- Snake bite that resulted in the amputation of Katheku’s leg could very well have terminated his hopes and dreams for the future...Instead, the effect of his tragedy went in the opposite direction.
- He is a man on a mission and time is of the essence.
- For him, the tool for this social change is sports.
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.