December 2020 Workshop: Summary and Key Discussion Points

‘Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives’

Bringing the Network Together

On 3rd and 4th December 2020, the University of Exeter and the University of Namibia brought together academics, activists, Organisations of Persons with Disabilities, and representatives from the Government of the Republic of Namibia and UN agencies to discuss experiences of disability in Namibia and religious and cultural perspectives on disability. This network of participants had been developed over the course of 2020, in order to bring together a diverse group of people with experience and expertise in disability issues. Here, we would like to share an outline of what the speakers focused on, as well as to outline the key takeaway points from the two informative and productive days that we spent together.

Workshop Sessions

The first day of our workshop coincided with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and was titled ‘Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives’. The participants enjoyed a keynote speech from Honourable Alexia Manombe-Ncube, Deputy Minister: Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, responsible for Disability Affairs, in the Presidency of the Republic of Namibia. The speech is available in full on the project blog, with other video, audio, and Namibian Sign Language interpretations to follow.

Participants joined the virtual workshop from multiple locations in the UK, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. On the first day, the workshop began with an ice-breaker, which offered the chance for everyone to introduce themselves and to talk about an object that spoke to their experience of disability and disability issues. This was followed by a roundtable discussion of ‘Disability Experiences, Statistics, and Activism’ led by Mr Daniel Trum, Chairperson of the National Federation of People with Disabilities in Namibia (NFPDN). He was joined by Ms Elizabeth Namwandi (Namibian Organisation for Youth with Disabilities) and Mr Moses Nghipandulwa (National Federation of the Visually Impaired) and Mr David Hughes (NFPDN).

The second session focused on ‘Disability and Religion – Stigma and Marginalisation’ and ‘Ableism and the Bible’, in which Professor Louise Lawrence (Exeter), Professor Charlene Van Der Walt and Ms Noluthando Gasa (KwaZulu-Natal) demonstrated how the Bible can be used to tackle marginalisation through an approach called Contextual Bible Study. This approach involves communities of experience discussing biblical texts to unveil their problematic aspects whilst also harnessing their transformative and liberative aspects. This means biblical interpretation is taken out of the hands of the dominant (colonisers, men, church authorities, the able-bodied) and acts as a ‘reflective surface’ for ‘ordinary readers’ to interpret with and through their own personal contexts and experiences.

During a session on ‘Disability and Culture’, Dr Cynthy Haihambo (UNAM) outlined her research findings on disability and culture in Southern African contexts, explaining what communities in Namibia (and beyond) understand the main causes of disability to be. Dr Helen John (Exeter) then presented the results of a study into attitudes to disability in Owambo, focusing particularly on negative terminology in use in communities to refer to people with disabilities. She also discussed the attitudes communicated in Owambo proverbs, some of which are undoubtably negative but some of which she suggested could be used to sensitise and put forward positive messages about people with disabilities.

The last session of day 1 focused on informal discussions around disability from all participants, wherein they reflected on key points from the day’s presentations and their own experiences.

On the second day, we began with a session on ‘Disability, Health and Development’, in which Dr Elina Amadhila and Professor Gert Van Rooy from UNAM encouraged us to think about disability ‘as a matter of perception’ and illustrated the ways in which disability marginalisation and stigmatisation impacts upon economic development, poverty rates, low employment levels, and poor access to healthcare. They suggested that focusing on a person’s disability ignores their uniqueness and their abilities. We should instead be focusing on their ability to participate and not perceived ‘deficits’.

A roundtable discussion from the UN agencies in Namibia on ‘Promoting Inclusivity’ gave participants a clear outline of what the UN agencies are currently focusing on with respect to disability. Dr Aune Victor (UNICEF), Ms Natasha Maritz (UNDP), and Ms Loide Amkongo (UNFPA) all spoke on their respective projects and UN efforts to combat ignorance, stigma and discrimination about disability issues.

Our penultimate session examined the potential for ‘Challenging Disability Marginalisation through Contextual Bible Study’. Professor Louise Lawrence lead us through the contextual Bible study process with two texts – Mark 10:46-52 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 – to demonstrate how biblical texts can be used to challenge discriminatory attitudes and promote inclusion. We read the text from the Gospel of Mark together and then discussed the following questions:

  1. What, from your own experience, are your first reactions to this text and its characters?
  2. What are the experiences of the characters presented here? (You may want to consider location/access/social attitudes etc.)
  3. How in your view has/could this text shape attitudes towards disability?
  4. From your own context and experience what could this text offer to more inclusive attitudes with relation to disability?

Participants variously commented on the nature of the man’s ‘healing’ (physical? social?), the agency of the individual, and Jesus’ initial response to him – ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ These perspectives were considered important in challenging the compulsory cure position, so often encountered in churches within Namibia.

