Mrs. Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame was born on September 23, 1957. Her parents, Dr. Edward Owusu Menu, an Entomologist, and Mrs. Victoria Owusu Menu, an Educationist, hailed from the Akan ethnic group in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Fefoame is the eldest of eight siblings. Although she was part of a nuclear family, her early life was placed in the context of the extended family where aunts, uncles and cousins were all regarded as one collective whole. As such, Fefoame grew up with the advantage of experiencing both a smaller family unit and the more cultural African extended family situation. She spent her early life at Akropong in the Eastern Region of Ghana, a place renowned for Christianity and Education. For all intents and purposes, Fefoame was brought up in the strict Presbyterian tradition, an environment provided by family and community. As a young girl, Fefoame lived with her grandmother who was the resident supervisor principal of the Presbyterian Girls Boarding School. Her relationship was so close with her grandmother that in many respects it appeared to her as though her grandmother treated and regarded her as her own child rather than the grandchild that she was. Fefoame was part of a very close-knit family and as the eldest her siblings and cousins alike looked up to her for leadership and direction. The issue of disability was never a consideration in these matters. There were times when this posed some challenges as her disability was often forgotten and the focus was on her as a person. There were even a few times when walking with a sibling, she could slip because the person she was walking with had forgotten about her disability completely. Fefoame views these occurrences as positive, since her family always saw her first and foremost as a person and never focused on her disability. Fefoame was later elected President of the Family Association. This position was given to her due to her situation as the eldest of the siblings and cousins, however, the more substantial reason was due to her proved resourcefulness in various areas of endeavors.
Fefoame began her education at age five at the local Methodist Church primary school in Akropong in the Eastern region where she lived. When she got to the stage of primary 6, she was transferred to the demonstration primary school attached to the Presbyterian Teacher Training College, now the Presbyterian College of Education. From there she continued her education at the Presbyterian Demonstration Middle School at Akropong. Later she enrolled at the Ghana Secondary School at Koforidua, also in the Eastern region, where she pursued her secondary school education.
It was during her primary school education when she was only ten years of age in 1967 when Fefoame noticed she could not read from the board properly. Her grandmother took her to the hospital for treatment of her sight situation. From the local hospital she was referred to the Korle Bu Teaching hospital in Accra, a facility that mainly receives referrals and very serious cases. Her referral to this hospital was the first indication to Fefoame of the seriousness of her situation. Initially she received eyeglasses but as time went on it was obvious that these were not effective, and she continued to experience difficulties in reading from the board. Next, she was put on a series of different medications. There were times when this interrupted her schooling. It was in this situation that Fefoame struggled through her secondary school education. Although the school authorities were aware of her situation, no help came from them. As such, she had to rely on her own ingenuity and support from friends who would read the textbooks to her. During this difficult part of her education, Fefoame also had some assistance from a few tutors who would meet her after class hours and explain the diagrams that she had not been able to read or understand from the board. However, not all her teachers were so accommodating. Fefoame recalls that many teachers did not have any understanding of disability and conveniently simply chose to ignore her special needs in the class, yet they expected her to do as equally well as the rest of the students. In this condition, Fefoame made it through her secondary education. She faced another challenge when the examination council refused to provide her with the large print she had requested for her exams, even though they had agreed to this request a year earlier.
In 1975 Fefoame successfully completed her secondary school education. Although her results were not exceptionally good, she was elated because she had put so much effort into going through the system with her receding sight. To her, whatever the results the fact that she had not given up was an achievement by all standards. This joy and sense of achievement was shared with her family who had stood by her all the way through. 1975 proved to be a pivotal year in her life. A new course was introduced for teachers for the first time; Professional Studies for the Education of People with Visual Impairment. An advertisement went out and teachers were encouraged to enroll for this course. Fefoame was interested but it was explained that since the course was intended for trained teachers, she had to be trained as a teacher before she could take it. Due to her residual vision to achieve this she had to learn braille and typing at the School for the Blind at Akropong. Since Fefoame had grown up at Akropong and thus was accustomed to seeing and even interacting with blind individuals, she did not have any problem learning at the School for the Blind. However, the expression of sorrowful emotions by friends and some members of the community, who were dismayed that she was learning as a blind person and thus was now virtually blind even though she still had residual vision, very nearly dampened her spirits. Dealing with this realization of life as a blind person filled Fefoame with all kind of thoughts, some even boarding on giving up and suicide. It was at this time that she met another blind lady by name the of Grace Preko who was a student at the Presbyterian Teacher Training College, which was close to the School for the Blind. The two struck up an acquaintanceship and became life-long friends. Later, they would both play major roles in the disability activism movement in Ghana. This meeting proved to be a turning point in Gertrude’s life. After her meeting with Grace and experiencing the vibrancy of Grace’s spirit, Fefoame resolved to dedicate her own life to improving the lot of other blind people in Ghana. This meeting also served to encourage and re-invigorate her, and she put all her effort into her studies. Learning from her earlier experience where the Examinations Council had relented on their promise to provide her with the large print necessary for her exams, Fefoame personally went to the offices of the Examination Council and demanded that her questions be put in braille and in addition that a supervisor be provided for her. In order to ensure this she took her exams in Accra, where she had proximity to the Examination Council. Fefoame’s forcefulness paid off, and her questions were given in her desired format and a supervisor was provided. With the needed systems in place, Fefoame took the exams and qualified for training college in 1976. There she joined Grace, her peer mentor. In 1979 after three years of hard work, Fefoame became a qualified teacher. Later in 1989 she gained a Diploma in ‘Special needs Education for Visually impaired Persons.’
