America is often referred to as the “Land of Opportunity;” a place where anyone who works hard enough can, theoretically at least, see their dreams come true. The same can’t always be said for other less fortunate places on the planet, especially in such Third World countries as Ghana. Considered one of Africa’s few bright spots of (relative) development and democracy, this tiny nation is still a poverty-stricken place, wracked by prejudice and superstition. It’s largely assumed that those born handicapped in Ghana are the cursed victims of a deity’s wrath, whose only lot in life it is to beg for the money on the street.
This is an appalling attitude in its own right, but when one considers that some 10% of the country’s population is born with a physical deformity, due to any number of health-care problems, it means a staggering 2 million largely shunned beggars on the streets, dragging down Ghanaian society.
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah could easily have been one of those 2 million, as he was born with a badly deformed leg. He would have been, in fact, were it not for his mother’s steadfast insistence that he not beg, even after his father abandoned the family shortly after Emmanuel’s birth. Encouraged by his mother, and later by his extended family after his mother’s death, Emmanuel got a job shining shoes, and from there, gradually shoehorned his way into society.
Eventually, frustrated by his country’s apathy towards the begging pandemic and its discrimination towards the handicapped, Emmanuel sought aid. He filled out a grant application to the Challenged Athletes Foundation and requested not food or money, but a bicycle.
Stunned by the sheer selflessness, simplicity and audacity of Emmanuel’s proposal, the CAF acted on his application. For even though he didn’t even know how to ride a bike, Emmanuel’s Gift to his country, and ultimately the world as a whole, would be an inspirational one-legged bike ride across Ghana, designed to both raise his country’s awareness of handicapped discrimination and to inspire those of his countrymen with handicaps to lift themselves out of poverty and despair.
I’m not sure how directors Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern learned of Emmanuel’s story, but the world is a better place because they did, then turned it into this sprawling, remarkable film. From Emmanuel’s Ghanaian village to the home of his king; from surgery for a prosthesis to fundraising triathlons in the San Diego sunshine to a private audience with the Secretary General of the UN — and fellow Ghanaian — Kofi Annan, Emmanuel steadfastly remains his unassuming self, dedicated simply and always to helping his people overcome their prejudice and fear towards the handicapped.
Far more than just the saga of how one handicapped, poverty-stricken kid from Ghana overcame long odds to become a globe-girdling ambassador for the disabled, this feel-good overdose is also a story of how this single-minded individual is a living, breathing example of paying it forward. It shows how a simple gift of a bicycle to one man has led to drastic improvements in the quality of life for thousands of other people.
As such, “Emmanuel’s Gift” is a touching and almost ridiculously inspirational story for all of us.