Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

Centre for African Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT

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LUCAS Schools Project coordinator

Richard Borowski

Enabling the Disabled through Theatre – Emelda Ngufor Samba

Tagged with the keywords: , , , , ,

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 46-57]


It all started in June 1996 in a hospital ward in the Yaounde Central Hospital. It was my first real encounter with suffering and pain. The victims flooded the hospital ward with bashed ankles, limbs and heads. They moaned and groaned in pain. Each day, one more person was brought into one of the wards. Limbs were amputated, braces passed through some, and others informed they would never be able to stand and walk again. I saw pain, despair and hopelessness in young men and women in the prime of their lives. Days later, after counselling and encouragement from friends and relatives, they seemed to come to terms with their situations. I could see a glint of light in some faces. It was however masked by uncertainty. I wondered within what life would be like when they left the hospital. Would they experience rejection or acceptance from friends and relatives? Would their integration into public life be easy? Were there facilities put in place by the government to cater for the needs of this group of persons? My experience in the hospital had brought to my vision latent and existing problems. I started noticing disabled people on the streets and saw how life could be difficult for them in a country where very little thought is given to their welfare. I saw them struggle with their wheel chairs on stony roads with pot holes and wondered if anyone even found it abnormal. These questions and many others lingered in my mind for years until 2003 when I decided to address them. A popular theatre workshop with the physically disabled, and possibly non-disabled, might call the attention of policy-makers to the situation.

I conducted two workshops with People Theatre for Social Change (PTSC) [1] and Goodwill Theatre [2], non-professional theatre troupes that engage mainly marginalised groups of people in collective reflection of their social realities. They function through a participatory process of problem identification, analysis, prioritisation, scenario-creation, rehearsals and public performances. Their methodology is founded on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and Pedagogy of Hope (1992) and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (1979). Following this methodology, workshop situations transform participants from objects to subjects and create opportunities for them to re-write their histories. The overriding objective is to incite positive and sustainable changes in the lives of marginalized and oppressed groups

In this paper I shall discuss these two popular theatre workshops. In discussing them, I shall attempt to bring out the differences that emerged in terms of methodology, issues raised and results. The first workshop took place from June 30 to September 6, 2003, with people undergoing re-education at the Etoug-Ebe Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled in Yaounde, Cameroon. The product was a play, The Rejected, which was performed at the Centre. The second was conducted with Goodwill Theatre. The workshop took place at the Performing Arts Section of the University of Yaounde 1 from October 1, 2003 to January 6, 2004. Unsilenced Voices was the outcome of this workshop. This play was performed in the British Council auditorium to an audience of about 60 people.

Objectives of the workshops

In conducting these workshops, it was hoped that through a process of relaxation, concentration and improvisation, the participants, mainly disabled people, would come to a better understanding of their situation and would be better enabled to think of alternative ways of improving their daily existence. By openly discussing those issues that make them ashamed of their physical appearance and sometimes embarrassing involuntary, uncontrollable natural reactions, it was expected that they would come to terms with their different forms of disability and educate the public, through plays, on whom they are, how they came to be disabled, the new life they are compelled to adjust to and the difficulties they encounter in doing so. It was also hoped that through this workshop process, significant positive changes would occur in the lives of disabled people; that they would exercise power within to transform their disabilities into extraordinary coping strategies.

The projects

The first theatre workshop was carried out with PTSC in collaboration with the Yaounde Etoug-Ebe Centre. The workshop started with about twenty people, all residents of the Centre. This group was made up of disabled people who were being rehabilitated and their care-takers, both adults and children. The initial idea had been to work exclusively with the inmates of the Centre. This proved impossible because the lives of disabled people are intricately interwoven with those of non-disabled people. The issues raised during the workshop, the problems identified, and the solutions suggested were always connected to this latter group. It therefore became imperative to incorporate PTSC in the project.

