Fellowship helps a young Paralympian promote inclusion in Zimbabwe
“I’ve always wanted to control my successes and failures,” says Nyasha Mharakurwa, a wheelchair tennis player who represented Zimbabwe at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. “When I was introduced to tennis, I loved it because I was able to see all I was capable of. My personal journey made me realize there are a lot of other people that could do this where I come from.”
Mharakurwa is one of 1,000 young African leaders who were selected for the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship. The program invests in some of Africa’s most promising young leaders by connecting them to the resources, training, and networks to shape the continent’s future.
Using sports to promote education, self-confidence, and inclusion
Before learning about the Fellowship, Mharakurwa was already determined to show Zimbabwe that persons with disabilities are as capable of living active, productive lives.
He started the NM Foundation to connect persons with disabilities to recreational sports—including swimming, tennis, and basketball—at schools and rehabilitation centers. The NM Foundation also conducts sports camps that promote health, build self-esteem, and foster community integration and social inclusion.
“We want to use sports as a platform to promote the importance of education, to break stereotypes in the community, and to instill self-confidence so that [participants] go out and live their lives to the best of their abilities,” says Mharakurwa.
Reconsidering root causes to fight poverty and social stigma
Building upon the work of his foundation, Mharakurwa decided to participate in this year’s Mandela Washington Fellowship. He wanted to find solutions to the problems many Zimbabweans living with disabilities face every day, including poverty, unemployment, and social stigma.
I’ve learned to reexamine the context that is most relevant to people’s needs and then design projects to address that.
Nyasha Mharakurwa, Mandela Washington Fellow
According to Mharakurwa, poverty is especially difficult for persons living with disabilities because they are often denied conventional avenues of employment and have less access to educational facilities or the means of living independently.
While participating in the Fellowship at the University of Illinois, Mharakurwa honed his critical thinking skills. He reconsidered his understanding of the biggest challenges that Zimbabweans who live with disabilities encounter.
“You can’t ask someone to play sports if they haven’t even eaten,” says Mharakurwa. “I’ve learned to reexamine the context that is most relevant to people’s needs and then design projects to address that.”
Developing a social entrepreneurship program to provide training and employment
Mharakurwa was inspired to develop a social entrepreneurship program that provides training and employment opportunities to people living with disabilities. Through the program, participants organize Paralympic sports leagues in partnership with schools and sports clubs across the country.
Upon completing the Fellowship and his master’s degree at the University of Johannesburg, Mharakurwa plans to reintroduce his foundation with a new mission in Zimbabwe. The foundation will focus on developing participants’ employment and income generation skills and creating Paralympic sports leagues in schools to better engage youth with disabilities.
“[Sports] are huge in terms of changing perceptions and attitudes, and in terms of developing the confidence and character of the athletes themselves,” says Mharakurwa. “It can always be a [way] to link people to the support that they need.”
Mharakurwa is currently completing a Professional Development Experience with the sports arm of Ability360 in Phoenix, Arizona, as the culmination his Mandela Washington Fellowship experience.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. For more information on President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), please visit mandelawashingtonfellowship.state.gov.