I was born and brought up in the plains of Mandera County. Mandera is, in many ways, our Timbuktu - that far off and remote place. Largely sandy and hot enough to ‘scald’ soft feet of the school going children. In many ways, it is the byword of poverty and neglect over the years. Nomadic communities there traverse the vast plains in search of water and pasture. It is among the poorest counties in Kenya that devolution under the current dispensation seeks to fast track to development.
In a polygamous family of over thirty siblings, I was the last born on my mother’s side. I grew up as a gifted child; striving to be amongst the very best in my class. My family and community had great hopes in me. They hoped I would excel and pull them from the laurels of poverty. After excelling in primary and secondary school, I joined Kenyatta University. The joy in my family was indescribable. I was the first child from our extended family of Reer Bilikha to join university.
At the university, a sense of curiosity and drive to achieve were wired in me. This saw me head the then vibrant regional student union North Eastern Province University Student Association (NEPUSA) where I brushed shoulders with great leaders such as the current President Uhuru Kenyatta and the current Deputy President Ruto. I attended conferences and workshops and spoke strongly of the challenges bedeviling my region especially in education.
After 4 years of hard work, I was awarded a degree. I was lucky to get a job early. Life was great and I was enjoying it to the fullest. My career was on a rising trajectory. It was then that the drive to serve my community was boiling in me. I decided to contest for a parliamentary seat. I submitted my interest to the then ‘Clan’s electoral college.’
The date 23rd March 2007 will forever remain etched in my mind. It was windy and hot Friday, just another day in the dusty and sleepy Rhamu Village of Mandera County – about 950 kilometres, northeast of Nairobi. The car that I was driving swerved, hit a hill of rock and rolled in a river of sand. Boom! I heard it roll as I clung to frail hopes. I became unconscious.
I ended up at Nairobi Hospital. My legs were numb. I couldn’t feel or move them. I was helpless and crestfallen. “Hassan, we have tried our best, but the severity of your spinal injury means you will never walk again,” the doctor (Dr. David Oluoch Olunya) told me. I was later transferred to National Spinal Injury Hospital and stayed there for seven months.
The world crashed, eerily unleashing a feeling of a life that had reached its vanishing point. I was dejected, hopeless and angry. I just wanted to die. My family too was shaken to the core.
In every dark situation, there is always that spark that lights a flint of hope. My spark was lit by my family, friends and the community of persons with disabilities. These three pillars of my life encouraged me that I could be resilient. They encouraged me to redefine my path. And redefining I did! They encouraged me that you can make lemonade out of the lemon that the vagaries of life splash on our faces.
Three years later I started wheeling into the future. I also married a beautiful wife who became a dependable partner in my struggle. As time went by, I developed a passionate interest to understand matters disability especially among nomadic communities of Kenya. I asked what is it like to be a person with disability or to have a family member with disability in a nomadic lifestyle. The journey began. I rallied my friends especially those with disability to form NONDO, an organisation that exclusively targets persons with disability from nomadic communities. I am also a Board of Director of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) and a Commissioner with World Disability Union (WDU).
This excruciating yet inspiring experience has given me three life lessons that I can share with any person who is going through a similar ordeal.
(I) WE ARE BEATEN TO SHINE
For gold to shine, it is passed through fire. It has to be beaten and subjected to abnormal temperatures and conditions. The outcome of this process is the precious metal that
defines beauty and prestige. I might have been ‘beaten’ but I wasn’t defeated. Whatever anguish that people go through here on earth, if they keep their heads high and reinforces their resilience they will have the capacity to achieve greatness. Don’t be defeated by situations; instead, be beaten to shine!
(II) WE NEED A SUPPORT SYSTEM; FAITH IN A HIGHER POWER
There is probably someone who has gone through what you are going through; perhaps they have fought tougher battles. They cope with a strong support system of family, friends and colleagues. In times of bliss, cultivate a support system. It will come in handy. Faith in a caring and divine power that is in control of our lives also replenishes our hope.Let us be there for each other also when we need each other the most.
(III) LIVE FOR SOMETHING, EVEN IN DISTRESS
It was Zig Ziglar, the late motivational speaker who said that you can have everything that you want in life; if you will just help others get what they want. Indeed, in life, we rise by raising others. Finding a cause to live for, even in the toughest of circumstances, builds our self esteem. When the great boxing legend Mohammed Ali was diagnosed with Parkison’s Disease-a mental disorder-and was asked what his greatest lesson in life was, he had this to say: “I have learned to live my life one step, one breath, and one moment at a time, but it was a long road. I set out on a journey of love, seeking truth, peace and understanding. I am still learning.” Such are the stories of our lives. We continue learning.