What initially caught my eye about his house were the wooden ramps right from the main entrance to all major sections in the house. His Canadian wife was very welcoming and spoke Luganda like she was born and bred here. She offered me a seat and told me to wait shortly for her husband to come.
A few minutes later, Francis Mugwanya gently wheeled himself into the living room. Dressed in a brown T-shirt, black shorts and black socks, he got off his wheelchair onto the couch and calmly introduced himself.
Mugwanya was born a normal child in Kiwoko District (now Luwero District) though he has no memory of how it feels to walk. “My parents told me that at three and a half years, I got polio which affected my legs. They tried to get treatment, but it was already too late.”
He is the second in the family of nine children and all his siblings can walk. When it was time for him to start school, his father looked everywhere for a wheelchair but failed to get one, so he decided to buy a bicycle which his elder brother used to drop and pick him from school.
Going to school was a difficult experience for Mugwanya because he was the only disabled child at school. “I used to crawl on my hands and knees to get around the school. Children would laugh and make fun of me,” he recalls.
Helping the disabled
The year 1990 is a memorable one for Mugwanya because it is when he got his first wheelchair. His father had made many unsuccessful trips to Kampala in search of a wheelchair until his friend, the then executive director of the Uganda Society for Children with Disabilities (USDC) managed to get him one. “I couldn’t believe it.
I had my own wheelchair. I was very excited that I did not sleep that night. I had been told to remain home the next day so that I could get used to it but I insisted on going to school because I couldn’t wait to show off my new wheelchair to the kids at school,” he reminisces.
Mugwanya always wanted to be a doctor or laboratory technician, but he later realised that he wanted to do social work where he interacted with people. In 2000, he applied for a job at a children’s organisation called New Hope Uganda, where he worked in the child care department till 2006.
“In 2001, after noticing that many disabled people had no wheelchairs, I got a burden on my heart to start helping them. I decided to start saving some money off my monthly salary and when it accumulated, I bought someone a wheelchair,” he says. It took him about two to four months to buy a wheelchair and during this time, he managed to buy seven of them.
“In 2007, my pastor introduced me to a church in the USA called the Mariners Church where a member of the church has a wheelchair organisation called Free Wheelchair Mission. The church partnered with me and in 2008, sent the first container of 550 wheelchairs to Uganda. We later managed to also get wheelchairs from another organisation in USA called Johnie and Friends Disability Centre, he narrates.
Mugwanya first met his wife, Adrienne in 2000 when she came to visit New Hope where he worked at the time. “I noticed her, but we didn’t talk much and she went back to Canada. We kept in touch through mutual friends.”
Adrienne has a disabled brother and in 2007, her family donated a wheel chair that her brother had outgrown. In 2008, Adrienne came to Uganda to attend a ceremony at which her sister was being introduced to her (Adrienne’s sister) Ugandan husband’s family in Jinja.
In 2009, I proposed and she said yes. In July 2009, he went to Canada to meet her family and she came to Uganda to meet his in November. They then got married on January 2, 2010.
“Through Father’s Heart, we want to provide wheelchairs to people with disabilities that cannot afford them, to see them integrated into their communities and doing something to support themselves, to help them understand their God given value and potential,” the couple says.
Mugwanya says the challenges he encounters as a disabled person is the inaccessibility of most public places because they do not have provision for wheelchairs. He adds that most people think the disabled are helpless and unable to work.