The article below features an interview with alumna Stella Tiyoy (YES 2012-2013, Kenya, placed by Greenheart in Fayetteville, NC)
By Geoffrey Anene, originally published in the Nation Africa
Ever since she was a child, Stella Cherop Tiyoy dreamed of becoming a news anchor. To date, she fantasises about being on TV presenting news, interacting with people on the ground and getting people’s views. Stella is a final year student at the University of Nairobi pursuing Journalism and Media Studies with a major in Public Relations. Away from academics, Stella is one of the most decorated wheelchair basketball players in Kenya. She learnt the sport during her one-year stay in the United States about 10 years ago.
How did you get into basketball?
My journey started while I was in high school. There is this exchange programme called Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programme where students get the opportunity to go to the US for one year to be exposed to another culture, learn new ways of life and educate Americans about the various African cultures. I did the interviews while I was at Joytown Secondary School in Thika and qualified to take part in the programme in 2012-2013 at Pine Forest High School in North Carolina. Luckily, my host mum (Catherine Royal) also lived with disability. She was confined to a wheelchair.
She introduced me to a local basketball club in Fayetteville. I spent the first three months getting used to the new environment, and that marked my first encounter with wheelchair basketball. Once the programme was over, I came back to Kenya and finished high school. I then searched for a wheelchair basketball team in Kenya, and luckily I found one. In 2017, I became a member of the Kenya Wheelchair basketball team.
Describe your journey with the Kenya wheelchair team…
In my first year, I was selected as part of the national team that represented Kenya at the Women's Africa World Championships qualifiers in South Africa. I was so excited. The experience was lovely. There is a sense of pride that comes with representing your country abroad. It was amazing. We did not do very well, but I learnt a lot about the game.
When playing abroad, you get exposed to many new aspects of the game. Playing outside Kenya gave me experience and a chance to see for myself how an international game looks like, and what is expected for me to get to that level. We went back to South Africa in 2021 for the Commonwealth Games qualifiers where we finished second behind hosts South Africa. That was my first time playing 3x3 basketball. Personally, I was really proud of the team for their performance.
What challenges have you encountered in wheelchair basketball?
Balancing my academics, my personal life and the sport was difficult. But with time, I have learnt how to balance all three pretty well. Another challenge I faced is that I was required to attend practice sessions yet I was not financially stable. I was just a student. To get to the playground and back, I needed bus fare. We don’t have an accessible transport system in Kenya, so moving about is a challenge. I live in Thika and our training sessions are held over 40 kilometres away, at Nyayo National Stadium.
How does the wheelchair basketball scene in Kenya compare to that in the US?
I wouldn’t say it is very different. What we need in Kenya is to embrace wheelchair basketball more. We need to make it known and encourage those who are eligible to join the sport. It is a great sport. It helps you achieve both mental and physical fitness, which is really important considering the fact that persons with disability may not take part in any other physical activity. If we invest well in the sport, it can empower many young men and women with disability in Kenya, and put our country on the global map. I play alongside very talented athletes. If we received the support that other countries like the South African team gets, we would definitely register even better results. We need accessible training venues, good coaches, and good training equipment such as wheelchairs. I strongly believe that the Kenyan wheelchair basketball team is just as good as England’s, if not better. We just haven't put in the necessary effort.
How does your family view wheelchair basketball?
Luckily, I have a very supportive family. My parents are really proud of me for being in the national team. I wish you could hear their excitement, and my siblings’ cheers whenever I’m on the basketball court.
What benefits have you realised from this sport so far?
As a person with a disability, we are limited and can hardly take part in physical activities, so basketball has played a huge role in ensuring that I’m fit, in good shape and flexible. It has also helped keep my mind in the right state and of course, it is also a source of income. Whatever income I get from it, I use to meet my personal needs and sometimes, I save it.
You were at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England in July 2022. How was your experience?
It was magical. The Kenyan team did really well, and I am very proud of each of my teammates including Eunice Otieno, Rahel Alar, and Caroline Wanjira. I was personally challenged by wheelchair basketball athletes from other countries to work harder in my training and enhance my skills. I intend to continue playing the sport and hopefully, I will someday play for an international club. Wheelchair basketball has become my way of life. It has taught me that there is a time to win, and a time to suffer defeat. On the not-so-rosy days, we still have to pick ourselves up and march on.