Episode 2: Winnie Looby & Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie

On this episode of the podcast: a conversation between Dr. Winnie Looby and Dr. Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie. Dr. Komabu-Pomeyie recounts her experience of disability, from contracting polio as a child in Ghana, to a tragic accident that impacted her mobility, and how the support of her mother and her faith helped position her to grasp hold of educational and entrepreneurship opportunities.

A full transcript appears below.

Winnie Looby: So good morning, Sefakor.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Good morning Prof. How are you?

Winnie Looby: I’m good, I’m good. So our first question is could you share a little bit about your personal connection and experience with disability?

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Thank you. Prof Looby. Yeah. My personal connection well, anytime I have a question like this, I always ask myself, where do I start from? So I got polio at the age of eight. So in other words, I have walked, or danced, or jumped before, or ran before so in a very fast moment, then I became paralyzed because of the polio. I got polio even though my mom or we had a polio vaccine, I was told it was expired because the then government hoarded the medicines. So it affected me so I’m paralyzed in my lower parts. So since eight, oh, let me say eight years now, I have been sitting down for some time now, that’s what I say. So I got polio physically and I am not able to do any other things. But I walk a little bit with braces and crutches back home in Ghana.

Then the worst happened because the polio affected my left hand – my left leg, sorry, and my right leg, which was very strong for me that I used to jump over and do so many things on became my baby leg. Just because that was during my first degree at the University of Cape Coast. I was going for lectures on the top what we call the SRT top, which was the third floor. And one of my crutches got broken in the process of climbing up and I somersaulted. I fell from the third floor to the down, and I actually broke my kneecap on the right leg. In other words, the strong leg that was really my life and my everything, because those days I was using the braces. I was using the braces on the left one to support the right one so that I could walk with the braces.

So since that time, 2006, I had never been able to walk again just because my kneecap is shifted and that is my baby leg because I’m not able to stand up anymore. Even though when we went to the hospital, they looked at the knee. There were two issues, so dicey. One was, we didn’t have knee specialists, and two was even if they would try, it might not be the same. So the advice is I better just sit down. So that’s why I now use a wheelchair or scooter anywhere I go, just because this leg pains me. I still feel the pain, I’m not able to stand on it because the kneecap is at a different place so yeah. So that is how close I have touched base with disability and I have lived all my life dealing with issues of disability.

Winnie Looby: Thank you very much.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Thank you.

Winnie Looby: So my next question is, I’d love to hear about your work, that you have your own nonprofit in Ghana. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Sure. Thank you for that question also. Yeah. You know, one thing we always say is ‘nothing about us without us.’ About disability, we have a lot of people working with us on the road to make things work. I became so much, let me use the word aggressive, in this context in disability issues in Ghana when I realized that even at the highest level of education, that was where I got my disability more complicated and without any support. Because when I fell at university, they sent me to the hospital. Not the university, but friends. And all my trauma, all the things that I went through, nobody knows, nobody cares because there was no system there to support people like us on campus. I had this happening there, even though I had my first disability, which was another trauma because when I had my disability, that was the piece of the juncture at which my parents got divorced because to my dad, I became a ‘curse.’

That is a cultural issue there because in my culture, when somebody has a disability, that person is perceived as an object of curse. Anything evil, it’s you. So, even though I must go back a little bit though, my name Sefakor means somebody who makes you happy when you are sad or depressed. When you see me because my parents were happily married, wedded, and interestingly, they were bargaining. At those days, my mom told me how they were bargaining on names. Like, if I should be a boy, I will be this name, if I should be a girl. And there I popped out to be a girl. Both of them agreed to give me Sefakor because I am their joy. But on a contrary, I became the cursed object. Immediately at that eight years that I got polio, I became a cursed object to my dad. And the easiest thing he could do that time was to run away from us.

He just wrote on a paper and put it on a table for my mom that morning and left. It said, ‘I can’t live with that thing.’ And that thing is me, right? So I had those traumas with my mom already. She was struggling as a single mom in a community which always looks at people who are different in any case or disability of any type. Let’s not talk even about invisible disability because we don’t even know them. So I had physical disability, all of a sudden the joy, the Sefakor girl who is the one to brighten everybody’s corner, became the cursed object. And that was a trauma already. Anywhere that we passed through, my mom and I, we never had it easy. And I climbed the educational ladder. One thing my mom used to say about this situation, she would call me every morning as young as I was, and I grew up with that.

