Inspiration of Kenyan Paralympians

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BY ROB MACAIRE

For diplomats on three to four year posting cycles, you know you are coming towards the end when you go to an annual event the third time around. In the case of the Hay Festival/Storymoja literary festival, I was lucky enough to attend the first one ever held here, back in 2009, and last weekend I was at the excellent 2011 event.

The Hay Festival from the UK has an increasing international presence, and its local partner, Storymoja, are an inspiring organisation publishing new Kenyan writers and promoting literature.

Though Ben Okri may have been the biggest draw at the show, I thoroughly enjoyed the session I was involved in with the Dutch-Moroccan author and runner Abdelkadir Benali and the Kenyan Paralympian field athlete Mary Nakhumitsa.

We were talking about challenges on and off the track, and I was able to let people know about the 2012 Paralympic Games. We recently passed the one year to go mark, and tickets are on sale, with a prospect of this being the first Paralympics that is fully sold out. I was surprised how few people in the tent had watched any paralympic sport in the past, or were aware of just how big and popular a sporting experience it has become.

Particularly since Kenya has a number of really inspirational paralympic athletes – Mary who was with us at the weekend has more paralympic medals than any other Kenyan, and spoke movingly of how sport had enabled her to excel and also to see the world.

In London next year we hope that the Paralympics will be not only the biggest and the most-watched ever, but also encourage more disabled people into sport, not just at the top competitive level but at all levels. The Paralympic movement had its origins in the Stoke Mandeville games first held in the UK in 1948, and Britain has been a strong participant and supporter ever since, so the games ‘coming home’ is really important for us.

The games are also a really important tool for flagging up disability issues around the world, as Mary argued passionately at the Storymoja event on Saturday. Certainly in Britain, these sports have contributed to huge progress in social attitudes on inclusiveness and equality over the last twenty years – though we still have further to go.

I saw a part of that earlier in the week, when Vice President Musyoka and HRH Prince Edward joined Kenya’s Wheelchair Basketball team to see a demonstration of the sport and to hand over some specialist wheelchairs we had bought for the team.

I hope the wide coverage on TV has helped boost Kenyans’ support for their team and the realisation of the exciting and inspiring experience that paralympic sport brings to the world. And at a time when Kenyans are celebrating their new Constitution, which enshrines citizens’ rights more fully and firmly than ever before, these sports can draw attention to the broader need in society for equality rights of disabled people.

Certainly the determination of the Kenyan team was fantastic to see. And we were there also with Henry Wanyoike, perhaps the most inspirational of all Kenyan paralympians, holder of the world marathon record for blind runners.

We in the UK have lots to be proud of in being chosen to host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics – the ‘greenest’ games ever, the most accessible for spectators with disabilities, the promise of a huge legacy for sport not only in the UK but worldwide, an Olympic Park where all the major venues are already complete, within budget and time. But raising the profile and celebration of the fantastic achievements of Paralympic sport will be something to be particularly proud of.

(Rob Macaire is the UK High Commissioner to Kenya)

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