The Autism Community of Africa (ACA) celebrated the launch of its annual gala last month in Washington DC. The gala was supported by Madame Adjaratou Koffi, wife of His Excellency Ambassador Charles Koffi of the Republic of Cote d’ Ivoire. Other attendees included members of the diplomatic corps, Mrs. Rosie Lee Bryant, former First Lady of Liberia, Julius Coles, President of AFRICARE, and a host of government officials and business owners.
Brigitte Kobenan, Executive Director, Autism Community of Africa (ACA) was instrumental in organizing this event due to the fact that her first child, Vinny is Autistic. This is what prompted her to form her non-profit organization ACA so as to create a platform to share her experience and help African families in need, by providing information and resources.
Jeff Sell, the Vice President of the World Autism Organization says recent data on the prevalence of autism is alarming. “When my boys were born, it was one in a 1,000, now it’s one in a 100. We have a worldwide epidemic, we have a worldwide problem,” he noted.
Cameroon has been the leading country in Africa to address this developmental disorder. Centre Orchidee Home, under the directorship of Madame Bell, was recognized for its effort in addressing the issue of autism and was awarded the first ACA Achievement Award. Ms. Naomi Begala, a representative from the Embassy of Cameroon, Washington, D.C. received the award on behalf of the Centre. She says she is honored that Cameroon can serve as an example and lead the way as a recipient for the award.
The main highlight of the evening was the performance by Linda and Brian Ha. Brian, an autistic boy and his sister Linda, a professional Salsa dancer, entertained the guests with their steps. “It just goes to show that people living with Autism can lead normal lives with adequate support and help,” said Linda.
Nothing was more compelling than the story of Dawn Cooper Barnes, wife of Ambassador Nathanial Barnes of the Republic of Liberia. Barnes, who has been caring for Zwannah, her 19-year-old autistic child, described it as a life changing experience. She expressed many of the ups and downs that her family has gone through while caring for Zwannah but also remarked that traditional African families although may understand the value of extended family, they are superstitious with regards to mental abnormalities. “Children in Africa living with autism may be thought to be posses of evil spirits or bad omens, said Barnes. “ It is important for the public to be better educated, teachers need to be trained in special education, and resources centers and centers should be available for children with autism so that they can lead better lives.” Barnes expressed that it is most crucial for one to show love and understanding in dealing with children with autism.
The evening ended with an award presentation to Julius Coles, President, AFRICARE, for his dedication and contribution towards development assistance in Africa. Coles has dedicated most of his life to working in Africa. In recognition of his achievement, the first Julius E. Coles Humanitarian Award was introduced by the organizations Racines Heritage and ACA, and will be awarded to a recipient during the 2010 annual gala. Coles was also bestowed as honorary Chief of Cote d’Ivoire and given the title Chief Koffi Coles.
Kobenan will continue to raise awareness and share her experience with other African families confronted with the same issues. “Many people are afraid or ashamed to disclose their child’s condition for fear of rejection, said Kobenan. “We would like to help provide the necessary information, resources, tools or finances to assist people so that they can better care for their children. “ Proceeds from the gala will go towards ACA to build the first Autism pilot research center and in Abidjan.
For more information on Autism Community of Africa (ACA) visit autismcommunityofafrica.org.
To read the keynote speech click here.
~Photo: Jeff Sell, VP World Autism Organization