During the first meeting with the Centre’s inmates, I explained my motivation for wanting to carry out such a project and what I planned to achieve. My experiences with other community groups necessitated the clarification that the project was not sponsored and participants would not be paid. Only those who were truly committed to educating the public on the plight of the disabled were therefore called upon to participate in the workshop. In spite of this, some older inmates asked if the project could not seek sponsorship from international organisations and subsidise their treatment. This led to a detailed description of the methodology the workshop was to adopt. The first phase of the project was three-pronged: i) problem-posing, ii) problem-analysis and, iii) problem-solving. We would create plays that reflected the lives of disabled people vis-à-vis disabled and non-disabled. The second phase would be a public performance at the Centre of the final product. This was a completely new concept to the people.

The participants met three times a week in the evenings. For the first two weeks, they shared experiences about the causes of their disabilities, the financial difficulties encountered in obtaining treatment, the attitudes of family and the public towards them and their counter reactions. During the initial stage of the process, the adults were still interested in material/ tangible benefits that would accrue from the project. Realising that it was merely a process of conscientization and education, the majority of them withdrew, concluding that it was not worth their time and effort.

The bulk of the participants who stayed on were secondary and primary school children and a few degree holders. Three times a week the group would meet in the Centre and work in one of the classrooms. Each person had an opportunity to give his/her personal testimonies on their experiences as disabled people grappling with their new situations. None of the participants had been disabled from birth. Their disabilities resulted from automobile and industrial accidents, ill-health, and careless handling of patients in hospitals. Poverty came out as another significant cause of disability in situations where families were unable to arrest deteriorating health situations in time to the extent that diseases degenerated to permanent disabilities.

Problem identification and analysis:

Based on their testimonies, participants identified and analysed what they considered the main problems of the disabled in the Cameroonian society as follows:
• Lack of financial means to complete treatment
• Neglect by family members
• Unjust victimisation form the society
• Absence of infrastructure to cater for the needs of the disabled
• Discriminatory practices against the disabled
• Lack of access to education for disabled children
• Failure of insurance companies to pay off victims
In analysing these problems they came to the understanding that society was in dire need of education about the disabled. There was a consensus that disabled people would live a happier and fuller life if they had better treatment from society, if they were not discriminated against, or humiliated, or treated with unwarranted condescension. Physical disabilities had reduced some of them to dependants and brought them to a state of bitterness and frustration against life and the larger society. They, however, testified that before they became disabled, they believed that disability had some metaphysical causation: that all disabled people were witches and wizards. Because of these misconceptions, they had avoided contact with the disabled.

Though most of them were bitter about relatives who had abandoned them, they were somewhat understanding. Throughout the initial stages of their disability, much money had been borrowed with the hope that they would completely recover. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years and their situations either remained the same or deteriorated. Frustrated with the situation and unable to cope with the heavy medical bills that accompanied protracted stays in hospitals, relatives abandoned some of them at the Centre. Those who had been involved in road and industrial accidents directed their bitterness at insurance companies for not respecting insurance policies. Further, the government was scathingly criticised for taking no measures to defend the poor in the case of breach of contract.

Some of their anger resulted from discriminatory practices against them in areas of job opportunities, posts of responsibility and in other social interactions. While some of them could not work in certain offices because the offices were inaccessible, for others, their applications were turned down even though they were qualified for the jobs.

As solutions to these problems, they all agreed that in as much as disabled people have to make an effort to overcome their disability, there is very little they can do in terms of building infrastructures to accommodate them. The Cameroon government has to reinforce and implement the laws that safeguard their rights. The disabled have the historic task of liberating themselves from self-pity and self-depreciation. If society’s attitude towards them has to change, then their self-perceptions as worthless and good for nothing, roles imposed on them by the society, also have to change. Self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-assertion were to be their watchwords. They also agreed that by working hard to change the social stigma and negative stereotype imposed on them by others, they would improve their self-perception and through it influence how others saw them.


