Anne Wafula strikes on journey from Kenyan outcast to wheelchair racer

Ann Wafula strike
Anne Wafula Strike is a determined advocate for the rights of the disabled

Anne Wafula Strike has dealt with a lot of adversity throughout her life, starting with rejection from her community at an early age.

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 happened 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 on this affliction that I had.”

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

“They kind of decided ‘We don’t want this to spread in the village,'” the 53-year-old said.

“So that’s why Mr. Wafula should just give his daughter to die. Or if that’s not the case, then we just don’t want them in this village. They tried to burn down my father’s clay hat.

“Then my father couldn’t risk (things) anymore. We had to flee the village and that’s when we ended up in the capital.

“Society just lacked adequate knowledge about polio, because that’s what really caused me to lose the use of my limbs. I always thought that if there was that awareness, maybe they would be more forgiving.”

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 father is my hero,” she said.

“He was actually advised by his friends, and society, to disown me because I became different. Those are the people who just didn’t even see my worth, who wondered why I was still alive.

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

“I am who I am today because my father believed in me when everyone 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 father believed that education would be something that would save me. He used to say to me, ‘Anne, because you cannot 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 very valuable. 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 I got that education, despite the prejudice, despite the lack of access to even get that education.”

Find wheelchair racing

Anne Wafula Strike (foreground) runs during the Paralympics in London 2012
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 UK together in 2000.

There she had a son and got her first wheelchair – and by chance discovered a sport that would later 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 caught my mind, my eyes, was seeing these amazing women running in their wheelchairs.

“The more I stared at the screen, the more I locked eyes with a lady. And I was captured, I was like…”This is what I want to do”.

“Then after a while the community bought my first racing wheelchair.”

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

“The first time I sat in the racing chair, I didn’t quite know what to do,” she said.

“After a while I learned to push and I could go faster than the skilled ones [runners].

“The thrill I got when I went around the track and passed the able-bodied was just so satisfying. It was amazing when I felt the wind in my hair, which just went fast.”

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

The importance of opportunities

Anne Wafula Strike (right) runs during the Paralympics in London 2012
Wafula Strike (right) represented Great Britain on home soil at the London 2012 Paralympics

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

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

Wafula Strike believes her story shows what disabled people can achieve if given opportunities.

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

“I think people want opportunities. It’s not about sympathy.

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

“When you get the opportunity, you thrive, you grow, then you’re able to give back to this life, to this world. And I think that’s what life should be about – 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 by her side.

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

“People would stare and wonder how did this happen?” she said.

“This is because of the stigma and 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 in public, to advocate for issues that affect people in society.

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

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