Ugandan teen Paralympian enjoys confounding stereotypesFri, 29 Dec 2023 06:06:57 GMT

At just 14 she was the youngest Paralympian at the Tokyo Games.And Ugandan swimmer Husnah Kukundakwe faces an equally tough test next year in Paris, but the 16-year-old said she is used to smashing stereotypes — starting with her own mum.Born without her right forearm and with an impairment to her left hand, Kukundakwe was three years old when she began paddling in a pool in her local kindergarten.”I would just go there, play around, just beat around the water, and I felt nice. I love being in the water,” she said.Her mother, however, wasn’t so enthusiastic.”In the beginning my mum wasn’t supportive… because she was worried that I won’t be able to swim,” Kukundakwe told AFP.”After realising I wasn’t going to stop going into the water, she eventually gave in,” Kukundakwe said on the sidelines of a training session in a suburb of Uganda’s capital Kampala.She soon won her first contest, aged nine, racing past able-bodied swimmers.”It opened my mum’s eyes that I would do better,” she said, her face lighting up as she recalled the victory.Her mother, Hashima Patience Batamuriza, who is now her manager, allowed her to stop using flotation vests, paving the way for a journey that has taken Kukundakwe to the Olympics.The teenager never imagined that she would compete on a global stage, despite spending hours in the water every week.”It was something I had not looked into because I didn’t know para swimming ever existed or… sports (for) people with disabilities like me,” she said.A trip to Kenya’s capital — her first time taking a flight — proved to be a turning point.Prior to that, the 11-year-old had only practised alongside able-bodied swimmers.In Nairobi, she was surrounded by other disabled athletes.”I started feeling comfortable with myself. If people with disabilities more than mine… (could) feel comfortable and confident, doing what they love most and that is swimming, why not me?”- ‘Amazing, nerve-wracking’ -She secured a certificate allowing her to participate in international sporting events, later attending a swimming camp in South Korea and eventually competing in the World Para Swimming World Series 2019 in Singapore.Then came the icing on the cake: qualifying for the Tokyo Games.But the Covid-19 pandemic threw her preparation into disarray as Ugandan authorities ordered swimming pools and gyms to close.She started going jogging with her father, a civil engineer, or her older brothers, and began taking swimming lessons on Zoom.When the Games were finally held in August 2021, she competed in the SB8 100m breaststroke. She failed to make the final but achieved a personal best time of 1 minute 34.35 seconds.She said the experience was both “amazing” and “nerve-wracking because I was competing with Paralympics legends and also meeting my role models face-to-face.”Meeting Irish Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane was overwhelming, she said, describing the 28-year-old gold medallist as “someone I pray to be (like) every day of my life”.Yet she also knows that she is no less of an inspiration to young Ugandans, particularly those with disabilities.Kukundakwe spent years struggling to keep up with able-bodied swimmers, a challenge she turned into an advantage, she said.”I worked towards matching their pace to be able to compete against them.”But today her sense of purpose extends beyond wanting to win medals.”My main goal of going for international events is to inspire people with disabilities, especially the children, to reach their dreams the best they can,” she said.- ‘Changed perception’ -It’s an uphill battle in Uganda, where disabled children are sometimes seen as a burden and abandoned by their families.According to Uganda’s state-run Equal Opportunities Commission, people with disabilities still face stigma and discrimination, and are often denied access to public services such as health and education. A youth ambassador for the International Paralympics Committee, Kukundakwe believes change is coming.”When I came back from championships… people would come and say ‘Hi Husnah, welcome back.’ Yet before they would look at me and even stare at me, point fingers,” she said.”My career has changed the perception. People no longer look at me as a girl who is disabled but as one travelling the whole world as a professional swimmer.”Furthermore, she believes her example is encouraging more disabled Ugandans to take up sports.Currently focussed on training for Paris, she also hopes to compete in the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.But her ultimate dream is to become a paediatrician, she said.”Much as I love swimming, I cannot be in swimming forever.”