The project adopted the participatory method of problem-posing and problem-solving. Issues that reflected the realities of disabled people were discussed profoundly. The participants kept changing the story lines as their understanding deepened. Were they to present the given reality of the disabled or were they to suggest solutions? In situations where disabled people were discriminated against, what did they do in reality? What other options were open to them? In the scene with the young girl (discussed below), most of them testified that in reality, they would ignore the girl or give her a word of advice. This has not often been a good solution because often the non-disabled only insulted them more. Moreover, their handicapped state prevents them from reacting in a desired way. Since the play situation provided possibilities for alternatives to be exploited, they decided to teach the child a lesson by spanking her.

The nature of retributive justice was another issue that came up in the play. Should people who mock at the disabled become disabled eventually? If yes, would people not conclude that disabled people are evil (witches and wizards), a misconception they wanted to clarify in the play? They decided to worry less about this misconception but rather demonstrate through the play one of the most outstanding causes of disabilities — road accidents. The little girl’s disability comes as a warning to the audience. It comes as an answer to one participant’s question: ‘What do we do with a society that is still to understand that it takes just one second for someone to become disabled?’ Education seems to be the answer. Disability is not an exercise of free will; it runs counter to an understanding of a world created beautiful by a good God.

The testimonies of the disabled, the problems identified and the solutions suggested formed a rich resource for the improvised play, The Rejected. The participants worked in groups and created sketches on some of the issues they had raised.

In one of the sketches, a new patient comes to the Centre and will not talk to anyone. The older inmates notice his isolationist policy and depression. Their first attempt to approach him is met with rebuff. He wants to be by himself and would appreciate it if the others could just leave him alone. The others persist, explaining to him that life in the Centre is communal. He would be miserable if he continued living in isolation. After preliminary introductions, they decide to tell each other the causes of their disabilities, how long they had pursued treatment, their struggles, hopes and desires. The most touching story is that of the new inmate. He is a little boy of ten who was shot by a stray bullet. Two years back, he was sleeping on the same bed as his mother in a wooden house at four a.m. when thieves attacked their neighbourhood. In the course of an exchange of bullets between the thieves and the gendarmes, a stray bullet went through the wooden wall and hit him on his spine. For two years, his mother, a petty trader, has been struggling single-handedly to provide money for his treatment. Her resources are exhausted and she has no money for surgery that has been prescribed by the doctor. This little boy’s problem is both material and psychological. His friends stopped visiting him when they learned he was confined in a wheel chair. In addition, his sisters come with stories from his school that he has become the subject of school gossip. His friends do not only laugh at him for being disabled but also insinuate that he is now a wizard who transforms into a snake at night to bewitch people. He has come to distrust and hate everyone and prefers a life of alienation.

In another sketch, the disabled satirise groups and individuals that visit them with gifts, act nobly and sympathetically in front of cameras and are mean when they are off camera. This is in line with what Freire terms false generosity. One of the issues raised in this sketch is their preference for noble poverty to a life of abundance without dignity. It expresses their desire to be taught to fish and not to be given fish. The children caretakers had their story to tell. For them life at the Centre is one of over-work, hunger and poverty. Their youthfulness is by-passing them and they have very little time for play. They wished they could live normal lives like children out of the Centre.

After two months of rehearsals, The Rejected was performed to an audience of about 100 people. It was an out-door performance at the Centre for the disabled. The swimming pool at the Centre was transformed to a stage and the spectators sat under trees. Publicity for the performance had been carried on the national television and private and public radio stations. Posters were put up, invitations given out and fliers distributed. In spite of the deplorable state of the road that leads to the Centre, disabled people from all over the town struggled to wheel their chairs to the Centre. The Minister of Social Welfare, who had received an invitation only a day before the performance, sent her representative to watch the play. Members of organisations that work with disabled people constituted part of the audience. All through the performance, the audience sat in rapt attention, absorbing the contents of the play.

