CONGO, Africa—The boys in red-and-blue-striped jerseys race across the field—their eyes fixated on the bright yellow ball as sweat drips from their brows. Palm trees border one side of the playing field while the Congo River ripples behind; it’s a gorgeous setting for a soccer game. On the other side a road cuts through Kinshasa’s tony embassy neighborhood. Many of the locals have taken to jogging there, and some enjoy being spectators at today’s match.
If you look at the boys only from the waist up, you might think this was just another soccer game. It is not. The players have braces on their legs—some are short to support just the ankle, others longer for knee and hip support. A few players hit the ball with their crutches.
The team players live in the Ngaliema neighborhood in a small compound run by an organization called StandProud. This nonprofit supports Congolese children with physical disabilities such as polio. The center now houses 35 boys and young men, ages 5 to 23; several staff members are graduates of the program.
For polio, one of the world’s worst scourges, these are end days. Since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, 2.5 billion children have been immunized. The number of new cases has plummeted from 350,000 in 1988 to less than 400 in 2013. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has made great strides too, and is no longer listed among the dwindling numbers of country where polio is still endemic (Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan).
Yet the risk of contracting polio still exists, especially in areas where vaccines are rarely administered. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, as many as 8 to 12 percent of Congolese children under the age of five are unvaccinated. Some parents avoid vaccination programs out of fear or for religious reasons.
The boys with their braces and crutches are a reminder that behind the global success is a generation left behind, and those with polio and other physical disabilities are too often consigned to lives at the margin. StandProud has stood up for them—and with them—in centers where the victims of diseases like polio learn to care for each other. StandProud is a US registered non-profit as well as a UK charity that partners with a Congolese organization called ACDF (Association Congolaise Debout et Fier). For 14 years the two groups have worked together, and they now have centers in six locations across Congo.
Futila, a 15-year-old resident at StandProud, has two braces and has just learned to walk using an outdoor ramp. Méchak, who is uncertain of his age but must be younger than eight, contracted konzo, a disease resulting from cassava poisoning that paralyzes the legs. Brossy, 15, underwent surgery in a hospital that was paid for by StandProud. He now has a plaster cast to straighten his leg. It will become less painful as it heals. Obed, a 16-year-old with polio, has been at the center since 2010. His legs must also be straightened before he can receive braces. He has developed painful pressure sores from his plaster casts.
“The time that it takes for healing depends on the mental attitude. It takes longer for some,” says StandProud supervisor Chérif Mohamed, who is from Ivory Coast.
Read the whole story, written by Pulitzer Center Contributing Editor Kem Sawyer, here.
Photographs by Kem Sawyer and Jon Sawyer.