Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wheelchair basketball gaining popularity in Uganda

From allAfrica.com:

When Monica Piloya decided she wanted to play basketball, she did not know where to turn. Sure, there were women's basketball teams in Gulu. But Piloya, 31, who severely injured one of her legs in a landmine explosion in Gulu in 1996, she has to limp or walk with a cane.

Then, last August, she found refuge in Gulu's start-up basketball team for the disabled, a small operation that has grown from three to nearly 15 members in its first year.

"I love wheelchair basketball," Piloya said. "I really like shooting and dribbling. It is so exercising."

The team has grown significantly in terms of members and team enthusiam.

They practice often at the Gulu Disabled Persons Union, according to head coach Denis Akena, also the chairperson of the Gulu Hawks.

He said he likes coaching this team for many reasons. "When you see someone with a disability smiling, laughing and enjoying the game, it really motivates you," he said.

The best part, at least for the players, is that they now have a chance to be athletic - to play a sport that usually requires the quickness of legs.

"After the games, I feel physically fit. I get the exercise," says 19-year-old Florence Acen, a lifelong Gulu resident. "Usually disabled people are neglected, so I feel happy that I can play the game even with my disability."

They practice once a week at the union in the eastern part of town. Practices last a couple of hours and include team meetings, warm-up drills and three-on-three competitions.

However, the team is hindered by the lack of sponsorship. It does not have proper wheelchairs to play in or uniforms to wear.

Currently, the team wears extra Hawks jerseys and uses wheelchairs that are made for everyday use rather than competitive sports.

Wheelchairs produced specifically for basketball, which have better features such as belts, can cost upwards of sh400,000($250) - a costly endeavour for a group without much support, according to the Gulu team's project coordinator, Patrick Okello, 25.

The union donated the wheelchairs - which have a plastic chair base - but now only three remain. The rest have succumbed to injury.

Team member Irene Laker, 28, said the lack of appropriate wheelchairs cause many problems when she competes.

"It's slow and bad for turning," she said. "We fall over a lot."

The fact that this is Uganda's only basketball team with people with disabilities also affects play, as they are looking for competition that is nowhere to be found.

The closest to competition the players can find is in Lira. While there is currently a court in Lira for the athletes to practice, there is no one to lead them, said Okello. The lack of basketball teams for the disabled is not uncommon.

Just nine out of 53 African countries have wheelchair basketball teams, according to the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation, a non-profit organisation that strives to provides basketball opportunities for those with disabilities.

Those countries - Algeria, Cameroon, Eritrea, Egypt, Gabon, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco and South Africa - have the opportunity to participate in world competitions.

If nothing else, the athletes now have the opportunity to exercise, meet and practice a sport they love, despite obvious logistical disadvantages compared to other basketball players.

Okello dislocated his spine in 1999 at the age of 16 when he fell from a tree. Since then, the Gulu University student of development has tried to bring attention to persons with disabilities in Gulu.

This team, he said, is a good start. "This is one way of social development to help persons with disabilities," he said. "Hopefully it can help all of the disabled community."