In a welcome relief to my usual cynical sporting blog, it is great to be able to report on a greatly uplifting human sporting tale. Anne Wafula, in her book, In My Dreams I Dance, paints a beautiful autobiographical picture of her life from a healthy young Kenyan baby struck down with polio, through to her amazing achievements in both Kenyan and later British Paralympics wheelchair racing. The tale is simply written, though much that is inspiring in the human condition shines through. The battle against disability prejudice, particularly in Africa, is cleverly contrasted both with all that is hopeful and communal in the African village, and also all that is efficient but soulless and individualistic in our European cities and towns.
Here is a book that is destined for the school curriculum where issues of race, disability and what it is to be human can be easily accessed by school children of all ages. As an ambassador for the rights and possibilities of people with disabilities, this book will have few equals.
Using a simple and direct style of prose, Wafula manages with ease to offer her readers some powerful universal truths. Speaking of how her fellow students made her life that much easier by their inclusive behaviour Wafula writes:
Having a group of girls who did so much to make life easier without making any sort of fuss about it lifted my spirits enormously and my heart filled with joy when I realised I was no longer Anne with the funny legs and callipers and crutches to my friends but just Anne. When you have a disability, knowing that you are not defined by it is the sweetest feeling. P79
Also deriving from her school days, which incidentally, very few Africans with disabilities are privileged to receive, Wafula comes to appreciate just how liberating the process of education can be, and especially those little extra things that you can pick up at school; the music skills, the drama skills and of course the sporting skills. Reflecting on the kindness of a teacher that voluntarily gave her some piano lessons while her fellow students were busy on the playing fields, Wafula concludes:
It made me understand that one of the most important things one human being can do for another is teach them a new skill. P87
Having palled up with a English bloke on VSO service in Kenya, Wafula’s fate takes her to England where she marries her man and eventually takes out British citizenship. In many ways Wafula is an enthusiastic anglophile, a trait she inherited from her father, but she is still very much a Kenyan and an African in her more reflective moments. Sharing the challenge of her new dual nationality with her readers, Wafula ruminates on the experience of a return visit to her Kenyan village:
The village looked much poorer to me than before, because now I was comparing it with England. Yet it struck me how happy people seemed, even though they had so few material possessions. They walked barefoot, but showered us with traditional gifts like vegetables and millet flour. Everything they had they were willing to share. Kenya is very far from perfect, but this was a quality I really missed. In the West there is much more emphasis on the individual and what that person can achieve. Here people worked together as part of a community. In the West people owned more things but were often less happy than people I saw around me now. What is the true route to happiness? I wondered. P211
How many productive and engaging lessons could a switched-on school teacher create out of those few lines?
Having overcome so many hurdles in her life; educational and personal, Wafula turned her attention to the world of disability sport a world she previously had never known had even existed. Attracted to the sensation and speed of wheelchair racing, Wafula was soon on the road to the Paralympics and all the joys and disappointments of competitive sport. Contemplating the Paralympic experience, Wafula tries to explain the inclusiveness that is generated:
In the Paralympic village every time someone came back with a medal everyone cheered. Although I didn’t have a medal around my neck, I hoped I had done Kenya proud and other disabled people proud. Everyone talks about medals, but only three are awarded in each race and those who haven’t won them have also achieved. In my own way I felt I was a winner. How many people get to go to the Paralympics and have their child cheering them on from the sidelines? P233
This of course is true of all world class competition but is a hundred times more true for those who have overcome extreme physical disability in order to compete internationally, or even to compete at all.
I might add though that the Paralympics is not always the noble sporting event we like to imagine it to be. The Games have been plagued by disputes over disability categorisation and a number of national delegations have been accused of outright cheating. Although rigorous tests are carried out for each athlete, it is not beyond human ingenuity to swing a fast one. Wafula herself seems to be at the receiving end of a highly dubious decision, though whether this was the result of some foul play on the part of the UK or IOC authorities, it is not clear. The point to be made is clear enough though: national contingents in the pursuit of gold medals and national prestige will not refrain from stooping to the same levels of underhandedness as able bodied athletes and their organisations. Ah yes, true equality at last.
All this brings to mind the day that Tajudeen Agunbiade, a double gold medallist from the Sydney Para Olympics casually walked in to London Progress Table Tennis Club and reported for duty. And what duty he performed! Also a victim of childhood polio, Tajudeen was anything but a victim. In our club, the highest performing club in Britain, only a small handful of players could match his skill, and I am talking fully abled-bodied players, not those with similar disabilities. In fact only perhaps ten players in the whole of the country could hope to get the better of Mr Agunbiade. What he lacked in leg mobility he more than compensated for with hand and mind dexterity.
Reflecting on those golden days, I strangely cannot recall ever asking Taju about his childhood experiences in Nigeria. It just didn’t seem relevant at the time. He was a competitor in his own right and his disability never seemed to impinge on our relationship. Hopefully his experience at London Progress was like that described by Anne Wafula he was not defined by his disability. Nevertheless, he took great pride in his two gold medals and we also gloried in his achievements. Tajudeen represented the sporting dialectic in all its majesty; a proud Para-Olympian but an athlete who had long transcended his disability, both in sporting terms and in terms of his everyday humanity. Just an all-round great bloke who happened to be a great athlete.