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You changed my life


Paralysed in her teens, Chrissy Zimba thought her life was over. VSO volunteer Sheila Lawrence helped her turn it all around. 

Chrissy's Story

Chrissy Zimba with her partner and son VSO/Chrissy Zimba

Chrissy today with her partner and son

When I was 14, I fell from a mango tree, paralysing me from the waist down. When I met Sheila in the hospital, she asked me if I knew what had happened. She showed me where I had injured my spine and explained that I might never walk again.

After the accident, my expectations for my life changed. My parents always said the only way to succeed was to get a good education. I’d never seen a child in a wheelchair attending school, but I had seen one begging. I felt the accident was the end of me.

When Sheila encouraged me to go back to school, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t easy; I had pressure sores from sitting for long hours. But, learning to use the wheelchair helped me get back to the world and my fellow students. Going back to school was everything for me.

In 2008 I was selected to study ICT at Mzuzu University. I felt it was the ticket to getting a good job, which would help me support my mother.

Now, I have a master’s degree and I’m volunteering for a spinal injuries organisation, using my story to show that it doesn’t mean the end of life. My journey hasn’t been easy, but I haven’t let that put me off.

I sometimes wonder where I would be without Sheila; possibly in the village doing nothing. Sheila helped me get to where I am today, and there’s a lot more to come. I am planning a PhD and supporting my baby son, Fortune, who gives me such joy. I am so grateful to VSO for giving me the opportunity to meet Sheila.

Sheila's Story

Sheila Lawrence (left) and Chrissy Zimba (right), together at a reunion in 2008 in Mzuzu, Malawi VSO

Sheila Lawrence (left) and Chrissy Zimba (right), together at a reunion in 2008 in Mzuzu, Malawi

I volunteered with VSO in the early 2000s in Malawi, establishing a physiotherapy department in Mzuzu. People didn’t really know what physiotherapy was, so we had to train the clinical officers and nurses.

When I first met Chrissy, she’d been kept at a local clinic for six weeks where the staff had never seen spinal injuries and just thought her lazy.

Chrissy was amazingly patient. I taught her to lift herself up in her chair every 15 minutes to prevent pressure sores. Gradually, I got her in a standing frame and eventually using a wheelchair.

“I have accomplished so much despite not being able to walk, and I believe a lot more is coming my way”

Chrissy Zimba

Chrissy was keen to do school work. I bought her a book and, when we took her home, I asked a teacher to visit and prepare her for her exams, funded by my local church in Norwich. School was two miles away over bumpy ground completely unsuitable for her wheelchair.

When I was back in the UK, I heard Chrissy had achieved great exam results but hadn’t been able to get into university. Their problem was access – nobody had been to university in a wheelchair.

After speaking to the chancellor of Mzuzu University, he agreed to construct some ramps. Later he told me how pleased he was to have a student as dedicated as Chrissy. It gave him an insight into what disabled people can achieve.

I am delighted at Chrissy’s perseverance, and all she has achieved in the face of adversity.