By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
When the calendar turns the page on another year, it offers many a chance to reflect on what’s important in their lives and, for some, how they can positively affect others.
Innocent Mulenga tried for two years without success to procure a wheelchair within Africa for his 4-year-old daughter Chitalu. Chitalu has cerebral palsy and, unable to walk, she would scoot around on her bottom or be carried by family members or other children in the village. During an October trip to the U.S., Innocent was finally able to get a donated wheelchair through customs and back to his daughter in Zambia.
Innocent is a primatologist and general manager of the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in remote Chingola, Zambia. He was in Atlanta, Ga. accepting the Jubilee Leadership Award from the Zambians Promoting Leadership in America Foundation. The award honored Innocent for being the first indigenous Zambian primatologist to head one of the biggest chimpanzee sanctuaries in the world, an organization he’s been running for six years.
Roger and Cheryl Ladd – parents of Jennifer Ladd, a small animal practitioner who first visited Chimfunshi in 2006 – donated the wheelchair to the Mulenga family. Jennifer, based in Bellingham, Wash., helped build an outdoor chimpanzee enclosure during her second trip there in 2008, and returned to conduct a parasite survey on the captive chimpanzees in 2011 and 2013. Innocent’s family hosted Jennifer during all of these visits and rushed her to the hospital when a chimp bit her on her hand in 2008.
“The experience and love that they gave me is so invaluable, there’s nothing material that can match that,” Jennifer said, noting she calls the Mulengas her “African family.” “If I hadn’t gone to Chimfunshi I wouldn’t have become a [veterinarian]. It was such a small gesture for such a great family.”
Chingola is located near the Congolese border and because of the lack of infrastructure it’s difficult to transport goods there, if they can be obtained at all.
“Wheelchairs are never an easy thing to come by from this part of the world,” Innocent wrote in an email. “I remember landing at Ndola [International] Airport with the wheelchair in my hands. When my daughter [saw] it she was so excited and she signed to me that the wheelchair was hers. It was a very big relief to me as I didn’t know how she was going to react to it.”
Innocent said the wheelchair has made his family’s lives easier. In that part of Africa, children are often carried around on the backs of family members or other kids in the community. But Chitalu weighs about 35 pounds and it was becoming difficult to move her around.
“Since she likes playing with her age mates, they now just put her in the chair and wheel her around,” Innocent wrote, adding that he intends to bring Chitalu to the U.S. for physical and speech therapy in February or March, depending on how quickly he can raise the funds.
Jennifer says she’s inspired by how people in developing countries, like Chitalu, are able to overcome pitfalls in life despite the lack of resources available to them.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed in Africa is that children, and families, have these challenges in their lives,” she said. “But these people are amazingly resilient.”