Kenya: Kwale Athlete Beats Odds to Chase Paralympics Dream - Asiya Sururu

8 November 2020

"Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune but great minds rise above them," so said 19th century American writer Washington Irving.

How apt these words describe the life of Asiya Mohammed Sururu, a 28-year-old Kenyan from Kwale, who chose the path of resilience to rise above misfortune.

Double misfortune struck Sururu at a tender age of two when she was run over by a train at Ganjoni estate in Mombasa while crossing the railway line, losing both limbs.

Her father died of shock the same day after setting his eyes on her limbless and bloodied body in hospital following the accident. She stayed in hospital for over a year undergoing treatment.

With her disability, Sururu has seen it all in life including being discriminated upon as an athlete when Kenya rowing team went for the Olympic qualifiers in Tunis, Tunisia last year.

Despite that she became the only rower from Kenya to qualify for the Tokyo Games after finishing first in her category.

"I was so heartbroken when the Kenya Rowing Federation and the Kenya National Paralympic Committee both told me they would not be sponsoring any rowers for the Olympics due to lack of funds.

"I decided to burden my family and friends to fundraise for me the Sh75,000 to buy an air ticket for Tunisia, because at the back of my mind, I knew I had practised well and would win a ticket to the Paralympics if given a chance," said Sururu.

After securing the air ticket, Sururu was shocked when she boarded her Emirates Airlines plane for a Tunis flight via Dubai only to meet four regular Kenyan rowers, three men and women on the same aircraft headed for the qualifiers in full national colours from track suits, t-shirts to bags.

"It was indeed shocking and disappointing because here I was having raised my air fare, no allowances, no uniform, no bags and kits and no coach, while another group of athletes from the same federation were fully sponsored by the government for the same championships I had been told the government had no funds to sponsor me," said a baffled Sururu sadness written all over her face.

She said that to date she has never understood why she was allegedly discriminated against by top government officials and her own federation.

Her frustrations continued when she was barred from participating at the qualifiers in Tunisia because she did not have national uniform like the rest of the Kenyan squad.

"I almost collapsed. When I took to the water to compete in my PR1 competition, all pumped up and ready to compete officials stepped up and barred me from racing because I did not have a Kenya kit while all my fellow Kenyans who had come for the same competition were well kitted."

So what happened next?

Sururu had to borrow kit from a fellow Kenyan.

The straight-talking Sururu, who says stigma has never been in her vocabulary, put all her frustrations aside and stuck to her resolute goal of earning a place in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

She won her race and booked the much desired ticket to the Games while all the other four Kenyans in Tunisia failed to make it even into the top 10.

"Thanks God with all the troubles I went through to make the trip for the qualifiers, I am now the only Kenyan who has qualified for the Olympic in rowing," said Sururu, who has been gifted two rowing boats, one for training and the other for the competition at the Olympics by the International Rowing Federation.

She said determination knows no barrier. Sururu now wants the government to help her transport the two rowing boats from China to Kenya as she does not have the means to do so. She also wants to be refunded her air ticket, be paid her allowances and given kit like the rest of the Kenya rowing team members.

"I was looking very funny in an old Kenya tracksuit which was given to me by the Kenya Tennis Federation when I represented Kenya at the World championships. I looked so odd yet there I was representing Kenya at the world arena. But I thank God that is now water under the bridge," she said.

But facing struggles and challenges are not new to Sururu having had a difficult upbringing after getting orphaned at a very young age.

Born on April 24, 1992, Sururu lost both her limbs in 1994, the day she also lost her dad. Her mother Teresia Namanda passed away eight years after her train accident.

"With my condition I knew there was little I could do to change my situation but I was not deterred having joined Port Reitz Special school in Mombasa for my primary education between 2000 to 2007 and Joy Town,Thika between 2008 to 2011 for my secondary education," said Sururu. She said that it was while in school that she developed an interest in sports.

Sururu joined Shanzu Teachers College in 2012 and graduated with a diploma in early childhood education three years later. Sh got a teaching job at Shappa Academy in Shanzu but quit a year later to concentrate on playing wheelchair tennis.

"It took a whole four years to be taught how to walk using artificial legs just like a nursery kid and at that time I couldn't even play with my age mates because they kept running away from me due to my new conditions."