I must also say that I grew up with my mom being a Christian. So I am brought up with Christian values. And that is one thing that stood out very strong for me, and I grew up with it. Why? Because everybody around me sees me to be a cursed thing, right? During those days I didn’t know because my mom, I would say my mom up to today, even though she’s late, I lost my mom in 2018, but I always say my mom, because I can see her still alive with me. So even though that time, her education level, she was a mere librarian, right? And she doesn’t have enough, or she, I mean, in terms of education, she’s educated to that level.

Winnie Looby: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: And that time, people who had disability, you might either find yourself in the way of, they would throw you away in the evil forest in the sixties and seventies or they will hide you. They will lock you up. But there was this woman who would carry me outside on her back as long as I was at the age of eight, very tall. And she will carry me on her back and still make sure that she sent me to her library to put me under her table. As she was going through her daily chores or daily activities in the library, she would put books around me to be reading, even though people around, I mean, frowned at it. ‘This girl must be locked inside. When you are coming to work, you mustn’t bring this girl to work.’ You know, that was the environment. And she will sit me down every morning before we left home, she would sit me down, ‘Hey, Sefakor, you are a child of God. You are created in another image of God. This is a different image. You are a different image. You are beautiful. Everything around you is beautiful. You are my child who was running, and you are still my child who is sitting down here.’

She will pump those things in my mind every single day in the morning, and she will give me a mirror like this. She will give me a mirror, like, ‘Look at yourself, look at you,’ and she’ll be tapping me. ‘Look at yourself. You are so beautiful. Oh, my daughter, you are so beautiful.’ That was how my mom psych me. She psyched me that I’m so valuable and she always said that you know what? You can always add value to yourself when you go to school, when you read, when you know everything. When you add value to yourself through education, people will also respect you and add value to you. I started growing up with that counsel or whatever I will term.

I mean, whatever I will term it whatever food thoughts every day that she was giving me. I was swallowing that pill every single day. And I grew up to be a teacher, professional teacher of French. And I found myself going to the university to the last year of my first degree because to me, I had to do it to the highest level. That was the vim in me, or the passion burning in me to be at the top of educational issues. As my mom said it, then all of a sudden I broke down at the university level, and the first thing she actually said was, ‘I don’t know if I have ever recovered from all the trauma from childhood before this one. Because as much as I climbed the educational ladder, I was becoming more disabled, or my complications were becoming more complicated or unbearable in, in any case.

So at that time that I fell, it was a double agony. It was a double agony because I was at the highest level of education for me, my first degree that time 2002 to 2006, that was when I entered the university. It was one of the biggest things in our lives, those days when money to get to the university. So for me to get this disability complicated at that level, it became hard not for me to crack. And I will say that actually struck the cord for me to do something about this situation when I was at the hospital when they were going back and forth and they told me that they can’t do anything about me to get me back on my feet because it is so dicey. Operation, no specialist and then even if there should be, because I’m grown my bones are strong, it to be very dicey, it might destroy the leg totally.

So I better sit down and endure the pain. That’s why I still feel the pain in my right leg. Now, at that point, I realized that something must be done. That was when I started talking to people around some my friends, some my professors, and the community, like we had, or we have what we call policies, conventions here and there working for us as a country

Winnie Looby: Mm-hmm. <Affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: And we know that people with disabilities are not valued already, but on the international front, we actually have things or instruments that we talk about easily to say they are working for us. So in short, that was when I started mobilizing the people. When I came back home, I started mobilizing people in my community in Nsawam about disability issues and it was very fast. That time there was this common fund established by the government that is the Disability Common Fund, we call it DCF.

The DCF was to relieve the people with disabilities from poverty. And interestingly, when I got there because that was where I was posted to work in the education office, the Ghana Education Service Office as the resource center coordinator. So I was working with every student, every child with disability, that time across the whole municipality. And that was the biggest deal for me, going through my pain myself, and seeing the children also suffering. And politics is played around here differently, that, oh, we have a common fund working for everybody, and students can assess it. Those who want to learn trades, like tailoring, seamstressing, hairdressing, all those craft at work, they can assess it. But my people were still on the ground. They didn’t even know about it. You will hear it in the media that we had this policy, we have this fund.

And I was like, wait a minute. I started diving into that gradually. As I go on the field and see the children suffer. Some were locked up because the parents are not even mentally I mean ready to release their children to be seen in the open. Then education is calling them that we are, I mean, we have created places for you to come to school, schools which are not accessible, right? Then politics is also on the other ground. So I was in that situation, learning all these pieces and putting them together, and that was when I put my people together. There was one strong requirement, that we needed to put ourselves together as a community of people with disabilities.

