Abigail Ambiyo – defies odds, excels in life despite living with disability
From a young age Abigail Ambiyo adorned herself with affirmations that she can do it. This was despite the fact that she was a child with disability from a poor family.
However this did not stop her and instead propelled her to excellence and later changed the course of her life.
“In 1974, I joined Mukhombe Primary School in Bunyore, Vihiga County. I did not have a wheelchair and therefore, would crawl to school,” Ambiyo explains. She adds: “I developed cracks on my hands and knees as my parents were too poor to afford a wheelchair.”
But this did not dampen her spirit as she would always outshine her peers and emerge in the first position.
Ambiyo’s predisposition to excellence earned her recognition at the school.
Moved by her plight, an officer with the Salvation Army noted that she was very bright and could not be kept in that particular school.
His concern attracted well-wishers from German who offered to sponsor Ambiyo’s education to university level through the Salvation Army Church.
This marked the turning point in her life and today she is a living proof that disability is not inability and has risen through the ranks to become an Assistant Registrar, an equivalent of a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
“When the Salvation Army offered to sponsor my education, my parents could not even raise bus fare to Maseno District Hospital where I was supposed to undergo a series of medical assessments that were compulsory prior to my admission in the special school,” Ambiyo recalls.
The medical examinations would among other things ascertain whether an operation was necessary to correct the disability.
“My father had to carry me on his back and walk several kilometres from our home village in Mukhombe to Maseno District Hospital which was the nearest health facility,” she says.
After undergoing thorough medical examination, she was cleared to join Joyland Primary School in Kisumu.
“This was also an uphill task as my father could not raise enough fare for both of us and I had to sit on his lap through the entire journey but he was too elated to be distracted by the hitch,” Ambiyo recalls.
When she was finally admitted, her father shed tears of joy as he could not believe that the church had offered to sponsor her education.
“My other siblings had dropped out of school due to lack of school fees and this gesture spelt good tidings to my family. I was also very happy and opted to stay in the school even after we closed for holidays,” Ambiyo recounts during an interview with the Kenyan Woman.
At the school, she was given crutches to aid her in standing. “I could not believe it as I stood straight and tall for the first time in my life. I was also motivated to see other children with disabilities and resolved to direct all my energies to my studies,” Ambiyo explains.
She adds: “My greatest inspiration in school was the fact that I had found support and, therefore, I had to excel. I completed my primary education and proceeded to Ahero Girls’ Secondary for my O-levels.”
She says that at Ahero Girls, she experienced a lot of difficulties as fellow students became indifferent and felt that she should have joined a school for students with disabilities. She nevertheless emerged the top student in KCSE at the school that year and secured herself an admission at a prestigious national school, Moi Girls High School, Eldoret.
“The biggest challenge I faced as a student is that the physical facilities in both schools were not designed for use by people with disabilities,” Ambiyo notes.
At the time, there were only a few secondary schools for children with disabilities but they were not doing well and so she opted to remain in the mainstream schools which were performing well.
“Being poor, I suffered so much during my stint at Moi Girls’ High School which was then a preserve for children from rich families and influential personalities in the country.
“Although, I suffered exclusion by virtue of my status, I was able to surmount the challenges and become a strong force to reckon with academically. I passed very well and joined University of Nairobi and my father was very proud of my achievements,” Ambiyo recounts.
All this time she wanted to become a journalist as this would provide her with a platform to highlight the plight of persons with disabilities.
“When I was a student at the University of Nairobi, I realised that being a journalist was a difficult task that required a lot of mobility and movement. I realised that I can become an administrator and still serve persons with disabilities who interact with the university.”
At the University, Ambiyo became a household name and was elected the chair of Nairobi University Disabled Students Association and served in the position for the entire period she was a student.
“During admission of students, I would look out for students with disabilities to make sure that they were given special consideration including being assigned single rooms and served meals within rooms of residence,” says Ambiyo.
She lobbied the university to assign a van to ferry students from their rooms to lecture halls and made sure that they were familiar with available provisions.
“Upon completion of my studies at the university, I tarmacked for a year and was finally lucky when the University of Nairobi employed me as a junior administrator,” she says.
Ambiyo prides herself for playing a critical role in formulating Disability Policy at the University of Nairobi which has helped to raise awareness about disability and demystify beliefs associated with physical challenges.
She points out that before mainstreaming of disability, many people, even at the university did not understand what disability was all about.
“There was a lot of stigmatization on the way issues were handled including promotions. There was a time I was denied a promotion on the basis of my disability. The head of department argued that the position was senior in rank and therefore I could not handle it as a person with disability. I was denied that promotion yet I had been ranked number one during the interview,” Ambiyo explains. She notes: “After a year I went for the same interview and I was promoted to the position of senior administrative assistant.”
She rose through the ranks and today she serves as an Assistant Registrar, a post equivalent to a lecturer at the university.
Today the university has established a committee that looks into disability matters. Persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply for jobs advertised both internally and externally and this has slightly helped to bring them on board in the decision making tables.
Ambiyo bounced into public limelight in 2009, following a government’s directive that all persons with disability must be registered with the National Council for Persons with Disabilities.
“After registering as a person with disability, I went to United Disabled Persons in Kenya (UDPK) which is the umbrella body for organisations dealing with disability and offered myself for involvement within the disability circles.
UDPK has nominated Ambiyo to represent women with disabilities at the National Women Steering Committee.
In 2012, she participated in the development of the National Women’s Charter which culminated in a national conference that brought together women contesting for various political positions prior to the 2013 General Election.
During the same year, she failed to garner a nomination in the Senate to represent women and persons with disabilities.
She is currently engaged in sensitizing and encouraging women to join political parties early to increase their chances for nomination.
Ambiyo would really want to contest for a political seat but requirements that she must first resign as a public servant is prohibitive.
“If I resign, I am likely to face it rough because getting a job as a person with disability is very hard. Further, Kenyan politics are very competitive and male dominated,” Ambiyo notes. She adds: “I hope I will be lucky in 2017 to get nominated through the Affirmative Action.”
Currently, Ambiyo is the coordinator of the Association of Professional Women with Disabilities and hopes that one day the organization will grow to serve as many people with disabilities as possible.
“We are working towards laying foundations and pillars that would ensure that in future the association can stand,” she says.
The organization targets women and girls as well as mothers of children with disability.
At the moment, the association is supporting Emusala Special Unit School in Kakamega which caters for children with cerebral palsy.
“Last year we paid for food supply to the school for a whole year and helped install electricity. We have also started a small kitty and revolving fund for the parents and introduced them to table banking,” Ambiyo explains. She adds: “We are also supporting mothers of children with disabilities in Kibera and Kariobangi as well as Gender Based Violence (GBV) survivors.”
However, the association requires financial support to be able to serve more people living with disability..