The Gambian Paralympic team with Eva Loeffler. Photo reproduced with permission from the GNPC.
Each morning, Demba Jarju and Isatou Nyang beg for money on the streets of the Gambia. In the afternoon they do sports training. For the last two months they have been getting fewer handouts. Jarju and Nyang competed in the 100-metre and 800-metre races at this year’s Paralympic Games, and people who have seen them on television and in the newspapers think they must be well off now. But this is not the case.
The fact that there is no social support makes life very difficult for 90 per cent of people living with disability in the Gambia. Gambia Disability Sports was first introduced in 1983 by the Swedish Emmaus Foundation. It was hoped that wheelchair basketball would bring disabled people together and give them respite from the everyday need to survive. A team first took part in a tournament in Kawlack in Senegal in 1984, then in Dakar in 1986. Wheelchair basketball remains the game loved most by our athletes. Unfortunately, in 1998 the Emmaus Foundation had to pull out and support now comes from philanthropists and sympathizers, to whom we are very grateful.
I was elected president of the Physically Disabled Sports Association (GPDSA), now the Gambia National Paralympic Committee (GNPC), on 2 February 2002. My first task was to take the wheelchair basketball team to a tournament in Senegal, in which we came third.
In 2003 we took part in another tournament, organized by JAPHAF, a Senegalese organization for French-speaking countries. On arrival we were told we could not participate because we had not paid our event fees. We decided to go to the Gambian embassy to solicit support, but were told there were no funds. The National Sports Council promised to support us, but at the last minute pulled out, also due to lack of funds. The little we did raise was used to hire a bus and cover other logistics.
We have had a variety of projects over the years funded by individuals and institutions, including the British Embassy. For example, we received funding for wheelchair tennis and now have some great players.
In March 2007 we took part in a tournament in Mauritania sponsored by the country’s president. The Terence Mills Trust met the costs of hiring a van and part of the logistics. We took part in three disciplines, including wheelchair basketball, but our medals were never given to us because we could not afford to pay the participation fees, which are still pending.
At the Paralympic Games’ welcoming ceremony I was very proud to see my country’s flag raised, and to hear the national anthem. It was a great achievement for the athletes to participate in the Games despite the lack of support from Gambian sports authorities. Delivering her welcoming speech, Eva Loeffler, mayor of the Paralympics Village, said that everyone participating in the Paralympics games was a champion.
Despite the plight of sportspeople like Jarju and Nyang, who must still beg on the streets, I believe that impressive performances from the athletes can help improve the lives of disabled people in the Gambia. People need to be able to participate fully and see sport as an important component in their lives – not just for fun, but as rehabilitation, employment and motivation. Moreover, sport could make a contribution to national development – with the support and commitment of the government.
As long as there is life there will be disability, whether from birth, sickness or accident. We need to fully accommodate it and cherish it – it could happen to any of us. Whether we like it or not, disability is everyone’s business.
Sulayman Colley is president of Gambia’s National Paralympic Committee.