The Rejected tells the story of disabled people in a rehabilitation Centre. It combines songs, dialogue and mine. One of the most powerful mime scenes takes place in the centre itself. After a ghastly motor accident that takes the lives of about forty people, one of the survivors visits a victim in the Rehabilitation Centre. She takes a member of the audience to visit with her. This visit brings them in contact with excruciating emotional pain. They are shocked to silence by what they see. A few of the disabled people are on stage carrying on with their daily activities. Some are chatting and playing games, others are doing re-education exercises and others are just by themselves, probably thinking about their predicaments. She moves from one group to the other, inviting the audience with her eyes and hands to follow her to the end of her exploits. Her greatest shock is her encounter with a man who had an industrial accident and has been lying on his back on a wheel bed for almost two years. There is also a baby who was given the wrong medication in the hospital. Her arm got rotten and was amputated. The woman burst out in a song asking ‘Why? Why? Why should things be like this, why?’

In another scene, a lady from an NGO visits the Centre with gifts. A quarrel ensues between her daughter and the inmates. Instead of scolding her daughter, she calls the disabled such names as handicaps, beggars, good-for-nothing fools, witches and wizards. ‘How dare they, handicaps, beat her beautiful daughter? But for the gifts she brings, would some of them not die of hunger?’ The scene ends with the song ‘We were once like you, we are not witches, we are simply sick’. In another song, the inmates encourage newly disabled people coming to the Centre and all disabled people to see their disability as a limiting situation that comes with new abilities.

The play gives a vivid picture of the life of the disabled at the Centre, their relationship with one another and their relationship with the outside world. It brings to the fore their predicament, dissatisfaction and future prospects. It also exposes negative societal attitudes towards the disabled. However, the participants moved away from fatalism by demonstrating their positive outlook on live and their determination to overcome their physical disability with mental and psychological abilities.

Public Reactions

One of the main objectives of this performance was to reach out to a large number of people. The massive turn-out of disabled and non-disabled people to watch this play was a step towards attaining this goal. The title of the play, The Rejected, captures powerfully the image society has created of disabled people. They are the rejects of life, the marginalised group that is at the fringes of Cameroonian society. As the story unveiled, the spectators sobbed, each for a private reason. Interventions during the post-performance discussions came mainly from the disabled. They acclaimed theatre for its potential to give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. They saw it as one of the most effective media through which the disabled could make critical reflections on their lives. Some testified that it was the first time they had seen disabled people act out their lives with such verisimilitude. The play had helped them come to terms with their disabilities and had educated the public. This confirmed David Werner’s assertion that ‘community theatre can be an excellent way to raise awareness about specific needs of disabled persons or to gain greater participation of local people in a community rehabilitation programme (1996: 455). There was therefore need for praxis, what Freire defines as action flowing from reflection. The participants were not out only to purge emotions but also to compel people to reflect and act on the deplorable situations and irresponsible acts that brought these people to their present difficulties.

The post-performance discussions revealed that the spectators had come to a new knowledge of themselves as handicapped because though they lived with disabled people all around them, they had very limited knowledge about them. Most of the contributors expressed how ignorant they had been before the performance. A majority of them never really understood what disabled people went through. If our only objective was to conscientise the audiences, then the project registered remarkable success. But we needed change, both tangible and intangible, in the lives of these persons. It was this desire that made me organise a second workshop with the intention of performing to decision- and policy-makers of the country.

The second workshop was done with the troupe Goodwill Theatre. It was in celebration of the International Day of the Disabled (IDD) on 3 December, 2003. Members of this troupe are disabled people of different walks of life. Apart from two students who are resident at the rehabilitation Centre, the members have been disabled for a longer period than those at the Centre. These people had finished their re-education programme at the Centre and were now integrated into the society. The problems they faced as disabled people were therefore different from those at the Centre.

Preparations and Organisation

In celebration of the IDD in December 2003, I decided to conduct another workshop with the disabled. Amongst the participants were a blind musician and animator, a student in the higher teachers training college, two female petty traders, a secondary school teacher, two secondary school students and their caretaker, a graduate from the Performing Arts Section of the University of Yaounde 1, and the president of Goodwill Cameroon, also a university graduate. I and Cynthia Henderson, a Fulbright scholar from Ithaca College, New York, facilitated this workshop.

