By Naliaka Odera with photography by Brenda Spielmann
Wheelchair sprint racer Djami Diallo is not deterred by life’s complications and narrative complexity. In fact, she is deeply aware of the idea that some questions have multi-layered answers and that some memories can be both innocently joyous and yet deeply resonant. The crux of her life philosophy could be summed up by a sentiment she expresses early on in our interview, “I always knew you could be a million different things and still be one whole person.”
I first met Djami in university in Canada, when we were both involved in student African and Caribbean clubs on campus. We bonded over having complicated cultural identities and quiet personalities. Even though we have known each other for almost ten years, it was during this interview that I truly learnt who Djami is, and just why she is so remarkable. When we went our separate ways after university, I watched from afar as she began to pursue her dream of wheelchair racing for the Canadian national team and her desire to someday compete in the Paralympics.
But let’s rewind the story to before we ever met. Djami was born in Liberia to a Guinean doctor, a Guyanese teacher, and a family of three sisters, including a twin. When she was around one years old, she was diagnosed with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy. Her parents, taking into account the outbreak of war in Liberia and the growing expensive healthcare needs of their youngest daughter, decided to make the move to France when Djami was just four years old. To this day, her memories of Liberia are fragmented images. She recalls ill-formed memories like the time she was sick on her pillow in her bed or the sound of a gunshot and the scramble of her siblings for safety, her eldest sister swinging her up in her arms and clutching her close.
France was a beacon of hope in many ways. For the first time, Djami’s health needs could be taken care of affordably. Her early years were highlighted by surgeries, including one that ensured that she had at least partial mobility in her legs, and consistent physiotherapy. She had access to a school system where she was exposed to other children who also had different needs. Her teachers and her parents, encouraged her to push herself beyond her wheelchair and use her legs and walking crutches whenever possible.
Here we pause and return to the theme of complexity. The narrative of the immigrant family moving to a Western country for a better life is an oft-celebrated and not inaccurate story. Certainly, it was true that Djami’s needs were finally being met in a way that would not have been possible at that time in Liberia. And yet, Djami points out that we must not forget the heroism of sacrifice that both her parents exemplified in disrupting their lives and careers, in working jobs that were perhaps not the same calibre as the ones that they had previously had, all for the betterment of their children’s lives. And furthermore, the constant push to separate herself from her wheelchair, though well intentioned, led to a long standing psychological discomfort surrounding her use of her chair. She recalls the ‘innocent question’, as she puts it, that she had as a child, “why can’t you guys leave me as I am?” She wondered why, if she had come to terms with the idea of being in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, why her parents, though they loved her, could not be satisfied with anything but her walking on her feet. Nonetheless, today she can not deny the privilege she now has, to be able to choose between walking with her crutches or sitting in her chair.
“I realized I can be in a chair and feel athletic”
When Djami’s father decided to return to Liberia, her mother became a single mother of four. The grit, and determination that her mother leaned into was formative for Djami even as they relocated once more to Canada to be nearer to her maternal grandparents. It was in high school in BC, that Djami first dabbled in wheelchair sports. With some of her childhood health benefits drawing to a close when she was nineteen, she began to reconsider her physiotherapy situation. In one of her last appointed physiotherapy sessions, she happened upon a set of brochures advertising a wheelchair sports event organized by BC Wheelchair Sports Association. The event, called “Have a go Day”, allowed for wheelchair users to turn up and try their hand at different sports. That day, Djami tried wheelchair basketball and loved it. She emphasizes the importance of the moment: “It was the first point where I realized that having a wheelchair was not just for functionality. It was a ‘wow moment’ for me where I realized I can be in a chair and feel athletic. I can have a relationship with my chair that is not so antagonistic.”
Through her positive experiences of wheelchair basketball, she learnt about a wheelchair racer called Michelle Stilwell, who had moved from basketball to racing and had a successful career. Ever the academic, Djami researched the sport intensely. She discovered that the fastest chairs are the elongated chairs that have the rider sit on their knees but because Djami has sensation all over, the experience of getting comfortable in a racing chair was painful and trying. It took her trying out three chairs to gain comfort and some confidence. However, from her very first meet, the support of the community blew her away. Even though she herself knew that she definitely had a lot to improve on, people were pulling her mother aside to impress on her Djami’s potential and the opportunities that existed in racing.
