July 31, 2005 On an otherwise unremarkable day in March 1978, 24-year-old Mao Penha took what would turn out to be his last steps.
Penha had agreed to help some friends move a refrigerator. He jumped in the back of a pickup truck, and as they were going up a hill in Bovoni on a wet road, the truck skidded in the water and the driver lost control. Penha was catapulted out of the back of the pickup on to the side of the road, when he saw the truck coming at him.
"I lay there and I saw the truck coming down on top of me, and I asked God not to let me die. I was blanketed in mud, and the truck hit my shoulder. I knew God answered my prayers. The truck would have shattered all my bones," Penha recalls.
Instead the truck hit a nerve in his shoulder, severing his nervous system and leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
Today Penha, 51, sits in his automatic wheelchair and reflects on the 28 years he has spent in that chair. He is philosophical; he is not bitter. Penha has thoughtful brown eyes, which cloud over from time to time when talking about the world from his point of view. He speaks in a soft, gentle voice. There is, in fact, a gentleness about him.
That is, until he gets involved in one of his many causes. Penha is a political activist. He is passionate about his community, and he is quick to point out injustices, to both the wheelchair bound and the island, itself. He wonders why there is no boat ramp in Long Bay for the fishermen there, as there is in Frenchtown and Hull Bay.
"There is no wheelchair access to the library," Penha says. "There should be an elevator there. They don't have to destroy the old building to do it they could build a glass elevator outside. That would be pretty."
Penha is a poet, an artist, a community activist, and a musician. He helped form the Rock City Musical Stars steel band, which has played for Carnival and in Washington, D.C. "They are great," he says, "what would life be without music?"
Sitting in front of the Fruit Bowl market in Wheatley Center, Penha is an integral part of the local landscape. If he isn't there, people wonder why. Penha likes his vantage spot at the Fruit Bowl for more than one reason. "It's good for girl-watching, too," Penha says, smiling.
"Hey, man, how you keeping?" says Donald George.
"He was a friend of my father's," Penha says. His father, who ran a printing shop, died two years before Penha's accident. Penha lives now in his Pollyberg home with his mother.
Almost no one goes by without a greeting, or to stop and buy a book of his poetry. Penha took to poetry hungrily not long after his began his new life in the wheelchair. To a certain degree, it sustains him, emotionally and materially. He says "In high school I used to write poems to my girlfriend, but I hated English class then." He graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1971.
After his accident, the poetry began pouring out. "I've got about 16 or 17 books now," he says.
He writes of his hopes and fears. He writes of old times, of sweetbreads and coconuts, of guava berries and kenneps, of sugar apple, tamarind and soursop. He writes love stories. Take one, "Casualty of Love:"
It takes a moment / To break one heart
And a lifetime / To mend it
It takes a lifetime / To show one's love
And a moment / To see it.
And he writes about local politics. In a treatise about the V.I. Constitution," Penha pleads for unity within the Virgin Islands' diverse population. "We cannot remain divided into groups such as St. Kitts Virgin Islanders, Trinidadian Virgin Islander or New York Virgin Islander. We must first be Virgin Islanders. This will give our children the status of belonging to something …. in this vast world."
These writings are from his latest book, "Mao Penha – A Lil Ole & a Lil New – A Collection from His Library," which he handily sells from his wheelchair for $3 a copy. Penha supports himself almost totally from his writings and the generosity of the many friends who pass by each day. "The poems pay for printing, for my caregiver and for food," Penha says. "I get a little Social Security, but it's not enough."
His political activism is not restricted to words. Penha, almost single-handedly, got automatic doors installed on the Sugar Estate Post Office. "I worked with Louis Jackson, the postmaster," he says. "It took almost four years, and the doors were installed about two years ago."
However, he says, there still needs to be a ramp installed by the fence. The ramp leading to the post office also is in disrepair right now and needs mending.
Then, there's the elevator in Kmart, which Penha wanted to be large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a shopping cart. "I worked with Etienne Bertrand," Penha says.
Bertrand, president of Lockhart Companies Inc., which owns the shopping center, says Penha was very helpful. "He lent his input early on after Hurricane Marilyn," Bertrand says. "It was good to have his advice. We changed all the ramps and restrooms to make the whole center wheelchair accessible."
Most recently, Penha was part of a group that succeeded in getting the Public Works Department to put wheelchair ramps on the waterfront by the pump house. Previously, the curbs there prevented wheelchairs from traveling the route between Charlotte Amalie and Long Bay.
Penha is also a board member of the Center for Independent Living, where he helps with disabled issues. But he would like to do more. "I would like to be a wheelchair counselor," he says.
So far, however, he says the center hasn't taken him up on it.
His books of poetry and comment are printed by a private press in lots of about 200. "I work with them and we proof the books together," Penha says.