The Performing Arts Section was the workshop venue. We met three times a week in the evenings and discussed issues affecting disabled people . The participants narrated personal experiences of discrimination against them. They raised issues of the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially the blind and the mentally retarded. Social discrimination in the areas of marriage, education, job distribution, etc. was also raised. As with the first workshop, educating the public became our task. Following the same participatory method as in the first workshop, we created a number of skits that reflected participants’ realities. Unlike in the first workshop, the sketches were unrelated stories told by different people with different experiences. Their exasperation with societal discrimination has brought them to a point where silence can only translate to suicide; hence the need to ‘unsilence’ their voices.

The play Unsilenced Voices is a series of sketches. It begins with a group of disabled people demanding to see the Minister of Social Affairs to pose the numerous problems they encounter in the society. The Minister invites the audience to listen to them and help her resolve the emerging problems. She distributes pieces of paper to the audience; asking them to take down notes as the problems are explained. The explanations take various forms: songs, poems, and sketches. The first is a song by a blind man in which he explicates some controversies in the lives of disabled people. The second is a poem by a student teacher ‘I am what you are’ , in which he exposes his dissatisfaction with the world for branding him ‘a handicap’ because he is lame. He blames his inability to excel on the society that considers him ‘an article of no commercial value’. In one of the sketches, a sixteen year old boy in wheelchair has been pleading with his parents for two years to send him to school. The parents refuse because the road to the school is not tarred and it will be difficult for him to wheel his chair. Secondly during the rainy season, it would be impossible to wheel his chair and hold an umbrella at the same time. Thirdly, other school children will keep staring at him and some will even make fun of him. Fourthly, of what use is it for a disabled person to go to school anyway? Has he ever seen any disabled person working in an office? They are all shoe menders, vendors, mendicants, and watch repairers. To be any of these, one does not need to go to school. ‘Why not be apprenticed to a tradesman?’ they ask. The boy’s persistence in seeking to obtain formal education in spite of all the obstacles finally compels his parents to give in.

While in school, he encounters problems of alienation and humiliation. These manifest in students blocking passages to prevent him from passing, students moving away each time he appears somewhere, and students not even responding to his greetings. His new-found friend is another disabled student who has been in the school longer. Self-assertion, confidence, continuous shows of friendliness and excellent academic performance, they agree, are qualities that would draw others towards them. Aside from emotional turmoil, they encounter practical difficulties as his parents had foreseen. They come late to school especially during the rainy season, drivers refuse to pick them up since that requires more time than normal; the classrooms are inaccessible, and above all, other students and teachers do not understand their special needs. The principal, a man on crutches, becomes aware of the students’ difficulties. A lot of the problems he cannot solve. The most he can do is encourage them to surmount the problems to the best of their abilities while waiting for the government to meet the special needs of the disabled children. He also decides to create awareness among students and teachers alike of the need for a more positive attitude towards the disabled students.

In another sketch, a computer scientist has just returned from France. He applies for a job and his Curriculum Vitae are just what the company wants. He is interviewed over the phone and offered the job. When he gets to the office the next day, the manager discovers he is disabled and informs him that the job has been taken by someone else.

Public Reaction

We had performed Unsilenced Voices at the British Council to ensure the presence of the cream of the Cameroonian society; the decision-makers who affect the lives of Cameroonians. It is one of the few buildings with a lift. It was therefore most convenient for the participants.

In addition to the self-education of the disabled, the play was a call to the government and policy-makers to eradicate those practices (reckless driving, misappropriation of funds, misplaced priorities, inappropriate traffic police control, etc.) that often lead to physical disability. The title of the play, The Rejected, captures powerfully the image society has created of disabled people. They are the rejects of life, the marginalised group that is at the fringes of Cameroonian society. As the story unveiled, the spectators sobbed, each for a private reason. We carried out this project with the hope that human rights organisations, governments, individuals and international and national organisations would stand with us in the fight for the rights of disabled people and facilitate their social integration in to Cameroonian society. There was an open discussion at the end of the skits. People read comments they had written and posed questions to the performers. They wanted to learn more about the disabled. It was a process of learning and knowing, of questioning government’s neglect and society’s marginalisation of this group of people.

