On His Own Two Feet

November 15, 2004

The reunion took place in the lobby of a theater in Del Mar, Calif. Twin sisters and filmmakers Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern took turns embracing Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, the 27-year-old from Ghana who is the subject of their latest film.

"I'm tired," said Yeboah, still jet-lagged from the 22-hour journey from his homeland.

"Whatever you do," said Lax, "don't fall asleep in the movie."

They were gathered, along with a hundred or so others, for a private screening of Emmanuel's Gift, the twins' documentary on the compelling journey of Yeboah, whose expression of a simple desire three years ago set in motion a series of remarkable events.

Yeboah was born without the tibia in his right leg, which curled up below the knee, withered and useless. Seeing this, his father, a truck driver, abandoned the family. In Ghana, Yeboah told me before the screening, "when you are a deformed child, people think your mother sinned." Some of his mother's friends urged her to kill him or at least abandon him.

Instead, Comfort Yeboah nurtured and encouraged her firstborn. "She gave me the idea that I could go to school and become a great man," Yeboah says. In a country whose disabled are expected to beg, Comfort's decision to send her son to primary school was, as Oprah Winfrey notes in her narration of the film, "a radical choice."

How apt. Comfort was raising, after all, a mild radical, a smiling contrarian offended by and constantly rebelling against his society's low expectations of him. She died when he was in his late teens. Emmanuel had dropped out of school by then and moved to Accra, where he shined shoes for $2 a day to help support the family, and he hatched a grand plan: He would bicycle across Ghana, proving to his countrymen that the physically challenged are capable of surprising things; that all people have value.

For his cross-country trip he would need a bike. He sent a grant request to the Del Mar, Calif.--based Challenged Athlete Foundation. Impressed with Yeboah's plan, CAF members sent him $1,000 (with which he bought a mountain bike) and some equipment, including a helmet and pads. Yeboah's 360-mile ride across Ghana in 2002 got huge play in the nation's media, which he used to gently scold the government, whose policy on the country's two million disabled was to ignore their existence.

Later that year the CAF invited him to San Diego to ride the 56-mile bike leg in its annual Triathlon Challenge. It took him seven hours to get around the course, after which he observed, in his lilting voice, "I did not know San Diego was so hilly."

While in California, Yeboah was examined by doctors from the Loma Linda Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Institute, who judged him a candidate for a prosthesis. He returned five months later for the operation. The film follows him from the morning of his surgery to his first step with the prosthesis to his gutsy completion of a triathlon, six weeks later, to his joyous reunion in Ghana with members of his extended family.

Yeboah returned for the '03 Triathlon Challenge. With two legs he got around the course in four hours. He was honored that day as the CAF's most inspirational athlete. He flew to Oregon to receive the Casey Martin Award. Nike presented him with a $25,000 check; the CAF matched it. On his way back to Ghana, Yeboah stopped in New York City for a meeting with U.N. Secretary General and fellow Ghanaian Kofi Annan. The pair discussed the rights of the disabled in their country, where, until Yeboah came along, the handicapped were not allowed inside the palace of the Akyem Abuakwa regional kingdom.

Last March, Yeboah stood in the palace alongside the king as five wheelchairs and 15 scholarships--underwritten by Yeboah's grant money--were distributed. Yeboah has started a cycling team, a wheelchair basketball team and a running team for the physically challenged in Ghana. He has galvanized the physically challenged in his country: One of the many high moments of this documentary shows a parade of 600 disabled protesters through Accra, inspired and emboldened by Yeboah. Before the screening he told me he is planning to run for Ghana's parliament.

After the screening, when the sniffling had subsided, I sat with former triathlete Jim MacLaren, an absurdly handsome incomplete quadriplegic and motivational speaker who has one of the better lines in the movie. A guy like Yeboah, he says, forces us to rethink our notion of "what's tragic and what's a gift."

Born without a right tibia, Ghana's Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah has GALVANIZED THE DISABLED in his country.

COLOR PHOTOTIM MANTOANI UPLIFTING Yeboah may make his next run for parliament.

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