His days of jumping out of bed to get going are a memory. Penha's days start out when a caregiver arrives to help him bathe, dress and have breakfast. "My mother is older, now," he says, "and I need a caregiver." An ode to his mother, Jane E. Penha, "One in a Million," reads in part: "Sick or well / you are always there / and now you are growing old / so I write this to say I care."
Most days, Penha starts off in his chair toward Wheatley Plaza. Sometimes he has a driver in a van who takes him other places. "Mr. Ali, of Nana's Daycare Center takes me around, but one day I would like to have a van of my own," he says, "It would be so much easier to get around and do the things I do."
Penha occasionally goes down to Vendors Plaza. "I see my friends and sell a few books," he says. But he can be seen most days in Long Bay motoring down the road from Wheatley Plaza to the health food store in Long Bay. "I like to go there for lunch, or to the Chinese restaurant," he says. "I am a vegetarian, but I eat fish, too." He adds, "You are what you eat, you know."
And he shops in the Fruit Bowl where everybody knows him. He wheels into the store, and a clerk will put his fresh lunch, fruit or vegetables in a basket attached to the back of the chair
Penha has an active interest in everything going on around him. "I would love to take pictures with and have a digital camera," he says. "It could be attached to the chair."
Penha's use of his chair is remarkable. It's his home many hours of the day, and he treats it as such. There is a small, square computer on the right front of the chair arm which he manipulates with his chin. "I can do everything with this," he says, pointing out a little rubber attachment on a thin stem that sits just below his chin. And he works it like a conductor wielding a baton. "See," he says, moving the attachment easily, which makes the chair rise up.
"I do this when I go to ba
sketball games, so I can see," he says with a grin. "And when I want to go somewhere I do this," he says, as he moves the chair forward.
And he could manipulate a camera the same way. He learned about photography working at the Property and Procurement Department after high school. "I learned about primary colors and filters when I developed plates there. I would take photos of the plates of a project and develop them and take them to the press. I did that for three or four years before I joined the Navy."
Because of his time in the Navy, Penha is able to take advantage of veterans benefits. His wheelchair is supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America. He travels to the VA Hospital in Puerto Rico for treatment when necessary. "I just returned from there, I had the flu," he says. "I'm lucky for that," he says, "but I have a friend, Beryl Larsen, who isn't so lucky."
Larsen is also wheelchair bound, but she is not a veteran.
"I have tried to get them to help fix her chair, but she can't get it repaired right now. It costs money," Penha says.
Penha's last visit to Puerto Rico was traumatic. "The wheelchair lift to the airplane wasn't working, and they had to carry me up. It took about 20 minutes to go up the steps. I'd call it torture. It takes about three to four weeks to prepare myself mentally to prepare for that."
Carole Henneman, public relations spokeswoman for the V.I. Port Authority, said this week that the airport's lift is working. When she found the inquiry was about Penha, Henneman said, "Oh, Mao. He was my classmate at CAHS. He's my friend; his spirit is indomitable."
Penha competed in the VA-sponsored National Wheelchair Games in Maryland in 1994 and in Puerto Rico in 1989. "They put a chip in my computer to help it [the chair] go faster," Penha says, "and I won in 1994. I felt bad winning over some girls, but they told me I had to win for the V.I."
At home, Penha has another computer. "I call it Max," he says. "It moves my bed and whatever else I need, like a phone." And he talks into the computer with a software program to do his poetry. "It's frustrating, though," he says. "It doesn't understand my accent, and I have to reprogram it." The program is set up for a stateside, more neutral voice.
"I prefer to dictate," he says, and he gets help with that. "My nieces or my friends help," he says. "Anybody who is willing to hold a pencil and listen."
Right now, Penha says, "I am going through a dry spell." In fact, he says, he prefers to paint. "I love it," he says, "you can let yourself be freer than writing poetry."
How does he paint? "I hold the brush with my mouth, and I have a couple cups of water and a pallet in front of me. I mix the colors. I use watercolors."
Penha has two grown children Kim and Mao and grandchildren. "I try to keep close to them. They don't all live here, but sometimes they come by to surprise me," he says. "I like to go basketball games with them; I used to play basketball in high school." Penha is six feet tall.
He is not about to spell out in so many words his philosophy of living. The closest he will get is, "I try to see the best of people." However, he adds, it's not always easy. "I've been robbed before, once by a couple girls." Penha must ask people buying his poetry to put the money in his pocket, as he can't do so himself.
He writes in "The Coconut Tree Speaks on Life's Treasure to be Earned":
I am a tree that stands tall / With my fruit nearby
Climb me, you made it / You'll succeed in life.
If you backslide down my bark / Your skin will show my mark
Don't fall because you wont have a next turn
This is a Coconut tree view of life.
As Penha leaves, gearing his wheelchair for a little shopping in the Fruit Bowl, he waves goodbye.
"Drive safely," he says.
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