In spite of the successes the two workshops registered, the facilitators had to deal with the problem of attitudes. This manifested in two ways. Invalids often have a negative attitude towards life. In the case of the disabled, they dwell in fatalism and are afraid to explore the world for alternatives. Most of them have been so deeply hurt that they tend to distrust everyone who attempts to invade their private spaces. At times they would come for rehearsals and just refuse to talk. At other times, they would raise issues about the public not coming to watch their play. Self-depreciation had been deeply implanted in them and we needed the claws of participatory theatre to uproot it. Until the day of the Grand Premiere, they were still not convinced people would give up important duties or activities just to come participate in a theatre project by disabled people.

Also important was the health situation of most of the participants. Their often involuntary acts embarrassed them when they were in public milieus. Some of them suffered from nervous breakdowns that resulted in uncontrolled urination and spasmodic movements. There were often cases of ill-health, hunger and poverty that prevented them from exercising their full potential as creative artists. These were difficult problems to solve due to the absence of finances.


The need for a forum where the disabled could express themselves and call attention to their material, social and political needs was the reason for the emergence of theatre for the disabled in Cameroon. The theatre has emerged as a forum for disabled people to talk disability, analyse disability problems and seek ways of intervention. One of the greatest achievements of the two projects was the self-liberation of the participants. Their inhibitions and self-doubts gradually disappeared as they dialogued with other participants. They came to understand that their problems were not peculiar to them. The details may have been different but they had all gone through rejection, alienation, and bitterness against society.

Self-identification, self-esteem, self-recognition as people capable of changing their destinies, and self-reliance are notions now embedded in the sub-conscious of the participants. Public attitude to the disabled may not change overnight but the disabled participants have shifted from considering themselves as worthless to considering themselves as people who are physically and not mentally disabled, people who can rewrite their destinies and reshape their own realities by rearticulating a wide-ranging possibilities and potentialities.

The workshops, more than the plays created have been a process of empowerment for the disabled. This is relevant to the definition of empowerment as ‘a process, and not something that can be done to/for (marginalised groups), but which has to be their own’ (Jo Rowlands, 1998: 3). Their ability to make things happen, to make people listen to them and above all to make people talk publicly about issues that concern them has given then a new sense of control of things around them.

Emelda Ngufor Samba is a lecturer at the University of Yaoundel in Cameroon.


[1] People Theatre for Social Change (PTSC) is one of the theatre troupes that make up The National Association of Theatre Troupes in Cameroon. It was created in 2000 under the name Theatre for Social Change and in 2003 the name was changed to People Theatre for Social Change.

[2] Goodwill Cameroon is an NGO that fights for the rights and social integration of disabled people. Goodwill Theatre was a unit I created within this organisation to precipitate their achievement of their goal through theatre. Goodwill Cameroon runs its activities in a small office by the University of Yaounde 1. It was therefore impossible to conduct the workshop in its premises.

[3] The first thing that struck one of the secondary school students in wheelchair was the university infrastructures. He felt dismayed that his dream of having a university education may not come to fruition considering the structure of the buildings; most of the classrooms were on the first floor of story buildings and there are no lifts to facilitate the movement of the likes of him.

[4] Tambe Nchinghe Ako.


Boal, A. (2000) Theatre of the Oppressed, 1979, New edition, London: Pluto Press.
Freire, Paulo.(2001) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. 30th Anniversary Edition, Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, New York: Continuum.
Freire, Paulo (1992) Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. With Notes by Ana Maria Araujo Freire, Trans. Robert R. Barr, New York: Continuum (1999).
Rowlands, J (1998) ‘A Word of the Times, but What Does it Mean? Empowerment in the Discourse and Practice of Development’, in Women and Empowerment: Illustrations from the Third World. Edt. Haleh Afshar. Houndmills: Macmillan Press LTD.
Werner, David (1987) Disabled Village Children: A Guide for Community Health Workers, Rehabilitation Workers and Families.(1999) The Hesperian Foundation, Second Edition USA.

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