Winnie Looby: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: That was the recommendation by the government. If you want to assess this fund, people must exist in that group. There, the beginning was very effective for me. I talk to people in the houses. I told them I go to school with my other colleagues who are in the education office where we go for what we call a SPAM, school performance appraisal meetings. We go with them. After doing that, I ring, I make them ring the bongo or the bell, and I show myself to the student and ask them, ‘Do you have people like me in your homes, in your communities? Tell them to bring them to our office. I’ll register them.’ I started registering these children with their parents, and also those who have actually grown and put them together and we founded this organization. But the interesting piece is, we needed the fund. The fund was what we needed to actually assess.

And I started out the processes and it wasn’t that easy because there were blockages here and there, and I started going on air. Interestingly, when people realized that I was putting these people together, there were other like-minded people who I call the destiny changers at the point for people with disabilities, because they’re big men. They have money, they are in the churches,  they will call me back, ‘I think you can do this, and I want to support you.’ You know? So I started going to small radio stations talking about the pressing issues affecting children with disabilities in the house, in the school system,and how the government says, this are in the school system, which don’t exist. And I started talking about those issues through the media on the radio. Then before I realized, I see myself on the TV. That is how I metamorphisized to the media, and all of a sudden I see myself talking about these issues, basing most of the facts on my own experiences and the professional work I was doing in the communities with children with disability as a resource center coordinator. And also noticing the people who I work with who have no power because disability has nothing to do with them because they have no idea what we are talking about and putting all those things together.

One day I was on the TV station and somebody sent a call that the people that was Ghana television, we call it GTV, and talked to somebody, that after my presentation, the person would like to see me. And that person, not to see me physically, but to talk to me. So they gave me the number. I called the person, and the person said, ‘I think what you’re doing, you can do it very much professionally. Do you want to go to school?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I need to go to school, but I don’t know how, because now I all I know is I’m in the media and I was excited.’ And the person was very clear that you know what? This is the link. Write it down. This is Ford Foundation, International Scholarship and I think you need to do that, especially because we can support your work so that you can do it professionally.

Professionally was the word. And I can assure you, that was the change or that particular discussion brought a change in my life to date. Because I went online that evening and that was the last day of closure of what the application. I applied, even though they asked for references, but which should be followed by, because I have connections with my professors and people who are my directors, who know what I was doing. The reference should have gone with it immediately, but because of time difference, you know, Ghana was ahead of US. Not was, Ghana is ahead of US five hours, four hours and that was what saved me. I applied and sent the message to my reference list that time. And immediately the following day, they got to their offices and they wrote their references for me immediately.

That is, I always say that it is God’s own divine favor on me because I had it immediately. You know how reference attatched, it’s so hard for us to give references, especially when you don’t have time. Right? But my director gave my professors give, and that actually brought me to the US to do my master’s in policy analysis and advocacy. My first degree was basically French and English because I was always on French level. I was targeting to go to France. You know, that was one thing. But immediately I realized that I needed to shift my mind, everything around me. I needed to enter policy issues because policy was there and that was not effective or implemented. So for me, when I got Ford Foundation Scholarship, that was the greatest thing for me to do, or to learn this and know how I can apply it on the ground.

So in short, the work that I do, I will say, and I must also mention that SIT, School for International Training, has also played a very big role in my journey, because when I came to learn at SIT, I changed so many things because things that I was fighting for in Ghana, in terms of inaccessible situations of school environment and all those stuff for my, myself and my student, I came to do the same thing here. But the good thing is SIT, the leadership had a very open mind to solve problems. You know, that is the direct opposite of what I was dealing with. I mentioned things which weren’t done, and they did it to make sure that people with disabilities are included in that school. And interesting, when I was leaving, I want 10,000 US dollars award from SIT, which helped me to officially register my organization and establish it very much or ground it. Because what happened was that award expect me to do something back home that I was talking about.

So in my thesis by then, I was trying to make sure that schools are so much accessible. And one thing that I asked in my proposal as we had to give these three minutes pitch those days and win the award, or the very big platform in South Carolina, I went to do that and won the 10,000. I wanted to retrofit schools in Ghana, make them accessible for children with disability. And those are public schools to retrofit them. And I did that. But before I even, I registered my organization, I had a mentor, Peter from here, SIT, who followed me, came to Ghana, stay with us for three months to really walk me through the process of NGO and working with people in the community professionally and also international level. So those were the channels that I passed through, and I registered my organization as much as possible, established other branches to make sure that things that we do in our municipality also go to other areas of Ghana. So, in short, if you ask me about my organization, this is the story around. I really wanted you to know that it was a real journey. And people who helped me were just church members or community members who actually were pulled to my vision that I was bringing a change around. And the fact that me being a person with disability, they believe in me because I am doing the actual way that I talk about walking the talk in the process. Yeah.

