Asiya Sururu Mohamed is getting new legs. But first, she has to learn how to walk. She’s 30 years old. When she was two years old, a train ran over her in Ganjoni, Mombasa, severing both of her legs and three fingers. Her father who watched the incident collapsed and died on the spot from the horror of watching his only child get run over.
Her mother died five years later. Growing up as an orphan and double amputee came with great challenges and turmoil. But then sports saved her. She has delved into wheelchairs tennis, badminton, sitting volleyball, chess, scrabble, darts, javelin, and shotput. In 2018, someone from Tudor Water Sports, Mombasa, where she used to play tennis, told her, "maybe you should try para-rowing".
She asked, Para-what? Para-rowing is a sport where the disabled compete in rowing in the water. Two years later she was competing in Tokyo’s Paralympics, the first Kenyan [and woman] para-rower. She didn’t win a medal, however.
She intends to next time when she participates in the next event in Paris in 2024. Earlier this year, Asiya was appointed as a board member of the Kenya Academy of Sports.
She met JACKSON BIKO at the gardens of the Tamarind Restaurant in Karen.
What kind of a teenager were you?
Very troubled and troublesome. After my mother died when I was seven, I was taken in by my aunt who also died. Her daughter raised me. I had very low self-esteem. I found it difficult to accept my situation. But when I turned 18 I accepted that I was a woman who didn’t have legs. But life had to go on, you know.
What happened at 18 for you to accept yourself?
I think maturity was a part of it. I used to look at girls in high heels and wish I could wear a pair. Their legs looked so good in them. At some point, it dawns on you that it doesn’t matter how much you wish for what you can’t have.
You ask yourself, "what else can I do without legs or toes?" I went to boarding schools in Mombasa and Thika. I trained as a teacher at Shanzu Teachers Training College and taught at a primary school in Mtwapa for a year.
What was your turning point in life?
I schooled at Portreitz School For The Physically Handicapped in Mombasa. Our teachers insisted on every student learning more than one sport. I took a liking to such games like chess and darts, scrabble, wheelchair and sitting volleyball.
The physical activities refocused my energies on something more productive than self-pity. And I realised I enjoyed it. I became very fit; I had great arms and six-packs [chuckles].
How is the experience of trying to walk at your age, what are you learning?
It’s both amazing and strange. [Pause] It’s also motivating. I like the idea of freedom, of not being aided. To just walk. It’s strange because I feel like a child again. It’s a very slow and frustrating process.
I fall all the time but the most amazing thing is that with every step I take I feel so celebratory. It leaves me tired but very proud and happy. I want to scream for everybody to see that I made one step! [Laughs].
You're celebrating the small steps.
Exactly. And it’s just one step but a very important step. I started walking with the aid of rails then I graduated to a baby walker, then two crutches. Currently, I’m on one crutch. It’s taken me six weeks. It’s a different adventure.
What are you learning in this adventure?
I'm learning that everything is possible. It's just how you tune your mind. Inspiration comes from any angle. But I have to say that my strength comes from within. There is little I can’t do if I put my mind to it. I’m most grateful for my mind. God took away my legs but He left me with something more powerful; my mind.
When was the last time you felt sorry for yourself?
When I was a teenager. I wondered if I would ever wear high heels. I wondered if I would ever have a boyfriend with legs If I’d wear a skirt. I wished I could climb a tree. Or run up a staircase. I knew these were things I would never experience and that made me feel sorry for myself.
So what lesson did you learn in Tokyo?
That as Kenyans we are many years behind in sports. We don’t invest in talent, training, or research. We don’t preserve the good things we have. We want to break them. We don’t take risks in unpopular games like rowing. We just want to focus on athletics and marathons because that’s what has always worked. What do you call, the comfort zone? But we can be great if we want.
What's the most difficult thing you have ever had to do in your life?
Walking. It's exhausting, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Walking is tough.
So what are you currently struggling with as a woman?
[Giggles] Very interesting question. [Long pause] Nobody has ever asked me that! I get asked what I’m struggling with as an athlete, but as a woman… [Long pause] I think this is more of a fear, maybe a struggle. That my offspring would not accept the fact that their mother has no legs.
Have you ever fallen in love with another person?
[Chuckles] Not yet. I feel like I’m neither here nor there. It’s a feeling people like me have. I admire it but that’s it, I move on. I think I conditioned myself emotionally to never run off in those directions. [Laughs] But I wouldn’t mind having children one day, Inshallah.
Do you still admire women in high heels?
Have you ever longed for a particular meal for so long that when it was put in front of you, you didn’t have the appetite anymore? It's the same thing with me. I will have my legs soon and I will be able to walk but I just don’t want high heels anymore. I will be happy walking in flats.
What do you do for fun?
So I live alone. I spend most of my time alone on my laptop. I play chess with people online. They are always beating me. [Laughs]. I also spend time writing my book; the journey of my life. I’m on page 26. I enjoy writing. I watch a lot of horror movies too. Apart from my sports mates, I don’t have friends. But who needs many friends, just one or two is enough, no?
Does it get lonely?
At times it gets lonely. Sometimes it's not. And most of the time it’s peaceful.
Are you happy?
Very happy. I’m happy with the fact that I get to walk after 30 years. It's like being a boss of your own [life]. It’s freedom, serious freedom.