Having read the text out loud from First Corinthians, participants were invited to share their responses to the following questions:

  1. What are your first reactions to this text?
  2. What are the features of Christ’s body here?
  3. How in your view has/could this text shape attitudes to disability within communities?

The interconnectedness of the community was a strong theme, and so too was the positive roles played by each individual part of the collective body. The roles and abilities of each individual (no matter what their limits) was seen to be valued and critical to the whole.

Finally, in a session on ‘Disability, Religion and Culture in Southern Africa: Learning from Other Contexts’, we heard from Dr Sinenhlanhla Chisale (Midlands State University, Zimbabwe), Dr Masauso Chirwa (University of Zambia), and Professor Charlene Van Der Walt (KwaZulu-Natal). These sessions encouraged us, in particular, to think about intersectional issues and the particular challenges faced by women with disabilities and those who are ‘socially disabled’ due to their gender, gender identity, or sexuality.

What did we Learn?

There are several notable points that kept recurring throughout the workshop, and it is these which we would like to share here.

  1. There was considerable concern shown about ignorance, stigma and discrimination. People with disabilities continue to face discriminatory social, cultural, and religious attitudes, which lead to their marginalisation and exclusion from mainstream life. Problems highlighted include ignorance about the causes of disability, the association of disability with witchcraft and sin, and the continued hiding away of children/family members with disabilities. Families of those with disabilities experience shame and marginalisation because of community perceptions – it is often believed that the parents (most often the mother) have sinned in some way, which has led to their child having a disability. It may be because of this that disability is under-reported in Namibia. The last census suggests that Namibia has a rate of disability of under 5%, whereas this figure is closer to 15% internationally.
  2. The terminology used to describe people with disabilities remains problematic and should perhaps be tackled in school environments. People with disabilities continue to be defined by their disability and certain words in both English and indigenous languages are offensive but are commonly used.
  3. Namibia is recognised for the strength of its policies/legal framework, which seek to protect and promote the inclusion of people with disabilities. However, there remains a problem in the level of implementation of these policies. More needs to be done to promote inclusion through, for example, teacher-training institutions so that there is a direct feed of positive attitudes and inclusive practice through to the Namibian youth.
  4. People with Disabilities in Namibia continue to face accessibility challenges (to environments and information), finding that their needs are often not met in terms of health, education, and employment opportunities.
  5. People with Disabilities are at greater risk of Gender-Based Violence. GBV is an issue that disproportionately affects women, and it should be noted that women and girls with disabilities are therefore particularly vulnerable.
  6. It was noted that there is a need to be deliberately inclusive in all interventions to improve the lives of Namibians with disabilities – there is a need for inclusive dissemination of information using large print, accessible language, braille, picture cards/comics. People with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to exclusion on this front. We should also make use of radio to disseminate testimony, research findings, and to provide information and sensitisation, because for some (particularly in rural areas), this is the main or only source of news and information.
  7. People with Disabilities should be heard at all levels and their voices of experience should lead efforts to promote inclusion. A powerful point made was that we are sometimes ‘unconsciously incompetent’ – we need to show greater awareness and spend more time reflecting on what we are doing that is not inclusive. Otherwise, we risk maintaining exclusive practices simply because we have not thought carefully enough. There is a clear need for awareness campaigns so that people can understand what about their attitudes and practice is not inclusive. After all, if we do not know what we are doing wrong, we cannot change our behaviour.
  8. It is important to include the youth with disabilities in designing, creating and implementing any interventions or sensitisation campaigns. Their experiences need to be heard and their skills utilised.
  9. Many voices of experience told the workshop that they experience negative attitudes when attending church or encountering members of the clergy, sometimes leading to them preferring not to attend church at all. They reported that it is all too common for clergy to focus on their disability and to offer prayers in the hope of achieving ‘cure’ of the disability. This makes people feel that the ministers and/or communities of faith only see their disability, not the person themselves, and means that their spiritual needs are often not met. It also means that disability continues to be labelled negatively and assumes that disability needs to be ‘fixed’ in some way. There is therefore the need for greater engagement with the churches and seminaries in order to engage their leaders in promoting positive attitudes to disability and inclusive services to minister to all and not just those who do not have disabilities. The influence of the church is huge in Namibia, so it is important to be working together with them to bring about changes in attitudes and behaviour. We should also engage with traditional authorities.
  10. It was noted that there are considerable challenges in terms of funding. At all levels, budgets are limited and this hinders progress in activating sensitisation and change-making campaigns and projects.
  11. The topic of disability and religions has not been explored much in Namibia. The testimonies/contributions of several individuals with disabilities were passionate about related issues and pursuing the subject further with a larger and more diverse audience.

All of the individual talks will be available on this blog once sign language interpretation has been embedded.

We are now planning future engagement events and are looking to expand our network further. If you would like to get involved (or know of someone who might), please get in touch with Helen John at

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