Winnie Looby: That’s an amazing story Sefakor. I didn’t know all of that. That’s so cool, that’s so cool.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Thank you.

Winnie Looby: <Laugh>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Thank you.

Winnie Looby: All right, so that actually connects to my very last question. I wanted to hear about your summer course, your new summer course at UVM.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Yay, that’s a fun piece of it, right? <Laugh> Yeah. The summer course, global disability studies has been my heartbeat so far. Especially when I came to UVM, all the things that I work with with people, the community that I found myself in.

Winnie Looby: Mm-hmm. <Affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Has actually given me that exposure to also add value to UVM. That is how I see. So this course, global disability studies. Having taught courses like culture of disability, EDSP 5, and then also race, policy and racism. I realized that we have to take this to what the next level in terms of disability issues globally. You know, one thing that I know very much now is we are all talking about inclusion, inclusion, inclusion. But I think there should be a shift of, the shift should be around systems change or system power change in terms of global issues.

So here is a piece, global disability studies has a very big part, which is advocacy. I see this piece of course not lying on the shelf of UVM or anybody’s shelf, but because these students are going to have a touch or a feel of how issues are outside the US system. Why we have so many people across the nation or the continent that are going to be part of this course. Like my colleague, policy analysts and advocates of disability issues in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, like East Africa, West Africa. And I’m actually connected with others, Asian friends of mine to expose us to their systems there. How they are working in line with the UNCRPD, that is the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities. Which seems to be the universal tool for every continent except the US because the US hasn’t ratified, right?

Winnie Looby: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: So I try to expose us to this particular univresal tool.

Winnie Looby: Mm-hmm. <Affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Connecting it to the individual disability policies that we have in our countries, and see how best we as students and workers, professionals can work with those people who come to us here. You know, somebody’s an immigrant from Nepal, from Uganda, from Congo, Vermont is full of immigrant populations. The policies there, for instance, we, in Ghana, we have disability acts, what we call ACT 715. Uganda is very much strong, they have implemented accessibility policies, and they are working on the ground. Nigeria, the same people are working using the universal toool connecting to the SDGs, and especially making them, connecting them to their individual laws in their countries. Bringing that home to the ADA, we want to see how we can connect all this new knowledge around the globe to our ADA here and see if what we are holding onto, that ADA is very much working for us as entities or as a country, and therefore we can’t ratify the UN convention.

Now, the piece of it that is the advocacy piece. Any student who has this exposure would definitely see the differences and connect to other, what global issues easily and can be able to join those of us who are fighting for ratification of the USCRPD in the US system. And the second piece of it is I want this course to be very close to the people, very close to the people who are immigrant population or who are even professionals who are working with this immigrant population. Just because they are not culturally competent in some of the disability issues. This platform will expose them to see some of the things that they might do and not do, the dos and don’ts. And one thing that I got to know as a person who came through as a international student, it is very hard for us to get what we call reference. Common reference, common reference from professors.

At times, until I got to the highest education or the my PhD program before it was easy for me. But I realized that in my process to get reference, it was hard not to crack at times. And let alone, as I worked with the communities of immigrant population, I got to know that it’s even worse in their situation because they don’t even know how they will penetrate through the system to enter college when they want to go to college. So at times there will be, I mean, they will devalue themselves that they can’t go to college because somebody, they don’t know how college courses look like. They don’t know how somebody can recommend them, that you can do the, you know, as I talk with people on the ground or the grassroot level, I realize that this is a course which can be an opening to anybody who wants to know more about disability and globally himself or other people or herself and other people.

And the fact is, as much as they know all this things, what next, that is the piece for me. It is change oriented. This course is change oriented because of the advocacy piece that some people don’t know what we call advocacy. Yes, they’ll be exposed, exposed to advocacy at times. It’s about you, yourself even knowing who you are, because some people don’t even know themselves, which they can’t, what we call the self-advocacy. They don’t know it. So they can’t talk to issues themselves because they have disability and because the society tagged them like that, that you are a person with disability, you cannot do this, they accept it. This is a course that you come, we talk about it openly. And then the next level is, are you able to talk on behalf of others, which is the advocacy piece that can change the systemic barriers or that can remove those type of things that systemic barriers that we talk about openly.

