Fredrick Ouko was chosen to carry the Paralympic torch because of the way he and his colleagues use the power of sport to change the lives of young people with disabilities in Kenya. He describes the reality of the prejudice and scorn which they still have to overcome
Our journey through Regents Park lasted just a few very precious minutes, but those minutes can genuinely change the lives of tens of thousands of Kenyans with disabilities. The story of the disabled Kenyans being cheered through London has appeared on our national newspapers and television stations; a game-changing event in a country where people with disabilities can go their whole lives without meeting or seeing a positive role model who looks like them.
AbleChildAfrica's relay team included three others who, like me, lost the use of their legs to childhood polio in Kenya – including Team GB's wheelchair sprinter Anne Wafula Strike whose husband is a former miner from Tyneside. Growing up in poverty-stricken Western Kenya where everyone is battling for opportunities, a disability makes life even tougher. A lack of equipment, inaccessible buildings and public transport mean every task and journey can be longer and harder.
But the hardest thing of all was the attitudes of my fellow Kenyans, most of whom saw me not as a person, but as 'Viwete' or 'Kiguru' – meaning 'thing' in Kiswahili, or a burden, something to be ashamed of. In Kenya most people would never even consider that we have any potential, aspirations or talents.
The employer interviewing us for jobs, the teachers in schools, the bank manager considering whether to give us a loan for business, even the parents deciding whether to spend money sending their disabled child to school – few will see us as equals. Our former President Moi this month denounced the appointment of a highly educated, experienced blind public servant to an important government commission because he 'cannot see' the issues. Many agree with him.
This prejudice denies many the tools we'd need to escape poverty; consider that 80% of the world's disabled live in poverty, and most estimates state over 90% of children with disabilities in the developing world do not go to school. In a country like Kenya, where education is so valued, only an extraordinary few can play catch-up with their able-bodied peers.
Myself and my fellow torchbearers were united not just by our disability, but by another vital factor which made our tough journey's easier. We had parents who believed in us and encouraged us to aim high. My Dad has told me of the many questions he was asked by friends and family on his decision to support my education. He could have invested all his time and money on my siblings, as they thought I was not a good enough investment venture due to my disability.
We work with AbleChildAfrica to give other young people with disabilities the same encouragement, aspiration and opportunities we were lucky enough to receive. Our Sports for Change programme gives young people with disabilities in Nairobi the chance to take control of their own lives. Taking part in team sports develops their self-esteem and the skills, like teamwork and leadership, which they need in the work place. They can then graduate to internships or receive support to develop a business plan and access start-up credit. Over 100 members have now gone through the programme.
The stigma is reducing as the participants are recognised in their communities for more than their disabilities; as athletes, entrepreneurs, and professionals ranging from civil servants to IT specialists.
We did not think that we would be selected to carry the torch. We know there are many inspirational stories associated with the Paralympics; incredible people doing incredible things which deserve to be recognised on such a huge and prestigious stage. But we hoped, dreamed and prayed, and were overjoyed when the selection panel decided to recognise our work with AbleChildAfrica, using the power of sports to help young people in Nairobi develop the skills and self-belief they need to find work and escape a life of dependency
Carrying the torch has helped us turn up the volume on our message, to reflect the spirit of the Paralympic games back to East Africa. It has been a breath-taking experience and a privilege. We have all been overwhelmed with messages from home; people who have felt inspired and energized by our journey, and many who did not believe that Kenyans with disabilities could be celebrated at a global event. We will honour the Paralympic legacy by taking that magic back to Kenya, our torch a symbol that we should all dream of a part on the biggest of stages.
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