I want people to be powerful, the very best versions of themselves, everything their imagination desires – beyond the ramp, beyond compliance. I want to open up talk about the emotional and personal, so we can experience the totality of our humanity.’
Inaugural alumnus Eddie Ndopu is one of African Leadership Academy’s biggest success stories. An internationally recognised human rights advocate who has earned his place on the global stage alongside Heads of State and Nobel Laureates, Eddie is recognised as one of the World’s Top 30 Thinkers Under 30 and one of the 50 Most Powerful Disabled People on the Planet.
He may have a achieved more in young life than most of us can only imagine, yet it’s hardly surprising that Eddie counts life itself as his greatest triumph. “My biggest accomplishment has to be outliving my prognosis; I wasn’t supposed to live beyond the age of 5, and on November 29 I turned 27. I’m continuing to live a full live despite the predictions, aspersions and limits set for me both by society and medicine,” he asserts.
Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age 2, Eddie accesses the world via his wheelchair – but he’s certainly not confined to or by it. In fact, he’s spun his disability on its head by influencing public policy and advocating social transformation via Evolve Initiative, the global startup he founded.
‘It is possible for a young, black, disabled, queer person to achieve something.’
It’s not the only thing keeping him busy, says Eddie, who recently graduated from Oxford – “as the only African person with a disability to do so” – and completed his Masters in public policy. “I’m identifying my next steps career-wise,” he explains, adding that a lot of time is spent of time networking, as a keynote speaker on the global event circuit, and exploring opportunities. “I’m in talks with the UN to work in New York around sustainable development goals,” he says, before expanding on the one topic that has been making news headlines in global media: his planned trip to space.
“That’s underway, and I’m pretty optimistic about it. The way I imagine this: I would like to address the world from space, send a live link to the UN headquarters on December 3, 2018 (World Disability Day) and talk about everything on my heart. It’s a statement of intent – about pushing the boundaries of possibility in terms of what we think is possible for people with disability. They have long been the object of disparity – and this is just about flipping script and saying it is possible to achieve the extraordinary. It’s not just an adventure, it’s a political statement. It is possible for a young, black, disabled, queer person to achieve something.” With the backing of the UN “locked down”, and talks with Richard Branson underway, this is one trip he’s determined to make.
Eddie’s journey has been well documented. Born in South Africa to a mother who went into self-imposed exile in Namibia, he returned home at 10, “coloured by the experience of my mother as an activist”.
A social justice advocate since his teens, Eddie has constantly been shifting the goal posts. “I’ve learned that of course equal recognition is important. But in terms of where I’m at now, that is not an end in and of itself; I am not just fighting for access to get into the building – I’m fighting for joy, intimacy, belonging, self-determination – nebulous things that are hard to quantify. That is where the real work is. I want people to be powerful, the very best versions of themselves, everything their imagination desires – beyond the ramp, beyond compliance. I want to open up talk about the emotional and personal, so we can experience the totality of our humanity.”
Eddie attributes his growth and expansion to his experiences at the African Leadership Academy. “ALA was, and continues to be, one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” he says. “It wasn’t just the institution where I obtained my high school qualifications. It shaped me; I am who I am today because of ALA.”
The school, he says was a powerful force that opened his imagination. “ALA allowed me to think about my place in the world very differently. Being part of this school that has this audacious goal… it orients you in a different direction; it has an enormity of vision that makes you think of yourself more expansively – I became enlarged, a much bigger version of myself. It’s hard to articulate… “
A life less ordinary
While his trajectory may seem to have always been unstoppable, Eddie has had to overcome more than the daily challenge of assisted mobility; he’s also faced near-crippling disappointment that led to a bout of depression.
“Oprah (Winfrey) often says that failure is an invitation to move in a different direction, and one of my earlier failures was not getting into the school I wanted to. After ALA, I put all my eggs in one basket and was desperate to go to Columbia University.” Funding, logistics, access and funding all contributed to his not getting in. “I was very embarrassed that I didn’t get in. I had already graduated and felt that I was not successful. Failure for me was in thinking that I had failed, limited my scope of what was possible. I only realised later on that I didn’t fail at all – and I remind ALA students that life is so expansive, we think things fall apart now, but have no idea what’s behind the door or in front of us.”
At the time, an Ivy league school was his dream. “I never once thought I would graduate Oxford, thinking I had failed before I had even started,” recalls Eddie. “I spent a good three months sobbing. I allowed myself to cry and sink into depression. Then got out by reminding myself that I was in service to a vision greater than myself. I was the first visibly disabled student at ALA – that is an obligation; I reminded myself that there is a vision that is bigger than my own ego and trauma.”
Eddie next set his sights on Carlton University in the United States, which proved to be his next stepping stone. “It was the most accessible, disability-friendly university in North America – and possibly the world – and my needs were taken care of in a way I had not anticipated.” This, he says, proved that: “The universe has a way of conspiring in your favour.”
By all accounts, Eddie is intent on returning the favour by paying it forward. “I think it’s important I become a model of positivity; a global icon for disabilities, not out of ego, but in recognition that we have new narrative. I’ve never had a point of reference and I want to give young people a point of reference so they can look on world with positivity and opportunity – that is the aspiration and very much an obligation.”