Saturday, 21 December 2019

I WOKE UP PARALYSED


SHE woke up one day and could not walk.  When this happened to Maria Dube, then a Form Two pupil, she thought that it would pass. This was something that a doctor’s prescription would fix, she naively thought.

This was, after all, an illness that had never affected her in her young life. It would soon be over.  
At that moment, she did not know that she now had a condition that would now shape her life from that point onwards.

The little girl, who ran and played with other teenagers, who lived life with all the exuberance of youth, was gone.

“I wasn’t born disabled. I had for many years been like any other normal girl,” she told Sunday Life.

“I just woke up one day and I couldn’t move my legs. At the time I don’t remember panicking. I just thought that this was something that would go away. I thought that this was something that the doctors would fix once I got to the hospital. At the time I didn’t think that this was destined to be my condition forever,” she said.
  
The mystery illness could not have come at a worse time for Maria. Her mother was struggling financially and as the seriousness of the condition dawned on the family, they were ill prepared to deal with it.

“The doctors were unclear about what had happened to me. At the time I remembered that they wanted me to do an MRI scan so as to diagnose exactly was wrong with me. But I was unfortunate because at the time my mother was going through tough times financially so we couldn’t do what the doctors ordered,” she said.

Painfully, to this day Maria, who walks around with the aid of crutches, does not know what brought on her disability.

“So even to this day I don’t know what caused my disability. I haven’t got a full diagnosis of what really went wrong,” she said.

For the first half of her life, the 30-year-old Maria had been mobile and agile. Now, through a cruel twist of fate, her legs had been ripped away from her at a stage where she had already flowered into a promising young woman. The sudden change took a toll. Mentally she was not prepared.

“When it got obvious to me that I was going to be like this all my life, it was tough to cope mentally. I struggled with depression and I was just all over mentally. I also started having splitting headaches as a result of the worrying and thinking,” she said. 

From those dark days, a ray of hope was about to shine through Maria’s life. While she was in hospital, she caught the eye of two Good Samaritans who fell in love with her work ethic and passion at first sight. The day the two Australian philanthropists laid eyes on her, was to be the beginning of a new life for a girl that was drowning in sorrow. The girl who had withdrawn into her shell would have to face the world again.

“One time I was in hospital and two white pastors from Australia were moving around seeing sick people. Suddenly they came to me. I don’t know for what reason but they took a liking to me.

“They asked if I wanted to go back to school and I said I didn’t think I could manage. Because of this illness I had left school when I was in Form Two and I had also retreated into myself. I had become withdrawn and I didn’t think I could be among the crowds at school anymore. I was scared I would fall or something of that nature,” she said.

After their encounter, Maria had not given much thought to it. Surprisingly, when the couple was back in Australia, they thought of that vivacious girl they had left in that hospital bed in Bulawayo.

“They took my number. When I gave it, I didn’t put much thought into it. I didn’t think they would call me. To my surprise, however, they did and when they called, they told me they love my fighting spirit and they wanted me to learn how to be a fish farmer. I had no clue what it entailed but I agreed to it. They connected me to someone who was going to train me, a specialist in that field,” she said.

While fish farming might seem like a stroll in the park for the casual observer, that was not the only thing required of her. She had to learn how to train crocodiles, preparing them for a future where they would not be aggressive towards human beings.

For this she needed the courage that has seen her rise through a disability that threatened to derail her life. Should things not go according to plan, she could find her limbs in one of the water predators’ fearsome jaws.

“I started my training around July 2014 and by the end of December that year my training was finished. On my first day I was very scared. I didn’t think I could touch let alone train a crocodile. I had to conquer my fears and I did that after a few days,” she said. 

Over the last few years Maria has been establishing fish farms around the country, becoming an industry standard bearer while seemingly unhampered by her disability. However, she has also learnt that despite her own courage, many are still afraid to learn a skill she seems to have mastered in a relatively short space of time.

“Crocodiles are easy to train but people are afraid. They are trained from a young age where they can be taught not to fear or attack human beings. You hold and cuddle them when they are young and gradually as they grow older, they become more pliant to human beings. They are not like untrained crocodiles in the wild.

“Despite that many people or most people, I come across are still afraid of crocodiles. So, at the moment most of my focus is on the fish farming aspect of my project. It’s easier to train people how to be fish farmers rather than crocodile trainers. I think people should conquer their fear just like I did. All I ask of them is to try only. You can never know whether you can do something or not until you try it,” she said.

Last Friday Maria launched Tsalach Foundation, an organisation through which she now seeks to pass on her skills and knowledge to disabled and less fortunate people. With support, she is now hopeful she can turn around many lives and also transform the face of fish farming in the city and country. As she spreads her wings and soars further, the sky is her only limit.

“We’re currently looking for land to start a full-scale project. The Bulawayo City Council promised to help us in that regard. For now, we have 12 people working on the project but our ambition is to have 2 000 people working for the foundation,” she said. Sunday News

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