Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kenyan wheelchair athletes find peace, reconciliation on basketball court

from Voice of America:

Many victims of the 2007 Kenyan post-election violence were deaf, blind, or unable to run, making it difficult for them to find safety. As a result, one group of athletes with disabilities decided to take the matter to court - the basketball court. With outside assistance, these players revived the Rift Valley Wheelchair Basketball group, helping to teach peace and reconciliation.

Trash talking the opponent, cries of foul play and good-natured hand slaps after successful free-throws. It seems like a typical game of basketball, but these players compete in wheelchairs, and most suffered from polio as children.

Mercy Corps, with the backing of the United States Agency for International Development, began supporting the Rift Valley Wheelchair Basketball group in 2009 - providing funding for income-generating activities, distributing athletic gear and implementing a peace curriculum into the games.

“If you manage to bring all these people together, people from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups, to come and watch this game, and see, they are disabled, number one, but they also come from different ethnic groups and they are playing together and they are enjoying it. Yeah, and making something out of it,” explained Maurice Amollo, Mercy Corps senior program manager for the Rift Valley.

Although exact numbers are difficult to determine, 2009 census data suggest approximately 1.3 million Kenyans live with disability. And in a country where infrastructure and opportunities are slow to cater to their special needs, daily life can be a challenge.

Basketball player Nixon Oroto, 35, was just a baby when he contracted polio. He knows first-hand the challenges faced by those with disabilities.

“You have to. You have to really to struggle," Oroto said. "You have to struggle with your education. You must struggle, if you are not employed. You must struggle and get something that will bring you some income by the end of the day.”

The Rift Valley Wheelchair Basketball group aims to change the perception about people with disabilities. Too often, others assume they are only looking for a handout.

“In fact, we are even thinking of the best way of getting our people out of the streets," Oroto noted. "Because we do not want ourselves to be beggers in the streets. It gives us a very wrong perception. Sometimes you cannot even greet somebody, because when you go to greet him, he always thinks that you are going to ask for a coin.”

The group started a small milk shop in the slum of Langas as a means to generate income. As a way to give back, members planted trees at local schools. Their efforts did not go unnoticed by the community.

“So it was no longer like, 'Oh, but you know, disabled people are supposed to beg and be given whatever'. No, they are giving something and there are so many able-bodied, physically-well people in the community who are doing nothing," Mercy Corps senior program manager Amollo explained.

These collaborative efforts allow members to take out loans to start their own businesses, which frees up time for basketball practice. As team captain, Pius Asuke is grateful for this benefit, and he sees his work is paying off.

“Actually I like this game and by the time I am going to sleep, I am dreaming that I am playing this game," Asuke said. "So, by the time I am coming to this field, I know the work that is bringing me there, so I must do it. I see that I am becoming the best person on this team.”

For these athletes in Eldoret, it seems the sky really is the limit.