Kindness of a stranger lets Congolese woman race


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The Independent Online

A Congolese woman whose legs were blown off by a landmine will compete in the London Paralympics after a British woman gave her a top-of-the-line racing chair.

Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata is training in Harlow, Essex, in preparation for racing the 1,500m on 3 September, thanks to a British wheelchair athlete, Anne Wafula Strike.

Ms Strike has been coaching Ms Kimbata since she arrived in the UK. It will be the first time the Congolese athlete has used a racing wheelchair competitively, as the £5,000 price tag puts them far out of reach for racers in the developing world.

Ms Kimbata, a 30-year-old mother-of-one, doesn’t expect to win but says she will be happy to take her place on the starting line. In 2000, aged 18, she was maimed by landmines on the Congolese-Angolan border when heading to visit her aunt.

“The bus takes you right up to the border, and then you must cross on foot,” she said. “I took a shortcut instead of following the main road, but I had no idea there were landmines there. There was a sudden noise, like a bullet, and then I fell. I didn’t feel any pain at that time. It was 6pm, and already dark, so I couldn’t see my leg, but I felt the blood coursing down it. Then I lost consciousness.”

Ms Kimbata was taken to hospital. “When I regained consciousness I realised my legs had been blown off. I was in terrible pain. I thought my life was over.”

She had lost her right leg above the knee, with her left leg was now a stump above the ankle. Landmines continue to maim or kill 4,000 people in Africa every year. The Angolan borders, where mines were planted during the civil war in the last quarter of the 20th century, are particularly dangerous.

People’s first reaction on seeing her, she said, was pity. But she didn’t want to be pitied. Two years after the accident, she joined an athletics club. “I was the best,” she boasted. “I always won.”

Ms Kimbata developed her talents – albeit in a standard wheelchair – to the extent where she is now one of just two athletes in the first ever Congolese Paralympic delegation. (The others, for completists, are: Antigua and Barbuda, Brunei, Cameroon, Comoros, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, North Korea, San Marino, Solomon Islands, Trinidad and Tobago and the US Virgin Islands.)

When Ms Strike, 43, was alerted to the fact Ms Kimbata might compete, she immediately pledged her help. “Here’s another woman,” she said, “who doesn’t want to sit and receive handouts. Dedeline is so much like me, she’s come to sport late in life, and that’s because she lives in Africa.”

The Congolese athlete has found her British mentor to be a hard taskmaster. A schoolteacher by profession, Ms Strike has been helping Ms Kimbata to keep the chair in a straight line, follow the lines of the track and get used to turning the specially-made wheels. She would do well to score a time of under six minutes in the exhausting, mile-long race, but the winning time will be almost half that.

Not only is Ms Kimbata competing in the Games, but a charity consortium has donated the money to ensure she goes back home with a brand new pair of legs. “It’s a great feeling of joy,” she said.

Ms Kimbata’s ambitions are manifest. She wants to up the hours she devotes to training, and practice in her new chair.

One day, she said, she wants to be able to compete with the very best. But Ms Strike, who became a British citizen in 2006, warned that the reality could be very different. “The chairs are very expensive, and she will need spares,” she said. “She’s got a coach, but financially, you wonder whether this is a dream that is going to end when she gets on the plane back to Congo.”