Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Now a disability rights campaigner after competing in wheelchair racing at the Paralympics, she was shunned by locals in her village in Kenya after contracting polio at the age of two.

“When I became disabled, the villagers did not understand what was happening to me,” she told the BBC.

“It was a mystery to them. Some thought it was witchcraft, some thought it was a curse from God.

“There was no concrete answer or name that they could put to this ailment that I had.”

The attitude towards Wafula Strike, who had lost full use of her legs, was such that she had to move away from the area, to Nairobi.

“They sort of decided ‘We do not want this to spread in the village’,” the 53-year-old said.

“So therefore, Mr Wafula should just give her daughter up to die. Or if that is not the case, then we just don’t want them in this village. They tried to burn my dad’s mud hut down.

“Then my dad could not risk [things] any more. We had to flee the village, and that is when we ended up in the capital city.

“The community just lacked sufficient knowledge on polio, because that is what really made me lose the use of my limbs. I’ve always thought, if there was that awareness, then they would have been more forgiving, perhaps.”

Emphasis on education

Anne Wafula-Strike
Wafula Strike says her father made sure she had the tools to succeed in life

Despite having to leave their village, Wafula Strike’s father Athumani had a strong bond with his daughter, and was determined to see her thrive despite living with polio.

“My dad is my hero,” she said.

“He was actually advised by his friends, and the community, to disown me because I became different. There are those people who just did not even see my value, who wondered why I was still alive.

“My father said ‘No, this is my own flesh, this is my blood, and I’m going to give her the same opportunities that I’m going to give all my children’.

“I am who I am today because my father believed in me when everybody else around had rejected me.”

One thing her father insisted on was a good education.

“My father was a very forward-thinking person when I was growing up,” she said.

“From a very early age, my dad believed that education would be something that would rescue me. He used to say to me, ‘Anne, because you can’t use your legs, you will not be able to do manual work. I want you to use your brain’.

“He said ‘I’m going to give you something that is very precious. I’m going to give you a magic key. And this key will help you unlock any door anywhere in the world’. And he said, ‘Anne this key is education’.

“And he made sure that I got that education, despite the prejudice, despite the lack of access to even getting that education.”

Finding wheelchair racing

Anne Wafula Strike (foreground) racing at the London Stadium
Wafula Strike (far right) became an elite wheelchair racer

After attending university in Kenya, Wafula Strike became a teacher before meeting the man who would become her husband and moving to the United Kingdom together in 2000.

There, she had a son and got her first wheelchair – and by chance discovered a sport which would subsequently change her life.

“I was sitting at home, looking after my child, and I was going through the TV channels,” she said,

“I settled on a BBC channel. And what captured my mind, my eyes, was I saw these amazing women racing in their wheelchairs.

“The more I stared on the screen, the more I locked eyes with one lady. And I was captured, I was like… ‘This is what I want to do’.

“So after some time, the community bought my first racing wheelchair.”

That purchase began a journey which would see Wafula Strike rise to compete alongside the world’s best.

“The first time I sat in the in the racing chair, I did not really know what to do,” she said.

“After some time, I learned how to push. And I could go faster than the able bodied [runners].

“The thrill I got when I was going round the track and overtaking the able-bodied was just so satisfying. It was incredible when I found that wind in my hair, just going fast.”

“I always see wheelchair racing as the equivalent of Formula 1, because of the skill and also the speed involved.”

Importance of opportunities

Anne Wafula Strike (right) racing at the London Stadium
Wafula Strike (right) represented Great Britain on a number of occasions

Representing Kenya at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Wafula Strike became the person from sub-Saharan Africa to compete in wheelchair racing, and two years later she attained British citizenship.

She went on to represent Great Britain in two World Championships and four Paralympic World Cups before stints in sports administration.

Wafula Strike believes her story shows what people with disabilities can achieve if they are given opportunities.

“It’s not about the disability, it is about what people can do and achieve when there is support,” she said.

“I believe human beings want opportunity. It is not about sympathy.

“As a disabled black woman, I’m not crying for sympathy, I do not want a pat on the head or a pat on my shoulder, what I want is opportunity.

“When you are given the opportunity, you thrive, you grow, then you’re able to give back to this life, to this world. And I think that is what life should be about it – it should be about giving opportunities.”

Wafula Strike has since returned to the village in Kenya where she was rejected as a child, with her husband and son beside her.

The reaction was, at first, one of astonishment at what she had achieved.

“The people would be staring and wondering, how did this happen?” she said.

“This is because of the stigma and the prejudice, that when you have a disability in Africa you are not expected to find love, to have a child, to be someone’s wife, to be a teacher, to speak up publicly, to advocate for issues that affect people in society.

“But they were so wrong, because they judged me. Here I was, doing all those things that they believed were not possible.”

By Joy

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