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WHAT’S it like to live with polio? According to Paralympic athlete and Rotary ​polio ambassador, Anne Wafula Strike, her body is “like a jellyfish”.

“Polio has affected me in a funny way, affecting my nervous system which has ​prevented some of my muscles from growing,” she explained.

“Some people will have a weak hand or a weak leg, but the way polio affected my ​body was in an ‘S’ shape all the way from the top to the bottom, so some of my limbs ​are bigger than others. I’ve got no muscle growth on the left side of my trunk, and ​what is presented on the right-hand side of my body is muscle, but it does not get any ​signal.

“Sometimes I look at myself and say ‘I’ve got a body like a jellyfish’.”

Anne’s polio journey from Kenya to Britain has been well documented in the book “In ​My Dreams I Dance”, an evocative autobiography with tales of prejudice, friendship ​and motherhood, leading to triumph over testing circumstances. It is a tale of ​adversity, endurance and accomplishment.

From being a healthy child one day living in Mihuu, a village in western Kenya, the ​next this two-year-old child was regarded as an outcast by the elders, struck down by ​a mysterious illness which no-one knew the cause or treatment of.

“I was coming down from the river with my mother carrying small pots and mimicking ​what she was doing, and then as we approached the homestead I fell down,” recalled ​Anne. “I had developed a high temperature and my grandmother thought I’d been ​bitten by a snake. By the following day, I’d lost consciousness and my whole body was ​limp.

“my family were adamant they wanted to find a cure for me, yet the village had tried to burn down my dad’s house.”

“They called in a witch doctor, but nothing happened. They called in the Christians who forced holy water down my throat. This went on for several months and then my dad, who was in the Army, was advised to give me up.

“They told him: ‘This is a woman, she is no good, she is a second class citizen. Because she is disabled she will not amount to what the African woman is supposed to do. She won’t go to the river to fetch water or firewood, and be the traditional wife’.

“But my father told the community he would not give me up. He told them: ‘She is my daughter, she is my fourth, she is my blood. There’s no way I would abandon my child’.

“My family were adamant they wanted to find a cure for me, yet the village had tried to burn down my dad’s house, and then he was advised by his parents and elder brothers to just go.”

And so Anne’s family headed for the Kenyan capital Nairobi where British doctors at the hospital advised them she has poliomyelitis and began the long path towards giving her mobility using calipers and crutches, and with her legs in braces. Anne ended up at a school for the physically handicapped, before going onto mainstream secondary school.

As she tells her story, one she has recounted many times, she reflects on how hard it was growing up, being treated differently, and how hard her family had to fight against prejudice and hostility from others. “With a lack of knowledge, people thought my disability was contagious. I had to fight for everything.”

Kenyan women in traditional costume

Anne Wafula Strike proudly wearing traditional Kenyan attire

Anne went to university where she qualified as a teacher before falling in love and marrying a man from Newcastle. Anne and Norman moved to Essex, and defied medical experts when she gave birth to a baby boy called Timothy.

Following the birth, Anne was looking for ways of losing weight and stumbled upon wheelchair racing. She turned out to be pretty good, and remarkably found herself competing at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens as a Kenyan athlete, becoming the first wheelchair racer from East Africa to compete at this prestigious event.

Anne later switched allegiance to represent Great Britain at international meetings. “England is where I first discovered wheelchair racing existed so I do feel like I am from Great Britain. I was very proud when I competed for Kenya in Athens, so I consider myself an Essex girl from Africa!”

In 2014, Anne was awarded an MBE for services to disability sport and charity, and in recent years has become a campaigner for disabled rights.

Six years ago, while on a train, she was unable to reach a toilet on time because of her wheelchair. She lost control of her bladder and urinated into her clothing. Afterwards, Anne criticised CrossCountry trains for failing to provide a working disabled accessible toilet on the train.

“rotarians are my heroes and heroines ​because they are still fighting this disease”

Anne has also worked closely as a Rotary ambassador joining the campaign to eliminate ​polio. “I live in Essex, and we had the discovery of that polio sample in North London last ​year, just 30 miles away,” she added. “This is frightening and goes to show how polio is ​just a few hours away from anyone.

“Rotarians are my heroes and heroines because they are still fighting this disease. Until ​every child in the world is vaccinated, until every child gets their booster, then we are ​not safe.

“And that’s why we have to make sure that parents get their children vaccinated and that ​the parents understand the importance of the polio vaccine.”

Find out more about Anne Strike at:

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