Kenya-born Brit fights for disabled athletes’ fair treatment

British Paralympian and disability rights activist Anne Wafula (left) with James Kennedy owner of Rugby United New York in Nairobi on November 14, 2019. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |

What you need to know:

  • A snippet from Wafula’s home page says: In 2004 Anne became the first wheelchair racer from sub-Sahara Africa to compete in wheelchair Racing at the Paralympics.
  • She uses her life meaningfully, with a purpose to inspire people facing challenges to tap into the latent power that lies within them.”

We settle for our interview with Anne Olympia Wafula with a trip down memory lane when we were classmates at Moi University training to be teachers in early 1990s.

Wafula reminds me of her singing prowess back then and we both agree that her career has taken a completely different tangent from what we were expecting in those our freshmen years.

Her friend and fellow sportsman James Kennedy is surprised. He has never seen Wafula in any other light but as a sportswoman, a mother and a committed activist for rights of sports people all over the globe.

I assure Kennedy that indeed Wafula was a good singer and if she had followed that path, I am sure she would had been well known not only in Kenya, but globally. Just as she has in the world of sports.

But then life happens and instead of having Wafula the crooner we have Wafula the speedster who has blazed the trail winning accolades in the field of Paralympics.

We are at Dusit2 Hotel and Wafula and Kennedy are both attending the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD+25) on disability rights.

We are talking just some hours after the two had addressed a plenary session at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre where they drove a hard bargain on behalf of sportspeople.

Adding to her achievements on the pitch are the honours she has received from various quarters acknowledging that she is a well-rounded person who has earned her stripes both on and off the pitch.

The fact that she has the respect of her peers in her adopted country of Great Britain was shown in 2015 when UK Athletics named Anne to the three person Performance Oversight Group (POG) alongside Jason Gardener and Sarah Rowell to investigate any wrong doing on the part of star athlete Mo Farah after doping allegations arose against his coach Alberto Salazar.

This matter would be rekindled this year after Salazar finally threw in the towel as the allegations continue to swirl around him ever since they first came to the fore.

A snippet from Wafula’s home page says: In 2004 Anne became the first wheelchair racer from sub-Sahara Africa to compete in wheelchair Racing at the Paralympics. She uses her life meaningfully, with a purpose to inspire people facing challenges to tap into the latent power that lies within them.”

But it has not always been so. The star athlete says that despite the fact that she had become a citizen and was winning medals in Great Britain, deep down was this everlasting longing for belonging.

“I was the girl with this thick African accent and somehow this used to disturb me. I always wanted to feel that I truly belonged. This is important when you consider that at the heart of every human being is the need to identify with a group,” she says.

Kennedy agrees saying that as someone who has played sport at the highest level and now as the owner of a sports franchise, he sees this all the time.

Lack of belonging, they opine can lead to loneliness which can easily lead to depression and in some cases even suicide.

They agree that mental health is a major challenge for athletes at all levels and is a transnational problem facing all countries. Wafula says that as a disabled athlete she has seen the troubles people like her go through and says there is a strong case for equity.

“Equity and not equality is what we need to address some of these issues. While equality will strive to give all equal chances, equity will actually address the underlying issues,” she says.

Ireland born Kennedy attended boarding school at St. Munchins College, a prominent rugby school in Ireland then went to college at Waterford Institute of Technology and upon graduation moved to New York City in 1999.

We joke about the just ended Rugby World Cup and Kennedy says, just like millions of people who went through British rule, he was very happy when South Africa thrashed England in the final match.

Landing in America, Kennedy worked in the construction industry and played rugby for Lansdowne RFC of the Bronx.

“I worked as a carpenter and I injured my two shoulders meaning I could no longer lumber heavy loads. That is when I moved to the management side of construction,” says the 41-year-old father of two girls who is now in charge of the Murphy Kennedy Group and the owner of the Major Rugby League side Rugby United New York.

Over the time Kennedy, who still plays rugby, became involved with working with suicidal people.

“As someone who is bipolar and has suffered from depression finding a voice on mental health is very important to me,” he says.

It is for this reason that Kennedy is now the main funder of the Solace House, an organisation that was founded in 2017.

Their website says: “Our life-saving program that helps men, women and children who have suicidal ideation, is now an established and permanent service available for the people of New York, operating two centres in Long Island City and Yonkers. Solace House is based on the model and ethos of the hugely successful and cherished organisation known as Pieta House Ltd. Ireland.”

Kennedy says he sees a lot of desperate cases both in New York and other parts of the United States. “The sad thing is that suicide or even mental illness are taboo topics that not many want to talk about. The matter gets further complicate when you throw into the mix the high nature of stress associated with top notch sports,” he says.

Our talk veer into social media and both Wafula and Kennedy say that this new medium of communication is one of the saddest things to happen to people bonding.

“You have a situation where you have 1,000 online friends. Strange thing is that you have never met these friends so you not only don’t know how they look like but you have no idea where they live. If you are in trouble and you need someone to talk to, definitely you will not go to these people,” he says.

He decries the fad among the young of stopping in the middle of conversation to confirm facts online. “You find a situation where five people are seated at a table in a cafe and instead of talking, all of them are busy on their phones.”

To mitigate this, he says that whenever he employs anyone under the age of 35 he must take them through a ritual of teaching them the art of conversation. “This helps them to develop some skills,” he says. I am sure parents of many teenagers will agree with those sentiments.