A University of Exeter and University of Namibia partnership, the 'Disability and Embodiment in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives' project is funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council
Mr Ebenhard Ripunda, a participant at our December workshop, spoke about his experience of Spinal Cord Injury having had a car accident. Ebenhard is now a student at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary
He shares his story, ‘Walking Triumphantly’, in a two part YouTube video. Thank you for sharing this with us, Ebenhard!
‘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.
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:
What, from your own experience, are your first reactions to this text and its characters?
What are the experiences of the characters presented here? (You may want to consider location/access/social attitudes etc.)
How in your view has/could this text shape attitudes towards disability?
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:
What are your first reactions to this text?
What are the features of Christ’s body here?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
We were delighted to host 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 at our December 2020 virtual workshop. For those who were unable to attend the event, here is her Keynote Address in full (further talks from the workshop with embedded sign language interpretation, as well as a summary of the proceedings, will be uploaded to the blog in due course):
There will be a sign language interpreter on the call. If you are on a computer you can pin their video to your screen by clicking the three dots on the top right hand side of the interpreters screen and selecting ‘pin video’. This can also be achieved by right clicking their feed. You will then be able to use the gallery view at the top to see who is speaking, while retaining the interpreter on screen. If you are using zoom on a smartphone or tablet, you can pin a participants video by scrolling right in the gallery view until you see the interpreter’s feed and then double clicking on them to pin their screen to your view.
Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives
3rd – 4th December 2020
Coinciding with the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3rd December 2020), The University of Exeter (UK) and the University of Namibia will be hosting a virtual workshop to explore religious and cultural perspectives on disability in Namibia. We look forward to hearing from speakers from a range of perspectives: People with Disabilities, Organisations of Persons with Disabilities, the Government of the Republic of Namibia, academic researchers, church leaders, UN agencies, NGOs, and more, to explore the situation on the ground in Namibia and the wider Southern African context. The (provisional) full programme for the workshop is below.
The ‘Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives’ Project
The ‘Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives’ project is a partnership between the Universities of Exeter and Namibia (UNAM), in collaboration with the National Federation of People with Disabilities in Namibia (NFPDN) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN). Our work is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. We are seeking to build a broad and diverse network to explore the impact of religion and culture on experiences of disability in Namibia. We want to consider the ways in which religion and culture can have negative impacts on people’s experiences and community attitudes, as well as the possible positive roles that religion and culture might play in challenging disability marginalisation.
Workshop Focus and Questions
The focus of our workshop is the influence of religion and culture on experiences of, and attitudes to, people with disabilities in Namibia. This is an area that has not been widely considered and in which research is lacking. However, we also recognise that other issues (gender, social location, politics, economics) intersect with disability issues, so we need to consider the context as a whole. At this event, we will particularly be considering the following questions:
What effects do Christianity, the Bible, and the church community/leadership have on the experiences of people with disabilities in Namibia?
What effects do local cultures have on the experiences of people with disabilities in Namibia?
How can religion and culture contribute to challenging stigma and discrimination regarding disability and bring about a more inclusive society?
This is a free event and it is open to all. To sign up to the email distribution list and receive the Zoom invitation, please email your details to H.C.John@exeter.ac.uk. Please feel free to distribute details of the event to colleagues and contacts who might be interested in attending. The more diverse the experiences/research interests of the participants, the better!
Sign language interpretation will be available at the Zoom meeting for all presentations and discussions. If you have concerns about internet access or other access needs, please email H.C.John@exeter.ac.uk and we will make arrangements to facilitate your involvement. We would like to maximise dialogue, interpersonal engagement, and accessibility. Speakers are therefore kindly requested not to use presentation software such as PowerPoint slides.
Day 1: Thursday 3rd December Windhoek Time (GMT +2)
10:00 Welcome from the Exeter-UNAM Project Lead – Prof Louise Lawrence (Exeter)
10:15 Ice-breaker – bring an object or discussion piece to introduce your Experience of Disability/Disability issues
11:30 Roundtable discussion of Disability Experiences, Statistics, and Activism led by Mr Daniel Trum, Chairperson of the National Federation of People with Disabilities in Namibia. He will be joined by Mr David Hughes (NFPDN), Ms Elizabeth Namwandi (Namibian Organisation for Youth with Disabilities) and Mr Moses Nghipandulwa (National Federation for the Visually Impaired). Q&A.
12:30 Lunch break
13:30 Disability and Religion – Stigma and Marginalisation. Prof Louise Lawrence (Exeter) will discuss ‘Ableism and the Bible’. Prof Charlene Van Der Walt (KwaZulu-Natal) will demonstrate how the Bible can be used to tackle marginalisation through an approach called Contextual Bible Study. Q&A.
14:45 Disability and Culture. Dr Cynthy Haihambo (UNAM) will discuss her research on disability and culture in Southern African contexts. Dr Helen John (Exeter) will discuss her research on attitudes to disability in Owambo proverbs. Q&A.
16:00 KEYNOTE ADDRESS by 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. Q&A.
17:00 Closing remarks and informal discussion.
Day 2: Friday 4th December Windhoek Time (GMT +2)
10:00 Welcome from the Exeter-UNAM Project Lead – Prof Louise Lawrence (Exeter)
10:15 Disability, Health and Development – Dr Elina Amadhila (UNAM) and Prof Gert Van Rooy (UNAM) will discuss how religious and cultural impacts relate to health and development. Q&A.
11:30 Roundtable discussion on Promoting Inclusivity – Dr Aune Victor (UNICEF), Ms Natasha Maritz (UNDP), Ms Loide Amkongo (UNFPA). Q&A.
12:30 Lunch break
13:30 Challenging Disability Marginalisation through Contextual Bible Study. Prof Louise Lawrence (Exeter) will lead a contextual Bible study to demonstrate how biblical texts can be used to challenge discriminatory attitudes and promote inclusion. Q&A.
14:45 Disability, Religion and Culture in Southern Africa: Learning from Other Contexts. Dr Sinenhlanhla Chisale (Midlands State University, Zimbabwe) will discuss her research on disability in Zimbabwe. Dr Masauso Chirwa (University of Zambia) will discuss his research on disability in Zambia. Prof Charlene Van Der Walt (KwaZulu-Natal) will discuss her research on disability, gender and embodiment in South Africa. Q&A.
Here is another member profile for you, showing what diverse expertise the Disability in Namibia network has!
It is great to be working with Dr Elina Amadhila of the University of Namibia, who is a multidisciplinary researcher with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and a Master of Arts in research (University of Namibia), as well as a PhD in Development Finance (Stellenbosch University). Elina has considerable experience in disability studies, having worked as research assistant and post-graduate research fellow in the EquitAble ‘collaborative’ project which focused on addressing the situation of people with disabilities and other marginalised or vulnerable groups with regards to access and quality of health services.
Elina’s role in the Disability in Namibia project is linking health to the aspect of development and contrasting the experiences from the global south (where I am from) to those in the global north (where collaborative partners are from). We are looking forward to hearing her talk about her perspectives on disability in our workshop in December (see our Workshop 3 page for further details).