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The big problems of little people

It is pretty easy to look down on dwarves … Ok, let us leave out the short people jokes, The Sunday Mail Society should not stoop so low…

People have always abused anyone who is different. Differences in religion, colour and class have long been the catalysts for much oppression.

When the differences are patently physical, such as is the case with very short people, the abuse comes thick and fast. But not all societies always gave little people short shrift.

In Ancient Egypt, people of a short stature were highly esteemed and regularly employed in the courts of the pharaohs. They held a variety of occupations, such as jewellery makers, animal or pet handlers, fishermen, entertainers, dancers, nurses, and midwives. Some rose to become part of the elite.

Several ancient Egyptian gods were portrayed as dwarfs, such as Ptah – Creator of the Universe, and Bes – a god of love, sexuality, and childbirth. During labour, pregnant women would beseech the benevolent intervention of Bes through the “spell of the dwarf”.

Many people of short stature have shown that they are no different from the rest of humanity, a case in point being Godfrey Mhere aka Gede.

The 1,2m tall Gede is remembered as the fellow whose awesome dancing skills enchanted television viewers and those that watched him live on stage during the 1990s.

Gede runs a generator repair company at Kuwadzana 5 Shopping Centre in Harare
Gede runs a generator repair company at Kuwadzana 5 Shopping Centre in Harare

Then a member of the group Ngwenya Brothers, Gede shot to stardom when he appeared in a musical video in which he exhibited amazing dancing skills.

Born 49 years ago in Chivhu, Mhere moved to Harare in 1989 and was employed as a gardener up until 1991. During this time, he also found time to attend college to study Fitting and Turning.

With his friend Thomas Tapfuma, Mhere assembled a drama group which at one time toured Southern Africa before he joined Ngwenya Brothers in 1993.

For the past 11 years, the father of four – who is married to Christina Mashingaidze (she is of “normal” height) – has been running a generator repair company at Kuwadzana 5 Shopping Centre in Harare. He employs two people.

In an interview with The Sunday Mail Society, his first line is unfortunately ironic: “When I was growing up, I was often looked down upon…”

But because we are a serious publication that does not merely subscribe to political correctness but sincerely believes that all people are created equal, we did not see this statement as a joke but as a serious social matter.

So back to Gede: “When I was growing up, I was often looked down upon and mistreated. Children often laughed at me. Settling for a marriage partner was the most difficult thing to do since most families did not want their daughters to be married to someone like me.”

Two of Gede’s children are of “normal” height and the other two are of short stature. “Sometimes it is difficult when people question if the average children are really mine. People need to be taught about the condition,” he says.

The there are other, every day things. “I cannot drive a car since I cannot reach the brakes and accelerator. Most supermarket shelves are beyond my reach and so are elevator buttons.”

Gede’s first-born child Tendai is of short stature and is married to an average-sized man. The couple was recently blessed with a baby boy, making the famed entertainer a grandfather.

Gede keeps livestock in his home village of Manyoni in Mhondoro, and he has built a house in the Granary area of Harare. Not everyone of short stature is as willing as Gede to talk about his condition. Two people of short stature who were approached by this publication refused to discuss their lives saying they wanted to keep below the radar, so to speak.

Online communities say people of short stature are those less than 1,47m tall, and there are more than 300 causes for the condition, most of them genetic.

A spontaneous genetic mutation in the egg or sperm cells prior to conception is the major cause of this condition. The most common type of dwarfism, which accounts for 70 percent of all cases, is called achondroplasia. Research has shown that dwarfism can, and most often does, occur in families in which both parents are of average height.

Four out of five children with achondroplasia are said to be born to average-size parents. It is also possible for parents who are little people to have average-sized children.  Although dwarfism is not a disease, there is debate on whether it is a disability or not.

According to experts, parents, relatives and friends often do not understand the problems of short-statured people, which is associated with psychological and emotional challenges.

Short stature can make it difficult for people living with the condition to conduct such mundane things as using an automated teller machine or enjoying a live football match in a crowded stadium. Females are often verbally and sexually abused, while children are bullied and teased mercilessly by their peers.

Then there are the medical problems. People of a short stature have to contend with frequent ear infections and risk of hearing loss, difficulty in breathing during sleep, excess fluid around the brain (hydrocephalus) and crowded teeth among other conditions.

Children with the condition delay in mastering basic motor skills like sitting up and crawling.

The Little People of Zimbabwe, an organisation which seeks to address challenges affecting people of short stature, is making efforts to create public awareness on the condition.

A Facebook account run by the organisation is widely “followed” and “liked.” The organisation, however, elected to be mum when asked to comment on issues to do with the community that it represents.

“Unfortunately we are not doing any interviews at the moment. Once everything is in place and we are ready, we will let you know. Thank you for taking an interest in our organisation,” the administrator of the organisation’s Facebook account replied.

There are global efforts to end stereotyping and provide solutions to the challenges faced by people of a short stature and their families.

Each year, Dwarfism Awareness Month is marked across the world. The World Dwarf Games are held annually and this year’s edition will be in Canada where athletes will battle it out in hockey, marksmanship, power-lifting, soccer, swimming, table tennis, archery, badminton and basketball among other disciplines.

The bottom line is that short or tall, all people are created equal. The world has enough problems as it is without abusing people of a short stature. Life is best lived when we appreciate the little things so go ahead and hug a short person.

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