Miyoba Hamuhuma still remembers what it felt like to lay in bed as a child, unable to move freely or access the place he loved the most — school.
“Sometimes I was just in my room crying, ‘Oh mom, where are you? Dad, where are you? I want to go to school.’”
At the age of 8 years old, Hamuhuma’s knees began to swell. He started experiencing difficulty with walking. After a months-long debate on whether his parents should seek treatment from a doctor or a traditional healer, Hamuhuma visited a hospital, where he was diagnosed with polio.
His diagnosis came as a surprise to his family, who said Hamuhuma was vaccinated against polio. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the inactivated polio vaccine is 99 to 100% effective in individuals who receive all required doses (this can be three or four doses, depending on the type of vaccine administered). For those who receive only two doses, however, the vaccine is a minimum of 90% effective, increasing vulnerability to the poliovirus,
Polio, an infectious disease that attacks a body’s nervous system, can cause paralysis. While Hamuhuma could use his legs, his mobility was severely restricted. What was once a 20-minute walk to school would take him an hour. Hamuhuma typically relied on his father to drive him to classes. On days when they would have car trouble, Hamuhuma would be carried to school instead, clinging onto his father’s back or neck “the way they carry babies here,” he told Global Citizen.
Miyoba Hamuhuma, director of Enlight Abilities, is pictured outside his office as he leaves to start his routine work visits in the community in Chipata, Zambia, Dec. 12, 2023.
Given his father’s work, which involved frequent travel, Hamuhuma often couldn’t attend school for weeks at a time.
“Think of yourself finding joy by going to school to play with your peers, but now you cannot go there, you're just home … It was so depressing,” he said.
At home, Hamuhuma would use his walking stick to maneuver the garden hose in his family’s yard to water the plants — sparking a love for gardening, which he still practices today.
While polio isn’t curable, Hamuhuma’s doctors recommended physical therapy. It took two years before he found a charity that offered free physical therapy if he could relocate to Monze, a town in Zambia located an eight-hour drive away from Katima Mulilo, the border town near Namibia, where he lived. There, Hamuhuma spent months receiving treatment to improve his strength and reduce stress on his muscles and joints.
Due to his demanding physical therapy schedule, Hamuhuma needed to repeat a year of elementary school — but he didn’t mind.
“When I returned to school, I refused to go for lunch. I remained in class. I think I couldn't believe that I had gone back to school,” he shared.
And it paid off. Hamuhuma was the top student in his class that year. But going to school meant enduring taunts about his disability from other children.
During this time of his life, the young boy was also dealing with devastating loss. When he was 9 years old, his mother died after contracting malaria. At the age of 10, his father was murdered. The grief of losing his parents, coupled with living with polio, was unbearable at times, but Hamuhuma was unwavering in his determination.
Hamuhuma is pictured in his office in Chipata, Zambia on Dec. 12, 2023.
“I told myself that I'm an orphan [and] I'm disabled. If I'm not going to persevere, then that's the end for me,” he said.
Hamuhuma was adopted by a Christian monk who was a friend of his late father. In the following years, he replaced his walking stick with a wheelchair, but continued to face accessibility challenges. In university, Hamuhuma’s classes were held on the third floor of a building with no elevator. As the only student who used a wheelchair, Hamuhuma had to be carried up the stairs.
“Monday to Friday, my friends would carry me to class … I never missed a single class,” he said.
Hamuhuma would fast daily, going without food or drink until classes were finished, because he didn’t want to risk needing to use the washroom, which was located on the ground floor. Years later, he learned this was the cause of additional health problems he faced.
“There's one thing that I always told myself: ‘Disability without education becomes a double disability,’” he said. “If I didn't go to school, I knew that I was going to suffer more. So I told myself that the only hope for me to lead a better life is by persevering to go to school.”
Hamuhuma went on to secure undergraduate and master’s degrees before starting his own non-profit organization.
Based in Chipata in the Eastern Province of Zambia, Hamuhuma is the founder and director of Enlight Abilities, a disability rights organization addressing institutional, social, technological, and economic barriers.
Inspired by his own experiences, Enlight Abilities installs ramps and constructs pathways in schools so that children with physical disabilities can more easily navigate these spaces.
The organization also supports mothers and grandmothers of children with disabilities.
“In Zambia, when one has a child with a disability, it is taken as a burden, and even marriages are breaking up. And who takes care of the child when the marriage breaks up? It is the woman,” Hamuhuma told Global Citizen.
Enlight Abilities provides entrepreneurial training to women and supports them in starting small businesses, such as raising chickens. With the profits from these businesses, caregivers can secure their family’s livelihood and afford medical expenses like hospital visits or wheelchair repairs.
“People with disabilities are capable of being self-reliant if the opportunity is facilitated,” Hamuhuma said. “This will create a world where no one is left behind.”
Hamuhuma and university student Innocent Sakala. “Innocent is somebody that is so passionate about school and not only that, the gentleman is focused. Somebody that is on a wheelchair in an institution that is not fully accessible is not an easy thing."
Disclosure: This article is part of a polio content series that was made possible with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.