Lassam Katongo, a Zambian athlete based in the capital, Lusaka, shows off his trophies and medals earned from some of the international athletic games he has participated in, which include the paralympics, as he proudly narrates his achievements in Athletics and sports in general.
As a visually impaired athlete, he is one of only three Paralympians going to the Paralympic games in Tokyo, this year.
Being in such a position is no doubt a privilege for Katongo, as not many who have as much potential or talent get close to such opportunities, thanks to the negative perceptions that surround certain types of sports in the country, as Katongo explains:
“Most people look down on certain sports, such as Athletics, [which are not as highly celebrated as Football] They say, there’s no money and that it’s a waste of time and other resources and as such do not support people who are involved in them,“ Katongo observes.
Challenges faced by people living with disabilities
But it is the negativity around people living with disabilities and conditions such as Albinism, that is worst, with the latter category being a target for abuse by people in uncivilised communities, such as some rural areas, as Katongo further narrates:
“[There was a time] I was taking [a group of athletes] to Botswana, myself and the head coach went to the Western province, where we had tapped other talent, we saw a number of athletes living with Albinism, who had [great] potential, [but] it was a challenge to make them come to Lusaka.
Parents refused, they said “no, we can not give you our children, because there’s killing. We may give you these children, then you go and kill them, you’ll use them for rituals.
Our children are supposed to be safe with us, we don’t even allow them to move up and down because they can be killed, because people are looking for [body parts for] rituals. They say those who want to be rich, will get parts of their bodies and do what they do and get rich,“ Katongo recounts.
Even though most Zambian communities generally live peacefully with people living with Albinism, making cases of physical abuse in the country fewer than in other African countries, according to existing research, there are still a few parts of the country, such as some remote/rural areas where some Albinos are murdered in ritual killings in the belief that their body parts bring wealth or luck.
It is because of this, that some parents of Albinos have such fears and prevent their children from getting involved in activities like sports, which can widely expose them to society.
Initiative to counter negativity
To address such obstacles, Katongo, who is also a teacher and like-minded athletes have embarked upon a country-wide sensitisation programme aimed at teaching people in schools about the importance of sports and capabilities of and contributions that disabled people can and do make to sports and development.
The starting point for the programme called, ‘Spots Against Stigma’, is the training of teachers about key pillars such as sports inspiration, determination, courage and equality, among others. These will then deliver the message to their students and subsequently have that message spread to different communities. That way, they will be able to reach a wider audience.
“All these are found under that [programme]. How do we make sure that sport is treated equally in our country without [discriminating against] people with disabilities [even] with [regards to ] sharing resources, “ Katongo explains.
Close to 150 teachers have been trained under the programme, which is supported by two ministries, namely, Sports and Education.
Katongo and two other teachers will spearhead the programme, traveling from one province to another, to make sure it is implemented in all the 10 provinces, after which he hopes to extend it to other countries, in his personal capacity as just an athlete.
To drive the point home, the initiative will incorporate narratives of some athletes like him, South African Paralympic sprinter, Oscar Pistorius and others who have done well in sports, despite disability and other challenges, in order to encourage others in similar situations who might want to take the same route and to convert the minds of those who think negatively about any sport and/or any sports person on the basis of their physical challenges, to thinking positively.
“People living with Albinism will not be left out, people with other challenges like any disability, it be amputees, on wheel chairs, clutches, paralysed, all of them are included in this programme, because all these people have the ability to participate in sports, what’s different is the type of the sport that particular athlete is supposed to do.
They are those who can do wheel chair race or those who can do wheel chair basketball. So, we will need to make sure people understand to say, don’t keep your child [away], there’s one thing [that] child can do!,” Katongo observes, adding that this will be a class on its own.
Hope for positive impact
Monica Munga, also a visually impaired athlete living with Albinism, who has Katongo as her coach and motivator, is testimony to how embracing sports and people with disabilities can be life-changing.
In the past, Munga says, people in her community in Chipata town in the Eastern province of Zambia, used to stigmatise her for being an Albino, but after joining sports, travelling to different countries and winning medals, she has earned their respect and most of them now want to associate with her.
They also now regard positively, people living with Albinism, because they now realise that they are just like everybody else and have similar capabilities.
“Through sports, I’ve been known by people. People are now [talking about me, saying], oh there’s Monica in Chipata, oh there’s Monica from this side, because of exposure, so thorough sports I’ am being known by people,” Munga asserts.
Munga now also serves as a role model to people like her and uses whatever opportunity she gets to encourage them to follow her footsteps.
“[When] I just hear there’s a person living with Albinism [somewhere], we meet and I encourage that person. It’s my prayer for them to come and join sports, because through sports, they’ll have exposure and [be equally known],“ she notes.
With such programmes as ‘Sports Against Stigma’, it is hoped that more people will realise that sports have potential to empower them financially, socially and health-wise, regardless of their physical conditions and backgrounds and take it on, without experiencing or worrying about negativity.
“You can earn a living through sports. You will build, you will drive, because of sports,” Katongo concludes.