By Franklyn Margao
Sheku Bernard knows too well what life is with and without physical disability. He also knows when to dream, and like Joseph the dreamer in the Bible, how to turn those dreams into reality. At age 4, he took ill. He was unable to recover the use of his legs. “From then, my parents and the community started neglecting me. All my brothers and sisters were sent to school except me. In the morning, my parents would go to the farm, leaving me without food until they all return at night. Nobody cared about my wellbeing. At that age, it was a difficult
and painful experience for me,” he narrated to Hidden Voices Salone in an exclusive interview at his Grafton workshop in the outskirts of Freetown recently.
The father of seven, who was born in a village called Senehun Nes Tucker, in Benduma, had his lucky break in life when his sister, Josephine, travelled with him to Moyamba for him to acquire some skills training.
At Moyamba, Sheku was introduced to a local blacksmith, Mr. Mustapha, who taught him how to make cutlasses, hoes, and knives for residents of the local community. At age 10, according to him; “One night while asleep, I had a dream where I was making a gun. I disclosed this to my boss the next morning, and he asked if I could replicate my dream into reality. My answer was yes.”
A few days later, Mr. Mustapha was surprised when Sheku showed him the local shotgun he had produced. The gun was a hit with the local hunters. He continued with this skill to Kailahun, where he created and repaired shotguns not only for people from the surrounding villages, but also for hunters in neighbouring Liberia.
No stranger to dreams, he told Hidden Voices Salone that he had another dream when he was age 17, where it was revealed to him how to become a metal carver, his current profession. “I started using scrap metals to make symbols, knives, chains, bracelets and other forms of decorations until I was displaced as a result of the civil war in the 90s”.
In 1996, Sheku was living as a displaced person at Clay Factory, Kissy in Freetown. In the capital, he witnessed how disabled men and women were treated. “I saw a lot of them begging for their survival, and I stood there watching how people mistreat them for a common coin.”
Enraged, the next day, he went to Grass-field, Kissy to look for a blacksmith shop where he met with Foday Kamara,who gladly accepted him. The rest, they say, is history.
Sheku, who uses local materials from his art, does not see himself as a disabled person though he agrees that living life as one at the beginning was harsh and painful. “There are non-disabled men and women out there in society who admire the work that I do and want to be like me. Society recognizes me as a useful person in the community where I live with my family,” he said.
From the proceeds of his work, he finds it difficult to make ends meet. Taking care of his family, including sending his seven children to school, and sending money for his aged parents in the village is a constant challenge. Sheku, who learned how to read and write from attending adult education classes, says there is currently no huge market for his designs. He does agree though that a few well-to-do people have from time to time asked him to make images of themselves or to decorate their households.
Sheku notes the many challenges he faces every day. They include the high cost and difficulty of acquiring scrap metals and other tools. “I have no tools except the file, pickaxe, saw blade and hammer that I use. To get modern tools is very expensive and you need money or a sponsor to get such tools”.
With the limited workspace that he has, the 48-year-old has been able to provide training and internship for ten persons whom he promises to pass on his knowledge to, with the hope of making them self-reliant. He says all of them are physically challenged, and he hopes to get more onboard when he can secure a bigger workshop.
To his credit, Sheku has made metal carvings of the current president, Julius Maada Bio and his wife, Bill Gates, and many more dignitaries inside and outside of Sierra Leone. For him, the most significant image he has created is that of Jesus Christ on the cross. He has also designed logos, decorative household stuff, bracelets, chains, and knives.
The metal carver promises he will soon be on the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram platforms to begin to showcase his work. For now, his dream is for government or organisations to come up with a scheme that would fund disabled people like him, so that skills already acquired could be passed on to others. He also pleads with President Bio to give a helping hand to the unemployed youth. Furthermore, Sheku is asking for a centre to be created for the disabled men and women begging for their survival on the streets where he would go to transfer his knowledge and skills to them.
To the disabled, he said, “Do not look at your present condition and think all is lost. Get yourself into something useful that will make society proud of you. There are many skilled trades one could occupy himself with.”