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Anne Wafula Strike, Paralympian  

16 September 2016

‘Having Jesus in my life puts a smile on my face every day’

At two years old, I was struck down by polio, and left paralysed from the waist down. No one in my Kenyan village understood my disability, and the local witch-doctor claimed that I was the victim of black magic.

 

The villagers labelled me cursed, and referred to me as a “snake”: I had to crawl around using only my upper body. They said that I should be left to die. My family was forced to flee the village for safety, and I was sent to a special school for the disabled, which was located far from my home.

 

In Kenya, far too many people think disabled people have been cursed; so they’re frequently shunned and treated badly. In an environment where people do not know a lot about disability, I quickly realised that I was different, but it was very hard to get on with living, considering I didn’t have a wheelchair back then. Sometimes I would just crawl; other times I would struggle on callipers and crutches.

 

Fortunately for me, I had a very supportive family. My father was determined that I would be treated the same as my siblings; so I went to school, then university, and became a teacher.

 

When I understood that I was different, it broke my heart. It was difficult to make friendships with other children, as their parents were afraid that they would catch my disability. It took me time, but I came to realise that I am a divine creation — one of God’s masterpieces. This realisation gave me a sense of fulfilment.

 

I was born into a Christian family. My mother and father were both Christians; so I was introduced to Christianity from an early age. My faith matured at school, where they taught us the Bible, and Christian values.

 

It was in secondary school that I really accepted the Lord as my personal saviour. There’s a difference between growing up as a Christian and accepting the Lord in your life, and knowing him as your saviour.

 

It was not easy being a Christian with a disability in Africa. There are so many challenges. I didn’t like going to church each Sunday: people would look at me as if I was a sinner and needed the most grace because I am disabled.

 

I would occasionally ask the Lord, “Why me?” But now I am older, I am more accepting of who I am and the body I live in. As long as I live my life to the best of my ability, then God will accept me and love me just the way I am.

 

My Christian faith is very important to me. The Lord has helped shape who I am today.

 

As a disabled child in Kenya, sport was for the other, able-bodied children. The closest I ever came was to splash in a swimming pool — but no one thought it worth while to teach me to swim!

 

It was only after I gave birth to my son, and realised I had gone from a size 10 to a size 16 in just nine months, that I thought I ought to go to the gym. Then somebody suggested I should try disabled sport. I’d started using a wheelchair only when I became pregnant, but then in 2002, watching the Commonwealth Games in Manchester and seeing these amazing women with disabilities competing, I thought: “Wow, this looks incredible — that’s what I want to do.” And so here I am.

 

I knew my talent was given to me by God, and I did not take any single competition for granted. I knew that he wanted me to praise him in my ability as an athlete. Even now, I do whatever I do in the name of Jesus, because I know it’s him who enables me.

 

It is biblical to be competitive and to pursue success in our careers, but not at the expense of Christ. All through scripture, God has said so many great and beautiful things about us. As a Christian athlete, my beliefs play a part in how I embrace my sport — winning and losing. I have a problem when we turn to idolising the sport, winnings, and the fame that comes with it.

 

Success has been great for me. It has allowed me to tell my story and show the world that disability does not mean inability. But how you embrace success with humility is only by grace.

 

The most difficult thing I’ve faced in my life was the constant battle against stigma and prejudice faced as a disabled person in a developing country. You can either let this define who you are, or you stand up for your rights and break down those barriers and push the limits; that’s exactly what I did.

 

That’s why I work with organisations like the overseas Christian disability charity CBM, who help to equip people with disabilities and their families with the tools that they need to speak out and claim their rights, and to show that we all benefit when disabled people are included and empowered.

 

Wheelchair-racing has given me the opportunity to travel the world: the USA, Australia, Germany, China, and many more countries — something I didn’t even dream of when I lived in Kenya. It also helped me to have belief in myself as a whole person, and to meet so many interesting people from all walks of life.

 

I’ve really enjoyed supporting other African and British athletes on their Paralympic journey. It is a great way to be allowed to give back to the sport. That is what really gives me a lot of joy and satisfaction.

 

Growing up in a country which is still ill-equipped to fully support people born with disabilities, I often had to draw deep to God for strength to overcome obstacles and live a normal life.

 

The stigma and prejudice surrounding disabled people in developing countries is what makes me angry. People with disabilities in developing countries do not get the same opportunities as those who are able-bodied. Building accessible schools and providing livelihood opportunities can bring immeasurable benefits to millions of lives.

 

Having Jesus in my life puts a smile on my face every day. It’s a smile that is from within, and reflects brightly on the outside. When people see my smile, it is the glory of God: people don’t just see Anne, they see Anne who is covered in the glory of God. When I look to God and he is happy with my actions and deeds, then I am happy.

 

My father is my hero. He has believed in my every step. He sees me as a perfect child, not a child with disability.

 

My hope for the future is based on the fact that Christ is the same as yesterday, today, and for ever, and I hope that disabled people, one day, can achieve their equal rights.

 

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, and could choose any companion, it would be Nelson Mandela.

 

Anne Wafula Strike works as an ambassador for CBM, the overseas Christian disability charity: www.cbmuk.org.uk. She was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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