The accident spun my life around, thwarted my lofty dreams and left me desperate to die.
Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s the famous Murphy’s Law. But in my world when I was 28 years old, everything was going to go right. I was an ambitious university graduate with grand political ambitions.
My involvement in student politics as the leader of the Northern Kenya University Students Organisation had whetted my appetite for national politics and I was going to go all the way to the top. Or so I thought.
Until the road accident that spun my life around, seemingly thwarted my lofty dreams and left me desperate to die.
My name is Harun Maalim Hassan and I work as an administrative officer at the Office of the President. I am also a founder member of the Northern Nomadic Disabled Organisation (NONDO).
Let me tell you the story of how I got to be where I am today after a tragic road accident. And it was nothing short of dramatic.
It was March 23, 2007. I was driving with my friends in Mandera. We were heading to Takaba. The rough road had huge potholes. But again, I must have been speeding when the car hit one of the holes, veered off the road, and rolled over several times before landing in a ditch. Unlike my friends, I was not so lucky, since I had not fastened my seat belt. The impact threw me out of the vehicle onto a huge stone.
SERIOUS HEAD INJURIES
I sustained serious head injuries and by the time I was picked off the ground, I could not even feel my legs. The incident and what followed in the coming days suddenly slowed down my life. The next three months saw me admitted at Nairobi Hospital and I also spent the subsequent seven months at the National Spinal Injury Hospital. It was at the hospital where I discovered that I would never walk again and that I was being rehabilitated in order to adapt to new skills and get integrated into the society. This made me feel as though I had been trapped in my own body. It was the lowest phase of my life and depression set in. I relied on assistance to dress myself, take a bath, or even use the toilet and this really made me question the value of my life.
QUICK WAY TO DIE
I saw many people who were in denial like me attempt suicide while at the spinal injury hospital. At the end of my rehabilitation in 2008, I too hatched a plan for my death. I knew that my family planned to relocate me from Nairobi to Kutulo, my home village in the south of Mandera. I saw it as an easy way for me to die because I knew that the medical facility was far. If a complication arose, I knew; it was a quicker way to die. In February 2008, I found myself in Kutulo, in a small room where I lived with the support of my family. Every day, I was taking medicinal herbs and reciting the Quran while listening to the sound of birds and iron sheets.
Six months passed by and the sign of death was not coming. I developed the fear that I was not going to die, but I would have to live on assistance and in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I really questioned where my role would be in the society. I talked to myself and asked for how long would people be around me?
That was my epiphany. I accepted my condition and sought to find out more about it as well through reading books. I cultivated a reading habit and it became therapy for me and my little room became a library for newspapers and books.
I also started to see how I could minimise support in private issues like toileting, taking a bath and dressing. It is like I had come to understand my changed body. I also decided to come back to Nairobi and put my life together. In February 2009, I left Kutulo for Nairobi to work as a district officer in Starehe. Family and friends were wondering how I would work while in a wheelchair. I wanted to integrate myself in the world of disability. At the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, I met my friend, ODM-nominated MP Isaac Mwaura and he welcomed me to the disability club.
OPTIMAL USE OF MY CHANGED BODY
At this point, I was determined to embrace my disability and make it in life. I felt that I had a lot to accomplish within a short time. I needed to equip myself with life skills on how to make optimal use of my changed body. This saw me start to visit the spinal injury hospital as an outpatient. In April 2014, I met a friend who I knew uses a wheelchair, Westlands MP Timothy Wanyonyi, and he introduced me to a circle of his friends who use wheelchairs and are highly placed in the society. I started associating with them, and they shared useful insights on how to navigate life without looking at the wheelchair as an impediment. My eyes now opened to the fact that I needed to look beyond this wheelchair, and that people will always look at me depending on how I position myself in life. This had an impact on my way of thinking. It is like I had now come to fully view my new form as not a challenge to the accomplishment of personal and career goals in life. I was mentally empowered. Within a month, I was back on the road, driving. The fear of ever again getting behind the wheel was gone.
It is during this time that I also immersed myself into the world of disability advocacy. With a few friends, we founded the Northern Nomadic Disabled Organisation (NONDO). I got deeper in the society in championing the rights of persons with disability, especially their socio-economic inclusion. Nomadic people with disabilities in northern Kenya face double marginalisation. First by the fact of being physically challenged and yet they rely on a pastoralist economy; and secondly, the fact that the region is not as developed as other parts of the country.
This has seen NONDO tailor-make programmes that seek to empower them socio-economically. But also NONDO has been a key player in disability issues on a nationwide scale. For instance, I served as a board member at the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) in 2015 and 2016, a time when I criticised the implementation of inclusivity as enshrined in Article 54 of the Bill of Rights. Given that the country has no national policy on disability, most employers feel that implementing Article 54 will be too expensive, which is true as disability comes with an additional cost. As of now, those who are implementing it do it as a charity model, not about rights. The society has to remove the barriers that exist –how they view people with disabilities – and accord them their space to play a role in the society.
From July 13-15, NONDO will be hosting the biggest disability event in Kenya. It is the sixth edition of the Desert Wheel Race, a patented and competitive race that is destined to put Kenya on the global map in grooming talent among people with disabilities. It will be held in Kajiado town. The long-term goal is to establish a disability sporting talent academy in Kenya, and the first in sub-Saharan Africa.
Looking back, I would say that the wheelchair has defined my career path in community service and given it a new angle. This has, 10 years later, culminated into the launch of my book, Behind the Wheels on March 23, 2017. The book details my life journey, before and after the accident, and my work with the community to advance the disability agenda. It informs and inspires the young generation that having a disability does not define you. It all depends on how you package and position yourself out there.
Currently, I am also serving as a commissioner with the World Disability Union, a global forum that works to see that countries ratify and fully implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To this end, I can only thank my wife, family, friends and colleagues who have all been there for me. I have only come this far because of you.