Whenever she can afford the bus fare, Abondance Kalyoko takes public transit 20 miles away from her home to a local stadium in the bustling border city of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For years, Abondance has been playing basketball with a group of women.
“We play, we laugh, we enjoy ourselves. Then we return home in a good spirit,” she says of her wheelchair basketball teammates. “This gives me strength because I encounter my friends who have disabilities like me, and we forget about that.”
As a child, Abondance was administered a faulty vaccine, which led to bone tuberculosis. As a result, Abondance, now 20, is shorter than her peers and one of her hips is noticeably larger than the other. “I have difficulties walking [because of it],” she explains. She says she has to work to maintain her balance and sometimes tires quickly, which can make everyday tasks like chores more taxing. She says the fatigue has deterred her from pursuing certain hobbies like church choir.
For Abondance, who grew up in Ngoungou village, life changed at the age of eight, when she started showing signs of her disability. “In the village, not so many people are educated. People with disabilities are badly marginalized.” It led her to make the move two hours away to Goma where she now lives.
Just because I have certain limitations, it does not mean that my life has ended.
Life in the city hasn’t been easy either and Abdondance says she has trauma because of the way she has been treated. “Some people avoid me because they worry I might infect them.”
Abondance’s mother still lives in the village and her father passed away a few years ago. She currently lives with her sister, Asifiwe, 18, who is her biggest cheerleader. They are temporarily living with family friends while they search for an affordable place of their own.
Regardless, Abondance has a positive outlook. “I cannot lose all my hope. Just because I have certain limitations, it does not mean that my life has ended.” Abondance lives by these words. She designs clothes and jewelry, draws, crafts, and is learning makeup application.
Abondance lights up when talking about her many plans for the future and her hope to attend university when she has the funds. “If I ask anywhere for a job they will refuse me saying: ‘You have a disability! Why would we hire you?’ So I want to have a higher certificate so I can work and rely on myself,” she explains.
And she doesn’t plan to stop there. Abondance wants to attend modeling school and participate in Miss Wheelchair World. She also wants to write an educational film with the message that girls with disabilities can achieve their dreams.
“I want to become a hero for other girls with disabilities,” she says. “You should not just hide at home because of your disability. You can also go to school, participate in activities, belong in groups.”
She envisions a future in Congo without barriers for those with disabilities. “I see on the Internet, people with disabilities like me, in developed countries, doing the same sports and activities that I do, but with tools, places, and equipment that are all adapted for them, unlike here. They even organize and lead protests.”
At the stadium, which doubles as a training center, CARE provides physical activities for people with disabilities and training on issues including gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health. It’s one of the topics Abondance is passionate about. She knows numerous girls with disabilities — including one of her close friends — who have experienced sexual abuse. She is determined to change that.
“I want to work in the humanitarian sector, to help other people with disabilities, to help the marginalized women and girls,” Abondance says. “My only goal is to help people who are suffering. I grew up suffering, I cannot see others suffering.”