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Namibian Paralympic Athletes Abandoned

Forgotten hero: Para-athlete struggles to survive on meagre resources.
WINDHOEK– Namibian Paralympic athlete, Frans Panduleni Paulus, who has flown the country's flag high at many sports events, has been reduced to a beggar, as his fortunes on the track have failed to propel him to a better life. Paulus, once the face of disability sports in the country, has now fallen on hard times.

Paulus and five other people living with disabilities face the prospect of having no roof over their heads, as they are being evicted from a ramshackle storeroom they call home at Oshakati State Hospital. The battling athlete, popularly known by his moniker of 'Pac', who is paralyzed in both lower limbs, has since put his specially adapted racing bicycle up for sale to make ends meet and source accommodation outside the hospital premises where he has lived for over 20 years.

“Morning boss, I am in a serious financial crisis and sport is not going well for me right now,” Paulus said in a text message to The Namibian early last week, in a desperate call for help. Paulus wants at least N$30 000 for the hand-propelled bicycle, which is worth significantly more.

“Please put this on your pages, perhaps there is someone interested. I am at Oshakati. The bike is still in a very good condition.” But his living conditions are not, which has been the case most of his life. The 39-year-old and his fellow hospital residents living with are languishing in deplorable circumstances with no means of survival.

Their families cannot afford to take care of their needs and have given up on them altogether. “The hospital has been my only home. I came here when I was small because I felt I was putting too much weight on my family's shoulders and I decided to make this my only home,” he said when The Namibian visited the group last Friday.

“I'm an orphan, and being stuck in the village with only my grandmother to look after me was a burden. She could not attend to me at all times, as she had other children to look after as well and my movement there was limited because I could not push the wheelchair in the sand. Survival there was just hard for me,” he said, recounting how he came to live at the hospital permanently.


Their distress came to a head in 2009 when former Oshana regional health director Naftal Hamata instructed that lodgers in front of the hospital's gate be driven away and that people living with disabilities residing at the hospital be relocated to other district hospitals or returned to their families. “The squatting of disabled persons at the hospital premises was causing unhygienic conditions,” said ex-acting permanent secretary Norbert Forster when enforcing the eviction in 2010.

Six homeless disabled men have turned a dilapidated storeroom at Oshakati State Hospital into their temporary home.
After pleading with the hospital authorities and surviving days of sleeping out in the open, the physically challenged men were relocated to a dilapidated structure that previously served as a storeroom. They are on their own with very little outside assistance.

He living in a deplorable dwelling, located on the far end of the hospital opposite the mortuary, last Friday, some of the malnourished men were going about their daily chores – cooking and washing clothes, while some lay on their tiny makeshift beds watching TV. A few had gone to catch up with friends around the hospital grounds. They survive on monthly disability grants to buy food, toiletries, and other basic necessities, as the hospital no longer caters to their needs.

“All six of us sleep in that one building with separate beds. The conditions are not conducive but there is nothing that we can do,” said one of the men who did not want his identity to be revealed. “We are not complaining, but life was better in the wards because the nurses were there to assist us. If one falls sick today here, you will need to drag yourself to the hospital and stand in the queue just like everyone else. It is honestly not easy to comprehend,” one of them, who did not want to be named, said.

The six should find alternative accommodation elsewhere because the hospital is undergoing massive “surgery”, Oshana health director Johanna Haimene said bluntly. “Those people are not supposed to be staying on hospital premises. They were just housed there on a temporary basis when some of them returned from exile. The hospital does not have space to accommodate them. Even the wards are overcrowded,” she said.

“The hospital is undergoing renovations and, as a result, many structures have been destroyed, including the old building they were accommodated in. They should go back to their families just like every other disabled person. They are not sick, so there is nothing special about them to be staying on the hospital grounds. The hospital is for the sick and not a disability home,” Haimene added. The authorities have attempted to drive out the six men from the hospital premises on numerous occasions but they have clung to their unhygienic shelter.

“They have refused to move out and they are demanding to be treated as special. It is true we understand their plight but there is nothing we can do to help them in this regard,” said Haimene. “The hospital is full of sick people suffering from different illnesses and for them to stay there will make them prone to infections. “You cannot blame the hospital for refusing to accommodate disabled people when we have patients sleeping on the floor with not enough space in the wards,” Haimene argued. Oshakati hospital superintendent Korbinian Vizkaya Amutenya was just as indifferent to the six men's miserable predicament.

“They are supposed to be looked after by their families, not the hospital. We do not need them here; they must leave and go back to their families,” said Amutenya. However, the hospital management will hold talks with their immediate families and the Office of the Prime Minister to find an amicable solution, Amutenya said. “For now, they are safe and they can continue staying in the hospital because we first need to engage all the relevant stakeholders including their families, to see where we can move them,” said Amutenya.

Amutenya further noted that the hospital had housed about 30 people living with disabilities since 1998, however, most of them have moved to be with their families while some have sought assistance elsewhere.

Dream Shattered

Paulus' dire circumstances are not unique to him in a country where sport is viewed as nothing more than a negligible pastime, with many current and former athletes living in squalor despite their best efforts. Despite his desperate situation, Paulus has not given up on achieving his dream of representing the country at a major international competition.

The last time he competed was in 2018 at George, South Africa, where he finished fifth. He sees selling his most prized possession as a necessary sacrifice. “It is not the aim, but it is just that life is getting worse and I hope if I get a buyer then I will use that money on something that can rescue me from this financial crisis. “I have an idea that once I get the money, I will try to buy a new bike and race again.”

His plight is a far cry from the confident, ambitious young man who famously wanted “to fly my national flag on all corners of the world”. The sport was meant to be his way out of this hardship. That remains a pipe dream for now, as life has dealt Paulus a hard hand. 'Pac' spent over two years battling spinal tuberculosis following a historic 700km-plus journey from Oshakati to Windhoek on a specially adapted wheelchair in 2011.

That epic effort was meant to raise awareness and the profile of disability sport in the country, an objective he achieved at the expense of his health. Namibia Paralympic Committee (NPC) secretary-general Michael Hamukwaya, who organized the historic journey, said they are in no position to assist Paulus or any other athlete in similar circumstances, given that their budget is barely enough to sustain operations.

Ironically, the NPC scouts hospitals countrywide for potential athletes. “Unfortunately, the funds we get are for competitions only. Sometimes there is not even enough to prepare the athletes for competition or to cover all the athletes' costs for these competitions,” said Hamukwaya, whose relationship with Paulus soured over the years since the official's move to Windhoek from Oshakati.

“He has been trying to do it on his own. There is no one to help him. It is difficult for him because he is not affiliated to any club which can try to organize races for him like I used to when I lived in the north. It was not a lot of money, but it helped,” Hamukwaya explained.

“He had found a bit of hope in paralympic sports but there is very little hope here. I think this is a human rights crisis, especially regarding the little ones. We do not know what happens to them. They just disappear.”

*This article has been modified to reflect that Frans 'Pac' Paulus is the only athlete among the six people sharing a room at the hospital.
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