Even before she completed her teacher training in 1976, the year she enrolled at the training College, Fefoame joined two organizations; the Ghana Society for the Blind, which focused on advocating and providing services to the blind, and the Ghana Association of the Blind which also focused on fighting and advocating for the rights of blind people. Due to her membership in these organizations she began to fully understand what it meant to be blind and the negative societal barriers and limitations imposed on people with this impairment. This knowledge aroused an anger and determination in her to be part of the process for change, which she felt was very necessary. When presented with the option of teaching in a school for blind persons or in the regular system, she chose the latter. In her estimation, being blind did not make her less of a person, and so she chose the regular system to prove this point. Later, she also taught at the Presbyterian Teacher Training college, where she had formerly been a student. All this was geared at making a statement and showed that she could train anybody just as well as her non-blind colleagues. As a partially sighted person she began to involve herself in the activities of groups like the GSB and the GAB. Before long, her qualities were noticed, and she began to attain various responsibilities in the organization of the Ghana Association of the Blind. Even within disability organizations like GAB, Fefoame was concerned about minority voices. It was because of this notion that Fefoame and other of like-minded individuals came together to advocate and form the Women’s League, now Women’s Wing, of the GAB in 1981. She was elected as the first secretary of the Women’s League.
Although she had been part of previous empowerment workshops while she was still a student, it was not until 1992 in a workshop organized by the Institutional Development Programme of the World Blind Union that she truly began to develop and realize her own advocacy and leadership potentials. Fefoame had the advantage of associating with several future leaders of the disability movement, who mentored and encouraged her. With this motivation, she pressed for women’s issues whenever the opportunity presented itself. There were times when she visited the School for the Blind to speak to blind girls and young women. Fefoame also made it a point to ensure that every for general meeting she would organize a section for women mostly after the main meetings. This was because it was not easy to get a slot for women in the main agenda. Fefoame’s persistence with her colleagues led to the creation of the women’s chair at the Ghana Association of the Blind. In 1996 when she was elected to the position of Vice-president of the GAB, she ensured that the President of the Women’s Wing was given a place on the Board of the Organization. This was met with resistance from some members, who did not understand why women should have a seat on the board. Fefoame continued to pursue her interest in the welfare of blind women. As a representative of the GAB to the African Union of the Blind, she became a founding member of the Women’s Committee of the African Union of the Blind, which was established in 1994, and became the first secretary of the Women’s committee. Before long, her contribution to the development and empowerment of blind women was well known by all. Because of this, in 1997 she became the global vice-chair for the World Blind Union women’s work. Later in 2000 she also became the Chairperson for the World Blind Union children’s work.
Even before all this occurred, Fefoame was elected to the position of Vice-president of the Africa Union of the Blind from 1996 to 2000. During this same period, Fefoame also served as an executive committee member of the World Blind Union. Fefoame used her international exposure to ensure that the African Union of the Blind had a place for women in its constitution. Stemming from this came the requirement of member countries of the African Union of the Blind to be represented by both male and female delegates to the congresses of the Union. Before Fefoame’s time this had not occurred. Naturally she came up against some opposition, however, employing the lessons she had learned from the local Ghana situation, she and her like-minded colleagues were eventually successful, and this requirement has remained in place even today. Fefoame had a very hectic schedule, at a particular period she wore many hats at the same time; vice-president of the Ghana Association of the Blind, and vice-president of the Africa Union of the Blind. In addition to her World Blind Union women’s work, she was also Public Relations Officer of the Federation of Disability Organization, a tutor, a wife, a mother and a role model.
One of the most vivid instances of her activist qualities was seen during her participation at the International Summit for Women held in Beijing, China in 1995. At this conference, Gertrude was nominated to present a paper on behalf of women in Africa. During the conference it was discovered that the needs of people with disabilities had not been properly factored into the planning of the event. For instance, presentations by certain individuals with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs, were located upstairs. The result was that participants in wheelchairs had to be physically carried upstairs. Next there were tents provided for group meetings. Unfortunately, the tent allocated to people with disabilities was located relatively far off. Matters were made more difficult by the fact that it was raining almost every day of the conference. To Gertrude this was not going to stop her. On one particular day when a meeting of the disability group was scheduled, she began a protest chant; “we-are-going,” drawing awareness to the presence of disabled persons at the conference. The chant was taken up first by a small group and then spontaneously by the entire conference. In effect, they refused to walk through the rain to their tent which was located far off. The international media was present, and cameras began to flash. The results were instant, and the tent was re-located to a more suitable venue. After that incident, Fefoame was swamped with interviews by the press.
Fefoame views her main achievement as being able to mentor young people to stand up and fight for their rights as well as pursuing their aspirations in life. Her mentorship is not limited to people with disabilities, however. In her church, she is the patron for various youth groups like the Young People’s Guild and the Young Adults Fellowship. Fefoame also views her task of raising awareness and creating opportunities by opening doors for other persons with disabilities as another of her major achievements. Throughout her career, she has always sought to create awareness about the capabilities of persons with disabilities, especially blind individuals. This has led her to venture into some unexplored territory. She was the first blind person to attend the Ghana Institute for Management and Professional Administration, or GIMPA. Along with this, she was the first blind person in her district to be appointed into the District Assembly and district parliament. Her interest and zest for human rights, especially the rights of persons with disabilities, is also well known. In 2007, at the Golden Jubilee anniversary celebration of Ghana, she received the presidential award for meritorious service to her nation. In 2018 she was elected to serve on the United Nations Committee of Experts for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In her opinion, Gertrude views disability as part of the diversity of God’s creation. Any limitations associated with this are brought about by society, the environment, and individuals themselves. This situation is reflected in language, attitude and expectations. These barriers can be removed by society so that a person with disabilities can live life to the fullest. To her, “Education is a steppingstone to understanding what the World is and breaking the barriers in what we have.”