Kenyan fisherman beats polio and poverty to paddle with elite

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter in Duisburg
Poor fisherman races against the world's best

William Araka is a long way from home - and he looks it.

A beacon of colourful Kenyan attire adrift in a sea of tracksuited athletes, he sits down and drops his crutches to the floor - crutches to replace the large, wooden pole with which he supported his withered right leg when he first arrived.

Araka, who says he is about 40 years old, is Kenya's lone paracanoeist at the sport's world championships in Duisburg, Germany.

At home, he is a fisherman. Fishing is a career forced upon him by polio, which he says "attacked" him as a five-year-old.

"I cannot do a lot of work," Araka tells the BBC. "If I can get sitting work, work where I just sit and do, that I can do."

His brother gave him the fishing job a decade ago as it let him sit down in a boat. There are not many fish - often barely enough for a meal - so it is no living to speak of.

"We are so poor," Araka murmurs, more in wonder than resentment, as the world's finest glide past in carbon-foam kayaks.

William Araka on his crutches
Araka, in traditional attire, on his crutches at the side of the lake in Duisburg

But his job does provide months of daily paddling on Kenya's vast Lake Victoria, in the rural Budalangi district hundreds of miles from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, in his wooden boat. And that has given Araka a talent.

When he decided to enter a race at his local canoe club, Margaret Mukami was there to watch. She had just trained as a classifier, an official who places disabled athletes in the correct class to ensure they race alongside those with similar abilities.

Mukami headed out to Budalangi as part of her job and saw something special in Araka.

"They told me about him there," she says. "They have an annual competition and he beat the guy who we thought was better. So we said we'd try to get him to the world championships."

Mukami says a 2010 survey found that 6% of Kenyans have a form of disability. It often leads to intense poverty and near-total reliance on family. Araka has four children and a wife to support, and must ask friends to help him pay for food and school fees.

Disability sport is deeply engrained in British society. A year on, the London 2012 Paralympics are hailed as an influential milestone in the movement's history; disabled athletes are regulars on national TV and the achievements of initiatives like Battle Back - a training programme for injured servicemen and women - are celebrated.

But in Kenya, when Araka borrowed a good boat and hit the qualifying time for this year's world championships, he began to cover new ground for his community and its disabled members.

"Let them get into sport," says Mukami. "Whatever doors sport opens for them, good. If it opens a press area, go for it. If you're good in sport, go for it... anything that will open the door for these guys so they stop being idle, and they don't depend on the second family member."

William Araka and Margaret Mukami
Araka and Mukami watch proceedings at the paracanoe worlds

Araka's journey to Duisburg has been a long one. He set off with Mukami on a day's trek to Nairobi, then flew for a day via Amsterdam (the trip was paid for by the sport's world governing body).

Now that he is here, his experience is not without its fraught moments.

Twenty minutes before his heat, Araka remains nervously perched in the chair. Mukami has to urge him to get going, then help him into the kayak.

When he eventually paddles away, he heads in the opposite direction to the start line and ends up on the wrong lake.

Three minutes before his race is due to start, Araka is back at the boat launch and looking perplexed. A fellow canoeist points towards the start line, 200m away. Only then does he inject some urgency, reaching the correct lane with moments to spare.

The race begins and, having effectively raced the distance twice in his hurry to reach the start, Araka is 15 seconds off the winning pace. He has not qualified for the final; these 56 seconds will be the only action he sees. But he avoids finishing last, by a tenth of a second.

When he gets back to the launch and a delighted Mukami, Araka is giggling with joy. The thrill of competition and achievement radiates from his smile.

"The race was good. I was not defeated," he announces. He playfully insists his outing on the wrong lake was "a warm-up". Mukami is crying.

Later, Araka can only find the right words to sum up his experience in Swahili. Mukami translates: "He says he has seen and he is going to tell others what they need to do."

Now, Araka finds the English he wants: "Especially those ones that are like me."

Mukami spoke about sport opening doors. Will this open doors for Araka when he is back home again, a disabled fisherman with a family to feed?

"It just might," she says. "I don't want to say so now, but we're going to see the outcome.

"This was very intimidating. We've never seen such an organised place. So many boats, so many people. How are we going to face them?

"We overcame that. At some point you just have to do it. He was nervous, but disability is a limitation in the mind - it's only in the mind - and once he's on the water, it is forgotten.

"This is getting him to see that he's not so bad. There are other guys [whose disabilities] are worse, who are here. When he takes all that information across [to Kenya], they will embrace the sport."