The difficult factors were plentiful, however. Firstly, the move to focus on and invest in a sports career felt like a slightly unstable and unpredictable decision. Secondly, Djami was quickly realizing that racing was expensive and time consuming. For a long time, Djami was one of the few athletes she knew who was in full time graduate school program and then eventually a full time job teaching French. But the allure of the sport, and the feeling of pushing herself and her body in this new way was too strong to stay away. She laughs as she remembers her early simplistic drive, “I just kept going back.”
“These days when I am not training, I have some amounts of anxiety. I wonder what my competitors are up to. I wonder about what I should be focusing on in practice… It’s no longer as much light hearted fun because I am more invested.” But this is where Djami’s ease with complexity comes back into the fold. She can acknowledge that just because the sport is hard, and juggling training and teaching full time can be draining, does not mean that the success is not worth it. Djami finds solutions. Because she can not go to train every day, she has her coach create Google Docs that outline suggestions for training and uses a ‘Roller’ machine (essentially a treadmill system that accommodates wheelchairs) to improve and workout.
When I ask Djami about the euphoria of winning, she tells me instead about when she lost by disqualification at the very last moment. To her, that race was representative of so much: she was leading the race and experiencing vast amounts of euphoria when at the last moment she went a little bit into her opponent’s lane and earned a DQ (disqualification). “I came off that race still smiling at the finish line, because my mentality at that time was: if I had finished without that DQ it would have been the perfect race. Just the fact that I proved to myself that I could race that way, that I could achieve those speeds, was something to be proud of.”
“My goals have changed and my outlook has changed, but I still love it.”
With invaluable support from her mother and sisters, who have helped not least by giving her rides to and from track meets, and who are unequivocally Djami’s biggest fans, Djami has been able to consider her future plans. “My goals have changed and my outlook has changed, but I still love it. For this year, my goals include making a national team and participating in a meet. The teams are stepping stones to a bigger picture. I can’t just jump up and reach paralympic goals immediately. There is a lot of us and a lot of competition. But if I am able to make a team and go to Worlds in London, I can reassess. This year, I need to take stock. All of this was never on my radar. I wanted to go to school, be a lawyer, get a job… all those different things. But I guess life takes you on a journey,” she giggles a little here at the use of the cliche line, but forges on, “and sometimes you just have to, you know, go with it.” The road ahead of her may be long and hard work, but she is up to the task.
I ask Djami to unpack one last complex idea (the concept of homeland), and she approaches it academically and dissects it for me. “So for me, homeland and home are two completely different ideas. Homeland is symbolic and historical and home is all about where my family is. Homeland is all those places we had to leave to get here, to get home: to live, and to grow. We as the daughters and sons of immigrant parents do not have to think about the sacrifices our parents made. At the same time, everything we choose to do and who we choose to be is rooted in that experience. When everything gets disrupted, you have to come up with a new definition for everything. Where you can’t recreate what you had in the homeland. Where people have to change careers because their qualifications don’t work in the new ‘home’. Where people don’t believe that you can do [as much as you can] because of the color of your skin.”
It’s an intricate dichotomy of needing to be elsewhere for a better life but struggling to adjust once you have reached there. She grounds the idea in an example: “I remember even how my father’s life was in France… And this is no criticism of him or my childhood but with him, I always felt like I was walking a bit on eggshells. I think of that experience of having to leave your homeland, and having to become something lesser… I think about the pride that many have in being who they are in terms of their homeland… And he would just repeat about going back home and how things were back home… and I think it wasn’t quite what he expected when he eventually went back. He always wanted to go back to this elusive thing… that turned out not to be real. But this huge, huge sacrifice affected who he was, and changed who he was to all of us. Always fun and charismatic but still… changed. So home is family, and safety and love. But homeland… it’s a bit more complicated.”
* Support Djami’s goals at https://www.gofundme.com/djamid
Naliaka Odera is the Managing Editor of ‘OF AFRICA’. She is a Kenyan who has spent most of her years outside of the continent. She has an ongoing love affair with words. Her writing can be found at naliakao.wordpress.com. Photography of Djami Diallo by Brenda Spielmann. Visit photogrphers site for comissions.