According to her, the fact that sports were compulsory at Port Reitz Special School for the physically disabled helped her a lot to take up sports including wheelchair racing.

It is, however, while at Joy Town Secondary for the disabled that she got the much needed exposure after teachers started creating opportunities for her. One such opportunity was sponsoring her for the Standard Chartered Marathon 21km race that she started competing in while in Form Two.

"Because of my never say die attitude, I won a record six gold medals at the Standard Chartered Marathon and with the cash prize that accompanies the medals, I was motivated to work even harder especially after I completed school and was now sponsoring myself."

Sururu reveals that prize monies for the winners ranged from between Sh150,000 to Sh250,000 well enough to cover all her overhead costs.

She says she has neither had a trainer nor a sponsor and has had to endure insecurity in Likoni, waking up as early as 4am when the traffic is low to practice.

The quick learner she is, Sururu took up wheelchair lawn tennis in 2014 under coach Lawrence Karanja and represented Kenya in the World Cup in Sardina, Italy in 2017 finishing third.

She also competed in the World Cup in 2018 in the Netherlands finishing fourth but could not make it to the World Cup last year after finishing second in the national trials.

So how did she pick up rowing?

"I was invited to Tudor Water Sports to try my hand in rowing when experts from South Africa and Britain came to give some basic technical training in 2018 December and it is then that they handed me the PR1 class category as the most suitable for me to compete in and I concentrated fully on that with the help of trainers from Kenya navy rowers who have always been there for us conducting free coaching lessons.

Sururu also said she benefited a lot from a two-week rowing training camp in Milan, Italy last year that was fully sponsored by the Kenya Rowing Federation and the International Rowing Federation.

The rower now wants the Kenya Rowing Federation, the Kenya National Paralympic Committee and the government to move with speed and ensure her boats are brought to Kenya so that she can start using them for training ahead of the Olympics next year.

"I have literally lost hope of having the boats brought home from China because both the Paralympics and the rowing federation officials have been ignoring my calls of late.

"My only hope is that Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and PS Joe Okudo will come to my rescue to have the boats brought home soonest," said Sururu.

Meanwhile, she is busy repairing her old boat at the Tudor Water Sports.

When contacted, the Kenya National Paralympic Committee (KNPC) president Agnes Oluoch said he has been in contact with Chinese officials who sent her all the necessary documents that has been used to inform the government the cost that will be incurred to bring the boats to Kenya.

"I really want to laud Sururu for her individual efforts that helped her win an Olympic slot by finishing first because I did not even know that she was traveling. The best I can do is to now ensure that she is facilitated to train well which include bringing her boat to Kenya and talking to NOCK to at least give her kit," said Oluoch.

This is just another challenge for Sururu as she looks ahead to chasing glory in Tokyo.

The Olympics and Paralympic Games are organised separately, with the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOC-K) handling the Olympics and Kenya National Paralympic Committee (KNPC) dealing with the Paralympic Games.

"After qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics, Asiya was given two boats one for training and another that was to be shipped to Japan directly for the Games," Oluoch explained to Nation Sport on Saturday.

"We have written to the government to help pay for the boat's shipping costs, and in the letter we have attached an invoice... We are yet to get a response."

Oluoch said it was the ambition of the KNPC to have Sururu train in Ruiru, but they are short of funds.

"Earlier this year, I also secured her a two-week training in Spain, and even secured her visa, but the coronavirus pandemic messed up everything," she added.

"We depend on the government for financing. The Cabinet Secretary (Amina Mohamed) had promised to help her, and we are still waiting."

So far, five athletes have qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics.

"As much as the Paralympics are not in the ambit of NOC-K, we are all 'Team Kenya's and will be happy to assist the Paralympics team where we can," NOC-K secretary general Francis Mutuku observed on Saturday.

"Team Kenya needs to be treated with dignity. Challenges will never end, but collectively we can make the difference. We are happy that conversations are taking place and the Sports Ministry should collectively look at team Kenya and launch the Steering Committee for Tokyo as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, Sururu thanked the Kenya Navy for facilitating her training along with other rowers in Mombasa.

"The Navy have been of great assistance but since Covid-19 bit, they stopped the training programmes. We hope they will come back and help us soon," she said.

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