South Sudan's disabled swap stigma for sport

Reuters
Sports for the disabled, such as wheelchair basketball, have expanded and delivered a new drive to people who had often lacked hope in South Sudan.
Reuters

The two teams whizzing across the stadium are almost too fast to catch with the naked eye.

Strapped into wheelchairs, the 10 basketball players are highly focused on their game as East African beats blare in the background and excited crowds cheer and dance.

The stadium erupts in applause as the ball hits the net; the winning team is a mass of beaming faces.

It’s competition and fun — but more than that, too.

Sport for disabled people in South Sudan has become a safety net and a place of belonging for people who are often cast out.

Up to 15 percent of the 12-million-strong nation lives with a disability, the government says.

Half a million of them are displaced within the country, according to the World Health Organization.

Living with a disability — be it physical or mental — is tough in the world’s youngest country, which plunged into civil war four years ago.

Continued fighting, a collapsed economy and extreme hunger put the whole population at risk, and those with disabilities — often stigmatised — are prone to suffering.

But in the past year, sports for the disabled, such as wheelchair basketball, sit-down volleyball and dancing for the deaf, have expanded and delivered a new drive to people who had often lacked hope.

“Some of the players in the team felt like they were nothing. When they joined, we motivated and encouraged them. I used to be discouraged too and I didn’t see much hope for my life, but things have changed. I might be crippled, but I can still do whatever I dream of,” said 28-year-old basketball player Salah Al Haj, who has been paralysed since childhood.

Like him, many of the players have pursued careers in teaching, administration and even politics.

Reuters

The wheelchair basketball games are both competitive and fun for the players who have found a great support network in Juba, South Sudan.

South Sudan’s wheelchair basketball found its origins in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya a decade ago, when Kenny Nyambura, who worked in the camp, became increasingly fed up.

“Whenever I went outside, I saw people with disabilities sit by the roadside. They were visibly discouraged and didn’t do anything. I needed to tell them that they were important and had a lot to contribute. I knew about wheelchair basketball and thought it might be a solution. That’s how the idea was born,” Nyambura said.

He has been coaching the team ever since.

“We now have 30 members in South Sudan’s wheelchair basketball association and they meet for practice every week,” said Christine Lund, physical rehabilitation programme manager for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“The team was supplied with special sports chairs with angled wheels and a secured footrest,” said Lund.

While the players enjoy their game — loud laughter can be heard outside the stadium — it’s mainly a supportive community and a vital get-together every week that gives a sense of purpose.

“I didn’t know many people who could relate to my situation, even though I had an amputated leg for the past 16 years,” said Beny Kim, 31. “The group accepts me. I can share my struggles when I need to, and I can also have fun and laugh with my friends.”

Disability has glued together a multi-ethnic team in a country that has been home to an ethnically driven war.

Reuters

The wheelchair basketball team is playing at competitive game at the basketball stadium in Juba, South Sudan.

On the other side of the capital of Juba, six young women meet regularly to practice choreographed dances, getting ready for the many performances they have scheduled around town.

None of them can hear.

Run by the South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, the dancers were asked to join the team in their own backyards.

“A few women went from house to house to find people with disabilities. That’s how they found me,” Josephine Kidene explained in sign language.

Aged 21, she is the team leader.

“We practice and perform traditional cultural dances. None of us can hear the music, but we feel the vibration and can dance to the beat,” said Kidene, surrounded by her fellow dancers, all of them smiling and giggling.

They seem confident and full of energy.

But Caroline Atim, the network’s director — who is also deaf — knows first hand the challenges they all face in life.

“There was a lot of discrimination, stigma and violence against disabled women,” she said.

“Over the years, I’ve seen the women become more confident. They understand their challenges, but also embrace their difference. It makes me very proud,” she explained through an interpreter.

Difficulties abound in the war-torn country, where disability is not in the spotlight and most initiatives are only rolled out in the capital.

“Decades of civil war have increased the number of people with disabilities,” said Human Rights Watch’s disability rights director Shantha Rau Barriga.

“People with disabilities and older people are often left behind during attacks and find themselves at much greater risk of starvation or abuse,” Barriga added.

And with sustained fighting, leg amputations due to gunshot wounds and landmines are still occurring.

“Change is happening on an individual basis,” coach Nyambura explained. “South Sudan is a tough place, but seeing my team’s excitement and joy makes my job worth it.”

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