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Cover Story

Cast Down, But Not Cast Out

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Born with a useless right leg and abandoned by his father shortly after his birth, all Emmanuel could hope for in a country with an annual income of $500 was life on the street as a beggar. Even family and friends said the boy was “useless, or worse––a curse.” But that isn’t how his mother, Comfort Yeboah, saw it. She had faith in God. For that reason she chose the name Emmanuel because it means “God is with us.”

Emmanuel was born in rural Ghana in 1977. He and his mother lived in a tiny house without electricity or plumbing. He slept on a dirt-packed floor. Her only source of income was selling vegetables in the marketplace. Despite her poverty, as a Ghanaian, Emmanuel had access to free public education. Although disabled children rarely took advantage of this opportunity, Comfort insisted that he take advantage of the free education. So she carried him the two miles each way to school.

As he grew, he became too heavy for her to carry. She said to him, “Son, you are much too heavy now for me to carry to school. You will have to stay home.”
Determined to get an education, Emmanuel hopped to school and back––on one leg––by himself. Of the 240 students, he was the only disabled child. At first he was teased by the other children and, of course, sidelined from sports. As he watched the other children play, Emmanuel had an idea as to how he couldbecome involved in sports. He began saving part of his lunch money until he had enough to buy a new soccer ball––something none of his classmates had. After showing them the ball, he said, “If you let me play, I’ll share my new ball with you.”

“How will you kick a ball when you have only one foot that works?” they asked.
“I’ll think of something,” he replied.

The next day, Emmanuel came to school on crutches that his grandmother found for him. Lunging and spinning on the crutches and kicking the ball with his good foot, he earned his classmates’ respect.

Instead of playing soccer every day, his friends sometimes used their lunch money to rent bikes. Emmanuel went to his friend Goodwin and said, “If only I could ride a bike, then I wouldn’t have to hop to school.”

Goodwin, being the good friend that he was, said, “Here, get on my bike, and I’ll push you real fast. This will help you balance.” Over and over again, Emmanuel fell hard, but finally he rode.

“Wheee!” he shouted as he peddled with his good leg. “This is great fun!”
Emmanuel would soon learn that not all of life would be fun.
At the age of 13, he dropped out of school against his mother’s wishes. She became ill and could no longer sell vegetables at the market. Emmanuel would have to support her and his younger sister and brother. He boarded a midnight train to the bustling capital city of Accra, 150 miles away. Though the streets were teeming with disabled beggars, Emmanuel preferred to work. But no one would hire him.

Shopkeepers and restaurant owners said to him, “Go out and beg like the other disabled people do.” Emmanuel refused. Finally, a food stand owner offered him a job and a place to live. When he wasn’t serving drinks, he kept busy shining shoes. The $2 a day he earned, he sent home to his mother.
When Mama Comfort grew sicker, Emmanuel went home to be with her. It was Christmas Eve, 1997. Right before she died, she pulled him to her side and said, “Don’t let anybody pull you down because of your disability. Remember, God is with you.” These were words that would change his life.
“What my mother told me was a gift. I want to show everyone that physically challenged people can do something,” he said.
But how would he do it?

Following his mother’s death, Emmanuel returned to Accra. Shining shoes on the streets day after day, he saw the resigned desperation of the other disabled people around him. Somewhere in the midst of their hopeless begging and the constant back and forth rustle of the shoe brush, he had an idea; all he needed was a bike. He would use it to ride around Ghana to raise awareness of the plight of the disabled. “I wanted people to know that if you are a disabled person in your leg, you’re not a disabled person in your mind,” he told the Mercury News.

At first no one would help. They thought his idea to bicycle around Ghana was impossible.

Then he heard from a doctor about California-based Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), an organization that supports disabled athletes. Emmanuel had never written a letter before, so he carefully prepared one explaining to the founder his idea and asked for a bike.

The founder of the organization was so impressed with Emmanuel’s vision that he not only sent him a new bike, but also threw in a helmet, shorts, socks, gloves, and $1,000! Emmanuel wasted no time training for the long ride.
However, his friends were skeptical. “Riding a bicycle 600 kilometers on one leg––who ever heard of that before?”

For several months after receiving the bike, Emmanuel juggled training with seeking governmental support. After many attempts to see Ghana’s king, the king finally agreed to see him. It was the first time a disabled person had been allowed to enter the palace. Disabled people were considered to be too unworthy to see the king.

Emmanuel explained to the king, “Your majesty, I want to ride around our country on a bike given to me by an organization in California to raise awareness of the plight of the disabled.”

The king replied, “Why do you want to do such a thing, and what do you want from me?”

“I want to prove that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t use your God-given gifts. I need your support.”

The king complied.

In 2001, 24-year-old Emmanuel began his journey. He tied his right leg to the bike frame, jammed his left foot into the flip-flop attached to his pedal, and rode. Over the next several months, he rode 380 miles through Ghana, wearing a bright red shirt that read “The Pozo,” Ghanaian slang for a disabled person. Along the way he stopped to greet poor farm workers, wealthy landowners, speak with disabled children, and give speeches to dignitaries, church leaders, and reporters. He wasn’t afraid to speak out against the government’s policy on the disabled, and, politely, consistently requested that the disabled be given the same respect as the able-bodied. As a result, Emmanuel became a celebrity in Ghana.

CAF officials closely followed Emmanuel’s journey, and after he finished, they invited him to California to participate in the 2002 Triathlon Challenge, CAF’s primary fundraiser. It took Emmanuel seven hours to complete the 56-mile bike leg of the event. Following the race, Sport’s Illustrated recalled him saying, “I didn’t know San Diego was so hilly.”

While in California, Emmanuel was examined by doctors at the Loma Linda University Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center. They determined that he was a good candidate for a prosthetic leg and asked him, “Would you like to undergo an amputation and be fitted for the leg?”

“I accepted the offer so maybe I, too, could run, ride my bike with two legs, and even someday wear pants.”

In April of 2003, Loma Linda performed the operation free of charge. It was a great success. Not only did Emmanuel get to wear pants and a pair of shoes for the first time in his life, six weeks after the operation, he returned to San Diego to compete in the CAF triathlon. With two legs, he was able to shave three hours off his time and successfully finish the race. Back home in Ghana, he put on a tan suit and walked on his own two feet into his church for the first time in his life. He soon began to run and even play soccer. Topping off an amazing year, in December 2003, he married a woman by the name of Elizabeth. Later, when the couple had a daughter, they named her Linda after the hospital that made Emmanuel’s new life possible.

All of Emmanuel’s achievements came about as a result of being cast down, but never cast out.

Source: Laurie Ann Thompson, Emmanuel’s Dream (New York: Random House, 2015).

Jane Schroeder writes from Portage, Indiana

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