NAIROBI, Kenya ● The desire to make Kenya proud and the need for a pain-free orthopaedic leg brace is driving Kenya’s Paralympic team captain Mary Nakhumicha to target a gold medal at the London Games.
Nakhumicha won javelin silver at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and she will also throw discus and shot-put in the F57 category in London.
But she walks with a crude 2,500 shillings ($29.73) metal leg brace which is strapped around her knee with coarse leather.
“Sometimes I miss the wheelchair. This caliper is not good. When I walk, I feel it squeezing me,” Nakhumicha told Reuters as she struggled to walk up the hill at the end of her training session.
“But a good model costs a lot of money. Almost 40-50,000 Kenyan shillings ($480-$590). I will try buy that one when God helps me get gold.”
People with disability in Kenya often suffer prejudice and stigma, rendering many unemployable, while disabled-friendly access and services are almost non-existent.
Nakhumicha believes a key incentive for Kenyan Paralympians in London is the prize money on offer, with telephone operator Safaricom putting up a 1 million shillings ($11,900) reward for every gold won.
She said the prize money would be life-changing.
“At present if you get gold, they promise they have presents for you. I’m trying to do best to get gold and I go to my president to give me my gift,” Nakhumicha said, sitting on a grass field in Nairobi’s Moi International Sport Centre after a heavy training session.
Kenyan paralympians also say there is a chronic shortage of funding for sports equipment and transport, which makes it impossible for many disabled athletes to train.
“Sometimes you want to go out to the field or the gym but you can’t,” Nakhumica said.
Nakhumicha, who became disabled after a bad malaria injection paralysed her leg at five years old, won gold medals in javelin, shot-put and discus at the 2009 Africa Great Lakes Championships in Kenya.
She said growing up disabled had been tough.
“Many Kenyan people fear the disabled. They don’t want to become friends,” Nakhumicha said, while looking into the distance where eucalyptus and acacia trees surround the sports centre.
“Some make you sad. If somebody looks at you and start feeling fear in you, you think what’s happening with me.”
Away from professional competitions, Nakhumicha works as an assistant sports coach with ANDY, a Kenyan charity which uses sports to develop self-esteem, confidence and other skills that disabled individuals often lack in workplace.
“I train disabled people,” she said. “When I train them, even I train. Because I’m a champion I want my peers to be champions with me.”
Much of ANDY’s work is done in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, one of Africa’s largest, where narrow dirt roads littered with rubbish make movement difficult and life harsh for disabled people.
Nakhumicha, who also plays table tennis, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, said she wanted her success to change mindsets in Kenya.
“Many people in Kenya (don’t) think that disabled people can participate and get gold,” she said. “I love sports. In my life, I think that one is the power from God.”