IBRAHIM WAFULA The One-legged Cyclist
Meet 37-year-old Ibrahim Wafula who lost one of his legs 30 years ago and had to learn to survive in the streets. Part of the survival skills included learning how to drive and cycle. But it is the cycling bit that opened doors of opportunities for him. The para-cyclist, who is also Uber Kenya ambassador, narrated his inspiring story to HENRY KAHARA.
When Ibrahim Wafula visited our office for this interview, my colleagues wondered how he managed to drive himself yet he is one legged. What they didn’t know is that Ibrahim does not only drive himself, but also earns his daily bread through driving.
Ibrahim, fondly referred to as captain Wafula by his peers and friends, is also a cyclist and footballer. As mentioned earlier, he is the current Uber Kenya ambassador.
Thirty years might have elapsed since Ibrahim lost his leg, but the events leading to his disability are still fresh in his mind – they might as well have happened yesterday.
“I was involved in a horrific road accident when I was seven years old. The accident robbed me of my right leg. However, I was lucky to be the only survivor in the ill-fated bus accident,” he recalls.
Needless to say, the accident changed Ibrahim’s life completely. For starters, while his age mates were joining school, he was recuperating at home. He notes that most people, including family members, have a tendency of writing off people living with disability and his case was not different.
“I am glad that my mum didn’t give up on me and although she didn’t take me to a formal school, she enrolled me in madrassa (Islamic religious school) where I learnt how to read and write,” he recalls.
Ibrahim explains that his mother didn’t treat him differently from other children and she always encouraged him to go and play with his age mates despite his condition.
This was instrumental in enabling him to mingle and work with able-bodied people without feeling inferior or inadequate.
Ibrahim, an ardent footballer, says that the disability has not stopped him from indulging in his favourite pastime – football. He reveals that he is a keen goalkeeper.
“My love for football started when I was very young and I still play it to this day. I am currently the captain of the national amputee football team,” he says. It is here that he earned himself the moniker captain Wafula.
Under Ibrahim’s leadership, the Kenya Amputee Football team, for the first time, played in the Amputee World Cup Trophy in 2014.
An ardent cyclist…
While young, he rarely got a chance to play football courtesy of his disability. As such, he was the designated ‘watchperson’ watching over his friends’ possessions, which included bicycles, as they played. This he did at a fee.
“They knew I couldn’t run away with their bicycles so they were assured of finding them intact after the game,” he reveals. At the time, Ibrahim was relying on a tricycle for movement and while he managed to comfortably move around, he had a challenge navigating hilly topographies hence he had to look for someone to assist him.
“I used the money I got from the boys to pay somebody to push me. To be self-reliant is every disabled person’s dream hence I was not happy with depending on someone else. I started thinking of ways to overcome the challenge,” he says. This saw him develop interest in cycling and he decided to train himself.
Although it took time and hard work to learn how to cycle, it was the best decision he has ever taken as it changed his life for the better.
“It took me months to learn how to ride a bicycle. I remember how I would support myself with my walking crutches to have balance before I mastered the art,” he says.
Now that he had learned how to cycle, the next challenge was to own a bicycle. Luckily for him, his mother owned an old bicycle. He repaired it and was good to go.
“Cycling changed my life completely as it helped me move around with ease,” he says, adding that it wasn’t long before he managed to cycle long distances.
Land of opportunities…
In 1995, Ibrahim relocated to Nairobi in search of greener pastures. He luckily got employed in a garage in Eastleigh. His bicycle became his greatest asset, as it facilitated his movements.
He learnt the ropes around car repair and maintenance and eventually started practicing as a mechanic. But his clients questioned his ability given his disability and so to gain their confidence he learned how to drive. Excited at what he had achieved – cycling and driving – he was more than motivated to live life to the fullest.
“I would use my crutches to control the fuel and brakes while my other leg would be on the clutch pedal,” he explains.
Ibrahim acknowledges that his life took a new turn in 1997 when he heard about Trust Condoms cycling competition in Nairobi and decided to give it a try.
All that was needed of him was to register and show up for the competition. People were awed by the one-legged cyclist.
Since he cycled every day, he was at ease and even though he did not win the competition, he earned more praises than the winner. He says he practically stole the show.
“I was given a lot of gifts and some money with which I bought my first brand new bicycle,” he says.
Few days after the competition, he came across a poster in Karen, Nairobi, about a cycling challenge, which was to be held at the foothills of Mt Kenya.
Not one to let a cycling opportunity slip through his fingers, he made inquiries about the competition and registered as a participant after ascertaining that he was eligible to compete.
“Most of the participants in the challenge were whites and wealthy people. By now I was an experienced cyclist and they were no match for me: I floored them all,” he says delightedly.
Again, his disability saw him get a lot of attention from fans and participants alike. One of the participants who worked with the United Nations (UN) was touched by Ibrahim’s sheer willpower and positivity. The two gentlemen soon became friends.
“The UN director asked what I wanted and I told him I wanted a job. He asked me to drop my certificates at his office. Since I had not gone through formal education, the only certificates I owned were from previous cycling competitions and that is what I took to him. It appears that it was all I needed to do for I got a job with the UN in Nairobi,” he says.
He was posted to the agro forestry research department and his job description included researching on seeds and plants so as to determine where best and under what conditions they would grow.
“I was first taken through training before starting to work. I put my best foot forward and ensured I was good at my job,” he expounds.
Ibrahim was offered a company vehicle but he declined the offer, as he was comfortable using his bike to and from work. He was also still entering cycling competitions and cycling to work was an opportunity for him to sharpen his skills. He got a chance to represent Kenya and the UN in a cycling competition in California, USA.
“That was my first time to visit the USA. I remember I didn’t have a visa and other documents needed to facilitate my travel but working with the UN helped as I got everything with ease,” he says.
It was in this competition that he got to compete alongside one of the worlds cycling champions and his role model – Emanuel Faso. He says that although he had not competed in such a competition before, he emerged the winner, which came with a prize worth two million shillings.
“I thought the prize would be in form of money but they gave me an artificial limb to help me in walking. I wanted money as had gotten used to walking with one leg plus the money would have really come in handy as I would have invested it,” he reveals.
The organisers of the competition insisted on giving him the artificial limb and he had no choice but to accept. However, he lost the artificial limb two years ago while using a local airline. He sued the airline for negligence and the case is ongoing.
“I stayed in the US for sometime, returning back home in 2013. I currently work as a driver with the taxi-hailing company – Uber,” he says.
Ibrahim admits that the main challenge with people living with disability is lack of confidence. He urges those living with disability to work on their confidence, as it is the stepping-stone to self-reliance. He adds that disability is not only physical but can also be mental.
“If you fail to use what God has given you, then you are also a person living with disability,” he concludes.