Mikala Mukongolwa, is from Lusaka, Zambia. Her bright smile and youthful looks belie a life spent toiling for children with disabilities in her African country. She lives and works in the Bauleni neighborhood for a school managed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary and the Ministry of Education. For years, Mukongolwa has had a connection to the Research and Training Center (RTC) on Community Living at the Institute on Community Integration (ICI).
Already teaching for several years, Mukongolwa knew she wanted to work with children with special needs. In 1998, she obtained her special education certificate. An inspiring presentation by Sister Elizabeth Dawson sealed the deal, especially when the nun asked for volunteers to assess children in a nearby community. The original project was to collect data for five days but when confronted with the overwhelming need, Mukongolwa thought: “How can we stop now?” Within a year, the women had started a class at a local primary school. “We had 150 children with various disabilities in a single classroom,” she remembers. “We had preschool over here, and other children grouped together according to their abilities. I tried to recruit parents to help me. It was a difficult situation as there was so much need.”
Mukongolwa realized she needed a new strategy. Again, it was a visiting lecturer who sparked her imagination when he presented the Portage Program. Mukongolwa describes it as “an assessment tool with suggested activities for children around five main areas: cognitive abilities, socialization, motor skills, self-help, and language improvement.” She learned how to separate children into two groups, school and home-based programs. In the morning, Mukongolwa would go into a child’s home to teach that child and parents a daily routine that included advocacy skills. She divided her many students into five zones so she could see each of them every week. This model relies on parents to take an active teaching role most days of the week. She could see progress, but, still, questions crept in.
“Why are we teaching these children when there is nothing for them to do as adults?” Frustrated by her society’s preconceived limitations for people with disabilities, Mukongolwa regrouped and set up a “16+ Skills Training Program” offering training in life skills like carpentry, catering, tailoring, knitting and weaving, and general agriculture. The 5-day program also trains volunteer teachers from neighboring communities. “We try to identify other stakeholders who can help with the training,” she says. Her program includes regular monitoring visits to understand progress and challenges. Meetings also include stakeholders and/or children’s parents employing SWOT analysis. “I believe these meetings are what keep the program going.”
Her Minnesota connection was more serendipitous. It started when the Beddor family with strong ties to The Arc Greater Twin Cities began supporting foreign mission work. Printers by profession, the Beddors wanted to share their good fortune and helped establish Mission Press in Zambia. Daughter, Sandy, became interested in giving back herself. Her brother Billy provided the needed inspiration.
Billy has Down syndrome and for years has received excellent services from both Fraser and Opportunity Partners. Sandy recognized the need for better services and support for people with developmental disabilities in Africa – and she wanted to do more.
In 2003, Sandy called on Arc Greater Twin Cities board member, Amy Hewitt, to travel with her to experience first-hand the services available to disabled children in Zambia. Hewitt is the Director of the RTC on Community Living at the Institute on Community Integration. The trip’s goal was to identify leaders in the disability field and create professional training opportunities for them at the University of Minnesota.
One year later, after much planning and creative problem-solving, 10 individuals were invited to Minneapolis to learn more about educating and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities – including Mukongolwa. “Education is about more than reading and writing,” says Mukongolwa. “It’s about learning to live an independent life and acquiring the right life skills too.”
“Each time I come to the University of Minnesota, I learn new strategies. When I go back to Zambia, I adapt that knowledge to situations at home.” Mukongolwa has now visited the University of Minnesota three times. Last year, she steeped herself in the work of the RTC’s Early Intervention + Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) so she could provide ASD workshops to schools throughout her country. Here now through August 28, Mukongolwa already has goals for this visit. “This year, I want to learn the latest on person-centered practices for people with disabilities.” She plans to leverage DirectCourse, an online training curriculum for the direct care workforce, as a learning tool to bring back home.
“Mikala has taken traditional special education in Zambia and made it life course,” says Hewitt. “She’s started an early intervention program, a transition to adulthood skills training program and home based education. All of these programs use positive behavior support and person centered practices. Her understanding and implementation of our research is exactly what this program was meant to accomplish.”
The Twin Cities Zambia Disability Connection is funded in part by awards from the University of Minnesota Office of International Programs and the CEHD international outreach initiative to the Institute on Community Integration, and through many organizational and individual contributors.
More information about the Twin Cities and Zambia Disability Connection (2016):
This project builds upon the earlier work of Twin Cities and Zambia Disability Connection (2008-2009), expanding and developing knowledge of disability services and supports across academic, provider, and cultural communities in the Twin Cities, and the in the African country of Zambia.
The Twin Cities Zambia Disability Connection has several aims related to promoting scholarship, building local and international collaborations, providing outreach, and developing leaders, with the goal of improving the quality of services provided to children with disabilities and their families in Zambia.
Project uses a tiered learning process that is interactive, flexible, built upon and inclusive of personal experiences, and is adapted based upon feedback from participants and changing circumstances. Among its activities are these that will:
- Increase cultural knowledge and insight about the implementation of intervention strategies used in developing countries and varying cultural groups through small group discussion and consultation
- Explore the implications and cultural considerations of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other disabilities in developing countries with limited resources and infrastructure
- Participate in information and clinical exchange with local rehabilitation providers on cultural strategies and considerations when working with individuals and families from different cultural groups
- Expand partners beyond those in the Twin Cities Zambia Disability Connection (2008-2009) project to include local occupational therapy providers to build direct service capacity in Zambia; increase access to quality home based education and occupational therapy services in Zambia
- Gain new approaches to community engagement and resource development in areas that are resource scarce
- Provide experiential learning opportunities for staff, advocates, providers, and students to implement models of home based education and occupational therapy for children and adults with disabilities through lecture, small group discussions, and international travel