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Mwenea Ajanaku, 47, spent Christmas Day at home with his family. He had been hospitalized with respiratory problems but checked out so that he could open presents with his son, Demarco, 3, and his girlfriend, Sandy Worthy. After gifts and dinner, he returned to the hospital, where he died Jan. 14.
Ajanaku was born with a rare form of multiple sclerosis and never walked. When he spoke to the Washington City Paper in 2000, he had been stuck in the J.B. Johnson Nursing Home for a year, one of hundreds of physically disabled District men confined to nursing homes or inaccessible public-housing units because of the city’s shortage of affordable accessible housing (“Before Their Time,” 10/27/00). Though Ajanaku was used to living independently, he had nowhere else to go after fire destroyed the apartment he shared with Worthy and Demarco in Ivy City.
Ajanaku grew up in Northeast and attended the C. Melvin Sharpe Health School from kindergarten through high school. After graduating, he struck out on his own and moved to Berkeley, Calif., having heard that the city offered the best independent-living services in the country. While in Berkeley, he learned to drive a specially rigged van using just his hands and elbows. He drove cross-country six times, and he liked to tell people about it.
In California, Ajanaku fell in love with reggae music. He became friends with the members of the band Steel Pulse, says his sister Nketia Agyeman, and he played the harmonica once on stage with them. He also befriended Gil Scott-Heron and appeared on one of Scott-Heron’s album covers. He considered Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” to be “his theme song,” Agyeman says.
After three years
out West, Ajanaku returned to D.C. to advocate for better services for disabled residents. He became the personal-attendant coordinator for the D.C. Center for Independent Living and was an active participant in protests and rallies for disability rights. He also sold mix tapes made from his vast reggae collection.
Living on Queens Chapel Road NE, he met Worthy, who lived nearby. One day, Worthy says, she came across him on the corner. “Who’s that girl with the pretty pink dress on?” he asked. From then on, Worthy recalls, the two were an item.
Ajanaku moved to Ivy City. A few years later, Worthy moved in. Then came the fire, which sent Ajanaku to the nursing home and Worthy, with newborn Demarco, to live with her mother. Though Worthy visited regularly, Ajanaku lamented that he was missing a year of his son’s life.
On warm days, Ajanaku would roll out of J.B. Johnson armed with a Section 8 voucher in search of a place to live. Sometimes, he would panhandle to make ends meet, says Agyeman, and to save up for his “dream home.”
About a year ago, Ajanaku found his castle: a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a 19-story apartment building in Silver Spring. The management agreed to remove some walls to make it easier for him to maneuver. His penthouse, he called it. Inside, Ajanaku enjoyed letting Demarco ride on the back of his wheelchair, says Worthy, and listening to his favorite tunes.
Worthy says she’s not sure if she will be able to stay in the apartment. Her name is not on the Section 8 voucher, and without Ajanaku’s disability income, she says, she can’t afford the rent. She says the longest they were ever apart before was when Ajanaku was living in the nursing home. “It was hard without him. But we made it through,” she says, adding that she’s not sure what will happen now.
At Ajanaku’s Jan. 25 memorial service, several disability-rights advocates recalled gathering in Washington three years ago to march on the Supreme Court, which was hearing a case that challenged the constitutionality of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Unable to get a police escort, Ajanaku led wheelchair riders through the streets of D.C., his mane of dreadlocks streaming behind him. When a Capitol Hill resident threatened to call the police, several advocates recall, Ajanaku was ready with a reply: “Go ahead. That’s what we want. We couldn’t get them to come. Maybe you can..” CP