Love & Disability: How people confront disability and matters of the heart

Marvellous Mbulo and Rejoice Mbulo, on the day they tied the knot
Marvellous Mbulo and Rejoice Mbulo, on the day they tied the knot

Whereas faith usually begins as an experiment, it often ends up as an experience – and an experience that would be so unforgettable that it would be difficult to let go.

This is the message that greets any visitor to the Mbulo homestead in Khumalo, Bulawayo.

Marvellous Mbulo was born with muscular dystrophy and needs 90 to 95 percent assistance with whatever he does, even when it comes to love-making.

This makes his wife, Rejoice, more than your everyday housewife.

Whereas on one hand she could be an aide, rather care-giver, on the other she has to be the lover, the giver of emotions and empathy.

“When we started out, I wasn’t sure if the relationship was going to work,” she recalls. “There was the combination of anxiety and fear; anxiety on if he could do anything in bed if I fell in love with him, and fear if we could have any kids, and if we could, if they could be just like him or not.”

That anxiety and fear was to be confronted last year, some months after the couple had walked down the aisle in a wedding that had Bulawayo talking. She soon fell pregnant, only to have her heart broken.

“It must have been at 10 weeks that I had a miscarriage, and though I cannot pin that miscarriage on any particular problem, honestly I was always stressed and worried to no end if the baby that I was carrying was to be a normal baby.

“Maybe, and that’s a maybe, that is the reason why I had a miscarriage. But now if I am to fall pregnant again, I now understand disability more than anyone else and I hope to carry my pregnancy to full term.”

Rejoice is able-bodied and says because her husband, who is wheel-chair bound, needs assistance with almost every physical movement, she leads the way when they make love.

“He tires easily,” she explains of their trysts, “and it is up to me to take the game to another level. Through the moments we have spent together, we have learnt how to make the most out of each other.”

Disability is a sensitive issue and rarely attracts the attention it deserves in public discourse.

Isaac Nyathi, who contracted polio at age four and never recovered use of his right leg, says it is even worse when it comes to matters of sex and love. Now 48 years old, Nyathi has consulted widely internationally when it comes to disability. He believes that sex education within the disabled community could be better.

“There are two ways to approach the issue of disability and sex; first being within the disabled community itself and secondly within the greater community.

“There is always a need to remind the disabled that as much as they are disabled, they can still get pregnant, that they can contract sexually transmitted illnesses, just like any other person.

“Then to the wider society, there is a need to educate people to accept and realise that the disabled have emotions, just like anybody else. That someone is disabled does not mean that they don’t have feelings, or won’t fall in love.”

A staffer at King George VI, a Bulawayo school mainly for the disabled, said though he has been wheelchair-bound from as early as he can remember, when it comes to being sexually active he has normal appetite.

“Probably I have had more girlfriends than some of my able-bodied peers,” he quips, “and some, if not most, of them have been able-bodied girls.”

The hazards of the romance game are the same for all. Marvellous Mbulo warns: “The first and foremost rule is not to use money to entice love. I have noticed that some families, because they are rich, use money as an incentive to have their disabled child loved. That is wrong.

“Once you do that you are bound to have lots of problems.

“The most important thing is to be honest. I have told all the girls that I have dated, from the very first meeting, what my disability implies and what I expect of her. That I need to be helped with about 95 percent of my movements. Once I explain my condition and she understands it, it worked well for me.”

Marvellous, twinkle in eye, confides that he was quite the Casanova when younger.

“When I came into his life, there were plenty of girls around him and somehow our friendship quickly evolved into love, and then marriage, overtaking all the other girls,” his wife chips in.

Tapiwa Nyengera, also wheelchair-bound, says being forthright is important.

“I have always told all the girls that I dated from the word go that I love them and that I am not seeking sympathy but love. That way we are always sure from the beginning what kind of relationship we are going to have.”

But how does one know that this is genuine love, that is not driven by sympathy, pity, money or could be just an “experiment” to satiate some fetish?

Soneni Gwizi, a journalist who is very active when it comes to disability issues, says: “The problem is that society sees us as disabled people, but truth is we are no different from the so-called normal people.

“The same challenges that ‘normal’ people have when dating are the same problems that we face. It is not easy to tell whether one is faking it or not in a relationship, but usually time proves whether what one is saying is genuine or not.”

Once the love and trust is assured, the next hurdle for disabled people is acceptance and approval.

Recalls Nyathi, who has been married to Christine for 22 years: “Though we had accepted each other, rather when she had accepted that she was comfortable dating a disabled person, the next challenge was to convince her family. They could not openly tell us that they did not approve of the relationship, and instead of supporting us when we wanted to go through the customary marriage process, there was an excuse at every turn.

“We had no option, in the end, but to elope. Since I was working here in Bulawayo and she was staying a village away from mine in Gwanda, we made arrangements one weekend to run away and start our family. We left a note that I had taken her to Bulawayo, and only then did the marriage process commence.”

And how did Christine cope?

“I was comfortable and in love. I never saw the disability in him, all I saw was a man like any other. My love was cemented even further when we started our sexual life, he proved to me right that I had not made a wrong decision.”

The Nyathi’s marriage has been blessed with five children (all of them able-bodied for those that care about such).

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