryman Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the U.N., has become an ardent supporter of Yeboah, and so has Ghana's King Osagyefuo, who invited him to his palace, making him the first disabled person in his nation's history to have a royal audience.
Yeboah has launched Emmanuel's Educational Fund, and is putting 15 disabled students through school every year. He has built and/or bought 800 makeshift wheelchairs for disabled countrymen, who know the joy of mobility after a lifetime of crawling on mangled arms and legs. He has pushed for the passage of a bill in Parliament that would bring the disabled greater access, and is championing the formation of a Ghanaian Paralympic team in Beijing in 2008.
"His impact has been very tremendous," Gordon Adoboe says. "He's affected the lives of so many people who otherwise would've lived very depressed lives."
Emmanuel Osofu Yeboah is studying with a tutor, improving his own education. The film about him may soon be distributed nationwide, his empowering message about to spread even wider. There is so much more he wants to do. He's moving forward on two legs, and a spirit all his own.
"In this world, we are not perfect," Emmanuel Osofu Yeboah says. "We can only do our best. I just want to make life better, and help people benefit from my experience."