Shifting Stigma - Stories from Malawi’s first-ever Para Games

Kritika Naidu
Dec. 1, 2023

In Malawi, the landscape of sports is evolving, creating avenues for inclusivity, empowerment, and redefining the narrative for young people with disabilities. Nelia Majawa from the Chilinde Township in Lilongwe, arrives at the Bingu National Stadium to support and encourage around 30 young people with disabilities to play sport and interact with each other at the first Malawian Para Sport Games (27 July 2023). Her daughter is one of them. Her 13-year-old is a weightlifting enthusiast, and her mother beams with pride and joy when stating that she lifted 25 kgs on the day. 

Nelia's journey into the world of Para sport began when her daughter discovered the appeal of the Paralympics on television. Tokyo 2020 (held in 2021 due to the Covid 19 pandemic) was the first time that the Paralympic Games was broadcast on television across African countries, and it marked a turning point, triggering a ripple effect that not only raised awareness but also instilled hope among individuals with disabilities, showcasing the possibility of their active participation. Witness to her daughter's passion, she embraced the idea of participation wholeheartedly, standing thereafter, not just a supportive parent, but as a beacon of encouragement for other parents of similarly affected children. Being an advocate herself, Nelia envisions a future where children with disabilities can compete on the international stage, challenging stereotypes and proving that disability should not be a hindrance to pursuing one's passions. 

Elsewhere, at the Montfort Demonstration School in Nguludi, Chiradzulu, Thokozani Kanyungu, is a teacher for children with disabilities, and experiencing a shift in stigma.  He is a sport coach and mentor for those with disabilities, actively involved in training young athletes in running, goal ball and blind football. His students have excelled at the national level, winning medals at the African Union Region 5 Games held in Malawi last year, and has represented Malawi at international events in Italy, with plans for further participation in France. Through his engagement, he has inspired young individuals to embrace their disabilities and demonstrate the strength of resilience by actively participating in sports despite their inherent challenges. Additionally, his efforts have played a crucial role in reshaping societal perceptions about the potential achievements of those with disabilities and the hope of a better future.  

Challenges and Aspirations 

Both Nelia and Thokozani shed light on some of the challenges faced by them and the children. Nelia describes the logistical obstacles, particularly the lack of transportation, hindering consistent attendance at training sessions. Coach Thokozani singles out the scarcity of funded competitions that could provide a broader platform for athletes with disabilities as a major obstacle. Despite that, both share a common vision for the future. Nelia advocates for parents to support and encourage their children's involvement in sports. Spurred on by the success of his students, Thokozani envisions a future where he himself is well-trained and possesses advanced technical skills to train a larger number of athletes effectively. He emphasises the importance of exposure to different coaches and the collaborative learning environment in shaping his approach to training and mentoring. 

An Inclusive Approach 

In combining the narratives of Nelia Majawa and Thokozani Kanyungu, the powerful story of hope, resilience, and the transformative impact of Para sports emerges. The challenges they face underscore the need for increased support at the community and governmental levels with adequate funding, accessible transportation, and more inclusive competitions, essential components in building a sustainable framework for Para sports in Malawi. The stories of Nelia and Thokozani serve as the guiding light toward a future where young people with disabilities are not limited by societal perceptions, but are instead, embraced, celebrated, and given the opportunities they deserve to thrive on the national and international sporting stages.