But the fact is, it’s open to everybody. This course, it’s open to undergraduates and graduates, professionals. People who want to know about global issues concerning disability policy and advocacy, and how we can communicate that culturally across the nations and between or among us in Vermont. It’s about knowing the people we serve, K to 12, we want to see if we are really serving our children who come in with disability that we don’t know how to handle them. Because some of us, we don’t even have the name for the type of disabilities that we have. In my language, we don’t have what we call dyslexia. So if a child comes in and you pull such a child out that you are on IEP, that child has no idea. Or even the parents do not have the content, what you are calling IEP. So this is a course that we have open discussions, open analysis, critical thinking, and bringing them back to their root to know that you might want to be more culturally responsive, more culturally competent, to work with the people on the ground so that we can make the change that we talk about. So global disability studies is all about learning more outside the United States and then connecting it to policy and practices on the ground.

Winnie Looby: Nice. Nice.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Thank you.

Winnie Looby: And there was, there was one more thing I wanted you to emphasize too. I remember looking at your syllabus that there’s this optional piece where students, once they take your course, they could travel to Ghana to work.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, the course is online.

Winnie Looby: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Which is asynchronous, which is like everybody’s expected to do this work within his or her time, Which one strong framework that I’m using, which I should have even talked about earlier. I’m trying to use the UDLs, Universal Design Learning, connecting it with what we call in Ubuntu, the community life of people with African generations especially to see how we can look at Africans. As much as they are connected in everything, but where we got disconnected from everything, you know, and then America system, which is individualistic already, and trying to disconnect from so many things. So in terms of UDL, trying to bring all together with Ubuntu, making sure that things that we talk mean the same to us as we align them to policies and practices. Now if we are able to go through all this very much genuinely, diligently as a class, and everybody plays his or her part very well, there will be that taste. I know very well that, that the taste, or they will be thirsty of going to see this practically on the ground.

Winnie Looby:Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: They will be trying to connect their feet to those grounds that we talk about. So there is this piece of traveling outside the US which might be open to people who want to in the future, after taking this course. What I call the study abroad program, which can be an exposure for people who want to learn about disability and education in the ground in Ghana, which is very much a very, a secure place, a safety place for them to have a feel to touch base with what we call disability and poverty, disability and education, disability and policy. Disability and anything that you want to work on especially valuing and accepting or appreciating what you have in the United States.

I know some people don’t know what they have. They have no idea the value of the things that they have here, so they don’t add any importance to it. If you have that paradigm shift and know that people are still crawling on the ground and going to school, and as they go to the school, they don’t have access to bathroom, they have to crawl to the bathroom to ease themself. I mean, mess up in somebody’s pee. I did that. I went through that myself. Those days that I was going, I started school crawling. When I didn’t have the braces immediately, I needed to go and walk into somebody’s pee before I peed myself. And that is a situation that we go through, but we made it to what, this level of PhD. That is the piece that when you go down there and see life with your own eyes and you see how the people are very much passionate about changing things in their lives, changing things in their situation, changing things, and holding onto universal instrument, what the global environment is working on, like UNCRPD. When you come back, you will join the movement and say, we need to ratify this particular convention as a universal, as a whole America issue.

And that is the piece that we must try to now think collectively because anything that affects anybody, as we say global village now, it affects us too. So I think that piece of it, traveling outside will be a great piece for me to lead people who want to do more about disability and just have another context and see, and do that type of comparative analysis and bring out some critical thinking. At the end of the day, we can make the changes that we want to.

Winnie Looby: Wonderful, that’s so wonderful. I really enjoy talking with you Sefakor, this is great. This is really a treat for me.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Thank you.

Winnie Looby: Thank you very much.

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie: Yeah, thank you. I must say this is a great privilege for me also to have this chat with you. I know we have been together for so many time, but if nothing crops up around this, we don’t talk about these things. You know, and I know when I’m talking about this, I go back to my memory lane and I become so passionate at times, and that is one thing about, yeah, living the disability and working towards the change that we want. So thank you so much for this great exposure. I really appreciate it, thank you.

Winnie Looby: Yeah, absolutely.


Green Mountain Disability Stories is the monthly podcast of the UVM Center on Disability and Community Inclusion (CDCI). Each episode features a conversation on some aspect of disability, by and with people with disabilities and their families and advocates. The views of guests on the podcast do not necessarily reflect those of the CDCI.

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