Ghana's disabled find jobs and hope

KOFORIDUA, Ghana — John Sule Bukari, busy scrubbing the rusty chain of a dismantled mountain bike in the workshop of Ability Bikes, understands too well that first impressions can make or break job interviews.
An employer needing someone to deliver jugs of clean water overlooked Bukari’s confidence and optimism. Instead, he saw the walking stick Bukari uses as a result of childhood polio. Interview over.
“The coordinator, as soon as he saw me, said no, I cannot do the work,” the 35-year-old said. “What can I do? I was turned away. They won’t give you even the chance, maybe two or three days to try it.”
But at Ability Bikes, Bukari and five other disabled Ghanaians are using second-hand bicycles donated from the United States to start their own business.
They’re learning to repair bikes, but that’s just the start. They are also learning to sell the bicycles and manage the cooperative in Koforidua, a small city 50 miles north of Accra, Ghana’s capital.
The disabled, who make up about 10 percent of the world’s population, according to the United Nations, face serious job discrimination, especially in Africa, where high jobless rates give employers a wide selection of able-bodied candidates.
Bikes Not Bombs, a Boston, Mass.-based nonprofit that supports environmental and economic development efforts locally and abroad, sent technician David Branigan last May to oversee the project, assisted by partners in Ghana’s disabled community.
“We’re not coming in to try to solve their problems for them,” said Branigan, a 28-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer. “We’re giving them an opportunity to solve their own problems. The capacity is there. I see the potential. I see leadership.”
The side-by-side bays of the rented workshop open onto a concrete patio where a wooden table and a laptop are the office. Six recruits learned to fix flats, progressing to gears and brakes. They strip the bikes to their frames and rebuild them.
Once they have been overhauled the cycles sell for the equivalent of $25 to $100. The cooperative plans to run independently by March and pay back start-up costs over time.
David Torsutsey, who uses a prosthetic to make up for a short right leg, is one of two trainees who will handle advertising, sales and bookkeeping. His monthly salary of 60 cedis (about $50) is not enough for the 33-year-old to support his wife and three young children, but he also sells bead necklaces and is confident the bike business will thrive. As important, he said, the business is making a statement.
“It has thrown a challenge, to us and to able bodies,” said Torsutsey. “What the able bodies can do we can also do and do it better. They shouldn’t look down upon us. They should see our performance.”
Ghana, which marked 50 years of independence from Britain last year, has seen its long-term unemployment rate fall in five years from 17 percent to 10 percent in 2006. It passed a disabilities law two years ago ensuring better access to jobs, medical care and public transportation and offers free literacy and vocational training for disabled adults. Two trainees at Ability Bikes will take a government-sponsored business administration course.
Now at the halfway point of the project, Branigan said, the trainees need to start sharing in the decision-making, instead of leaving that up to him exclusively.
“I’m going to try as much as possible to support that, to support people taking initiative and basically making the business their own,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bukari resists the temptation to bear a grudge against the manager who refused to consider him for the water delivery job. In fact, he’ll gladly sell him a bike.
“I know someday he will come,” said Bukari. “He’s in town. Come and see me.”