Top athletes who have a disability were in Tokyo recently competing for a spot on the podium. Malawi’s visually impaired runner Taonere Banda was one of them. Born with a visual impairment, she did not get the chance to go to school until she was 10 years old. But that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dreams.
Today, the 25-year-old is a middle-distance para-sport athlete. In 2016, she became the first athlete to represent Malawi at a Paralympic Games when she was selected to compete in Rio de Janeiro. She made fourth place in her qualifiers but was later disqualified for leaving her lane.
Banda didn’t let that stop her from competing again in Tokyo some weeks ago, where she ran her best time. The athlete is currently supporting Sightsavers’ ‘Equal World’ campaign which calls for the rights of people with disabilities to be upheld around the world and for children with disabilities to be included in education.
Banda opened up to Face2Face Africa about her life, sports journey, training and goals for the future.
1. Can you tell us your experience growing up visually impaired?
It was difficult for me to get an education as a child growing up with a disability in Malawi.
When I was only one week old my mother noticed there was something wrong with my eyes. She learned that I had developed cataracts, but there was only one paediatric eye surgeon in the whole country, and I was not able to get the sight-saving operation that I needed.
My grandmother sent me to school once when I was young, but I couldn’t see the blackboard, so the teachers told me to go home and come back when I was older and more literate. My grandmother worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope so she kept me at home. It made me feel like education wasn’t for me.
When I finally did get to school at age 10, I wasn’t allowed to participate in any sports activities because of my disability. The teachers thought that because I couldn’t see well, I wouldn’t be able to compete. They would say: ‘No, you can’t do this. You can’t run with this condition.’ So, I had to hide my passions at school. It made me feel like I was incapable of doing sports like the other children.
2. When did running become a part of your life and how did it happen?
I started running when I was at school and discovered I enjoyed it, even though I wasn’t allowed to join in with the school sports lessons. I was spotted by an organisation called NICE (The National Initiative for Civic Education) who saw my potential. They suggested that I go and participate in athletics. And it was only when I started doing this that I realised that I could not only run in competitions, but also that I was good at it.
I love running because it keeps me mentally and physically fit. It makes me feel happy because I am always interacting with different people, so I don’t feel like I’m segregated. It has opened up so many opportunities for me, especially the chance to travel and see new places.
Running professionally means I can support my son and provide for my family. When I am not competing, I work as a farmer, which I also enjoy. Having my own career helps break down stereotypes that people with disabilities cannot be productive members of society.
3. What moved you to start competing rather than just running for fun?
I didn’t get seriously into running until I was discovered by NICE when I was 16. I had been attending one of their projects for young people with disabilities to learn and do activities together when they got a call from the Malawi Paralympic Committee asking if there was anyone at the project who would be suitable to send to a local competition. They selected me and said that if I could compete and do well there was potential to train for the Paralympics.
I ran the 400m and 800m and came first in both. I was on top of the world. I was so happy, and I couldn’t really believe that there were truly organisations that were there just to help people with disabilities. It was a dream and a revelation to know that the Malawi Paralympic Organisation exists.
4. You became Malawi’s first athlete at the Paralympic Games in 2016. Can you tell us about that experience?
The opportunity to travel really is amazing and the 2016 Paralympics were life-changing for me, a dream come true. It was the first time I had ever been on a plane or left Africa.
I didn’t even know before there were different types of disabilities, I thought maybe I was alone. It was such a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere where I was able to meet athletes like me from all over the world.
It was also a bad experience as I was disqualified for leaving my lane. Though this made me lose morale it also taught me some important lessons so I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake in Tokyo.
5. How was this year’s experience and what was your training schedule and a normal day like for you?
I really enjoyed this year’s Paralympics. I carried my country’s flag in the opening ceremony and met new friends who taught me ways to improve my running.
It has been a much better experience than Rio because this time I was not disqualified from my race and ran my best time this season. As the first female Malawi Paralympian I have set the record that future athletes from my country will be trying to break.
6. How did you prepare for the Tokyo Games?
I have difficulty running when the sun shines in my eyes. So, to avoid this I prefer to run at night and most of my training takes place then. Our training ground may be basic, but my coach Agnes mentors and encourages me and follows the best international methods. Following my disqualification at Rio, I worked hard on tactics and pace. In particular I practiced staying in my lane and trying to set a record for Malawi Paralympic.
7. What did you look forward to the most at this year’s games?
It is amazing to have the opportunity to travel and meet other athletes from around the world.
8. Did anyone inspire you as an athlete growing up?
Mr Chiutsi the president of Malawi Paralympic Committee is the person who inspired me to become an athlete. He has been encouraging me in so many ways.
9. How do you motivate yourself when you don’t feel like training? And how did you stay motivated to train amid Covid-19?
I want to make Malawi proud and to show the world that disabled people are just as capable as anyone else. I want children with disabilities to see me up on that world stage, see what is possible and have faith in themselves.
Sometimes I don’t feel like training but I love to run and when I remember how it feels to travel and meet new friends I just wake up and go for training. It has been more challenging this year following the Covid-19 regulations. Sadly my teammate Alinafe Puwa was unable to come with me as he contracted the virus.
10. How do you think your presence at the Games would help shift perceptions about disability?
When people with disabilities are involved in mainstream sports, it helps to challenge the stigma and discrimination that is often associated with disability. However, people with disabilities are far more likely to be physically inactive than those without a disability, especially in low-income countries where there can be many barriers to access.
Globally, children with disabilities, particularly girls, are also less likely to go to school, less likely to complete school and more likely to be illiterate than children without disabilities. This needs to change.
Disability does not mean inability. I want to be recognised for who I am, not restricted by what people think I can’t do.
11. What advice would you give to young people with disabilities about pursuing their dreams?
Some people still believe that people with disabilities can do nothing to participate in society. This is not true. Disability is not inability. I want young people with disabilities to see me as a visually impaired person competing, travelling and achieving, and see that it can be done. Do not look down upon yourself like I was made to do. Look at me and believe that you can do it too.