The glitzy lights of Pyeongchang city in South Korea beckon for Daniel Safari Katheku as he prepares to hurtle downhill in the Alpine skiing competition of the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in March next year.
It is a universe away from the lonely country path in Mwingi, Kitui County, where, as a six-year-old child in 1998, he accompanied his grandmother to his grandfather’s funeral and on the return journey, a poisonous snake bit him.
To save his life, doctors at Garissa Provincial General Hospital amputated his right leg at the knee.
He isn’t in Pyeongchang yet.
He has money to raise and intense training to do.
He is running against the clock, as he has done since he lifted himself from the depression caused by his childhood tragedy. Because he is dead set in wanting to become the first African to win a skiing gold medal in the Paralympics, his sights are trained on Park City, Utah in the United States for preparation.
Park City is where the National Ability Centre is located.
The facility is probably the best of its kind in the world for people with handicaps such as his.
This is a very busy young man. A schedule filled with shuttling between national and county government offices, training work-outs in the running track at Karura Forest and a gym in Pangani, meetings with sports officials and interviews with local and international journalists leaves Katheku with little time on his hands.
He is on the move day and night.
Our Wednesday morning meeting was delayed for almost one hour because he had just arrived from overnight travel from Kitui where he had a meeting with Governor Charity Ngilu. They were discussing Pyeongchang.
“Many people without your handicap can’t run a schedule like yours, much less do what you do,” I complimented him. He smiled in acceptance.
But it was obvious that he had plenty on his mind.
His smooth, boyish face and slender frame make him look younger than his 25 years.
But in the course of conversation, the weight of his experiences, the lessons he has drawn from them and the direction in life that they have made him shape, inexorably draw you to the conclusion that he is older than his years.
“Daniel,” I ask him, “are you married?”
“No,” he replies. “I don’t even have a girlfriend. I am consumed in my work. I see myself as a missionary. Through sports, I want to change our society’s attitudes towards people with disabilities.”
That is my first hint that this will be no rhapsody about his achievements.
It is about the work at hand.
He is a man on a mission and time is of the essence. Then he starts talking about how it is possible to see and not see the person you are looking at.
“In Kenya,” he tells me, “people with disabilities live in a world of their own. To the vast majority who don’t share their handicaps, disabled people either don’t exist, or shouldn’t exist. Some are hidden from public view because of shame.
“Our society is extremely reluctant to provide for the special needs of people who were either born with a disability or acquired it sometime in their life.
This is unlike, for instance, Europe, America and the Far East. In those countries, a disabled person is an equal member of society. I want the same for us here.”
Katheku went to high school in Joytown Secondary School for the Disabled in Thika.
All but about 15 of its 242 students are either on wheelchairs or crutches. One morning these children woke up to find all 20 of their brand new computers, which had been donated scarcely a week before, stolen.
The burglars who invaded the school in the night had done so safe in the knowledge that the children inside it were in no position to help themselves.
“Joytown is where I really launched my career,” Katheku says.
“It is where I became a Paralympic athlete. It was where I got all the love and confidence I needed. When that happened, there was terrible sadness in the school. That day nobody felt like studying.”
Everybody was puzzled: what kind of person could commit such an act? Children in general are the most vulnerable members of society. But what about disabled children?
For Katheku and his schoolmates, it was a darkness of heart beyond comprehension.
Unbelievable as it may sound, the school’s Principal, Ms Leyah Kamonye, told me that building a perimeter wall around the school became absolutely necessary as such incidents became commonplace.
Apparently, for some people, targeting physically disabled children was the way to get ahead in life.
And yet this is a school so bereft of sports facilities that it uses its dining hall for indoor games such as sitting volleyball.
But those acts of violence did not break Katheku’s spirit.
When the Korean Paralympic Association invited two Kenyans – one blind, and another one with a physical disability – to compete for a seven year sponsorship in which the participants would be going to South Korea each year to horn their skills in their specialties, he emerged the winner.
Thus began his regular sojourns to Korea.
In between his annual travels, Katheku played professional amputee football in Turkey for two years. He turned out for Abysk Amputee FC in Ankara between 2014 and 2016.
That stint was a peak in his career, but not the highest, because Pyeongchang is yet to come. But it offered him a chance at introspection.
Playing in that economic powerhouse and remembering stops in cities around the world reminded him of the distance he had travelled from the arid plains of Mwingi where his journey had begun.
He felt grateful about how it had all turned out.
He thought of his late father who sold everything there was to sell so as to save his life after the near fatal snake bite.
He remembered his mother, his brother and his sister.
After his leg was amputated, Katheku had become the first disabled child in the area.
Superstitious people said his family was cursed.
This deeply affected his parents and siblings but they didn’t waver in their love for him. “He will be a cobbler,” some people disdainfully said, “for what else can a person without one leg be?”
“It is a curse from God,” others said with such a certainty that you could think they just had a meeting with the Almighty.
Such comments introduced him at an early age to a life of listening to the most hurtful comments one can hear about oneself.
It made for a sad childhood.
Able bodied children shunned him and he lacked play mates.
Every time he wanted to join other children, they ran away from him. Thus rejected, only the empathy and care of his teachers sustained him. Poverty stalked him. After continuous use, one of the crutches Garissa Provincial General Hospital gave him broke. There was no money to buy another one. His father improvised a tree branch into a crutch. “It was too heavy for me but I had no choice.”
Later in life, he saw the indifference, the disdain and rejection all around him. He noted the hierarchy of discrimination and talked about it with a sorrow that startled.
Kenya is a patriarchal society, he pointed out to me. So even an educated woman is treated less than a man. Think then about the lot of an uneducated woman.
Then go further down and think about an uneducated, disabled woman. “Such a woman can only be a beggar whatever her talents,” he told me. “This is what must change.”
For him, the tool for this social change is sports.
“I grew up enduring rejection,” he said, “and now because of sports, people come to me. In Korea, I have difficulty keeping up with demand for interviews with the media. Here at home, people no longer pity me; they admire me.”
This is the transformation he tries to inspire every day with a missionary zeal. He wants it for all people with disabilities.
He sees so much talent in them. It only has to be developed differently – with skill, compassion and respect.
He started his career as a high jumper, clearing the 1.65 metres that so many young, able bodied men cannot, then he went to shot putt, javelin, football and now he wants to feature – and win the gold medal – in the two events that comprise Alpine skiing: slalom and giant slalom in Pyeongchang next year. It is a marvel to watch his videos in action.
DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE
The snake bite that resulted in the amputation of his leg could very well have terminated his hopes and dreams for the future. It could have made him retreat deep inside his own shadow where he would spend the remaining days of his life bitterly asking God “why me?”
It could have reduced him into an object of pity.
Instead, the effect of his tragedy went in the opposite direction.
The loss of his leg didn’t slow him down; it made him faster.
It didn’t weaken him, it made him stronger. It didn’t hold him down; it made him soar higher.
That irreversible loss did not make him bitter, sad or jealous; it just sharpened his competitive edge and inducted him into the select group of people who have national anthems played for them not because they are Presidents or Prime Ministers, but because they are elite athletes.
But most of all, it filled his spirit with compassion and generosity. It inspired in him the solemn vow that he would make it his life’s mission to ensure that whoever found themselves in the special circumstances of physical disability would not be left behind by society.
The snake bite that made him an amputee isn’t what he would have wished for nor what he would wish upon anybody else.
And yet, in the mysterious ways of God, that is what helped him discover the best in himself.
Full disclosure: I am a trustee of the Joytown Secondary School Foundation whose primary objective is to raise funds in support of Joytown Secondary School for the Physically Disabled in Thika Town.