Taonere in training ahead of the Paralypics in Zomba, Malawi on Aug. 2, 2021. Photo © Sightsavers/Malumbo Simwaka

Taonere Banda made history in Rio in 2016 when she was the first ever Malawian to compete in the Paralympic Games. This year she represented Malawi again in Tokyo and re-lived her dream of running for her country. But despite her success, Taonere’s sporting career was never guaranteed.

Untreated cataracts as an infant left Taonere with a severe visual impairment and almost totally blind. As she grew up, she became used to experiencing stigma and discrimination around her disability. 

“It was difficult for me to get an education as a child growing up with a disability in Malawi”, she says. “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”.

Taonere at home
© Sightsavers/Adriane Ohanesian
Taonere Banda training in Malawi ahead of the 2016 Paralympics
© Sightsavers/Malumbo Simwaka
Taonere Banda visits a Sightsavers supported education project in Malawi in 2016
© Sightsavers/Malumbo Simwaka

Taonere then didn’t get the chance to go back to school until she was ten, and once there she was not allowed to join in with sports classes.

“I never took part in athletics at school because most of the teachers were looking for people without a disability. They’d say, ‘no, you can’t do this. You cannot run with this condition’. So, I had to hide my passions”. 

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries. Almost 85 per cent of the population lives in remote, rural communities. Many children with disabilities, especially girls, are excluded from education. There is a common perception that their attendance at school will be of little value and that they are too difficult for teachers to manage.

“There’s a bit of discrimination towards people with disabilities. They think they can do nothing to participate in society”. 

This is not just an issue in Malawi. There were over 33 million with disabilities who were out of school before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has only made the situation worse for many children.

Despite her setbacks Taonere loved running and kept doing the sport that made her happy. She was eventually supported by a national civic society to enter competitions which led to her being spotted by the Malawi Paralympic Committee.   

Now 25 years old, she is racing middle distance and has represented Malawi at two Paralympic Games. A dream come true and a rebuff to everyone who doubted her abilities.

© Sightsavers/Malumbo Simwaka

At her first Games in Rio in 2016 Taonere was disqualified in the women’s T13 1500-meter race for leaving her lane. This was frustrating, but she didn’t let it stop her from competing again in Tokyo.

“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 I ran my best time this season and didn’t get disqualified. As the first female Malawi Paralympian I have set the record that future athletes from my country will be trying to break”.

To challenge negative stereotypes, Taonere feels it’s important to be a role-model to other young people living with a disability in Malawi. So, she is using her platform to support the Equal World campaign of charity Sightsavers, which fights for the right for people with disabilities to attend school, find employment, and fully participate in society. Banda hopes to see increased support for inclusive education in Malawi and encourages girls with disabilities to believe in themselves.

“I want the world to know that disabled people have the capability – that they can do sports and put their countries on the world map. Being a disabled person is not inability. Other people with disabilities should not look upon down themselves. They can do it. They can be like me”.

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