‘Losing my sight completely led me to playing goalball’
Nina Okoroafor is the president and captain of the Greater Accra Blind Sports Association (GABSA), team captain, Accra Great Thunderbolts and a professional social worker.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about losing her sight and embracing Goalball, which gave her a new lease of life to advocate for people living with disabilities, while insisting physical and social barriers must be removed.
Tell us a little about goalball, what does it entail and how is it played?
The game was designed in 1946 by Austrian and German, Hanz Lorenzen and Sepp Reindle, respectively, to help rehabilitate blind veterans of World War II. Competitively, Goalball took global presence in a championship in Austria, in 1978 and has since 1980 been played in international Paralympic games.
There are three players to a goalball team; who roll a ball with bells embedded in it, towards the opponents’ team area. To defend, the opponents would follow the jingles on the ball and lie down on a carpet and prevent it from crossing their team area. The cycle of roll and defence continues till a goal is scored. All Goalball players are blindfolded to ensure an equal level of blindness. Partially sighted players have an extra eye patch beneath the blindfold, which further thwarts efforts to peep at the approaching ball.
A typical Goalball court has a carpet for each team, demarcated with ropes and tape for visibility to the blindfolded players to identify their team areas and orient them as to the general area of their opponents. There is also a high ball line in the center of the court as well as an offside mark. Players are expected to put on sheen and elbow guards to prevent injuries during defense. There are game officials like referees, linesmen and many more to assist in retrieving scored balls and direct the pace of the game.
How and when did you develop an interest in this sport?
Losing my sight completely when I was 12 years old meant that I had little or no physical activity to engage in. I was enrolled at the Akropong School for the Blind and everything changed. Between learning to read and write braille, accepting my new status of visual impairment, learning how to use computers and screen reader software, and many other aspects of rehabilitation for persons with visual impairments, I also learnt to play goalball, which I took to with gusto. Now, I could use my body as well as my brain.
Of course, goalball was not like any sport I had known as a sighted child, but for me, the concept meant competition, teamwork, physical exertion and excitement. At this stage, I played goalball only during physical education sessions at school and at inter-house competitions. It was not until entering the University of Ghana in 2013 when I was 19 that I began to appreciate the idea of playing goalball beyond school.
At University, I still played for my hall of residence against other halls and during inter-university competitions, and this is where the Ghana Blind Sports Association (GBSA) discovered me. Before long, I joined the Greater-Accra team, playing inter-regional competitions and was later selected to play in the national team. Some of my fondest memories of the time were travelling across regions in rickety buses, jogging side-by-side with other blind people and playing blind sports against sighted people.
You are Ghana’s team captain presently, do you have any intentions to come and play here in Nigeria if the opportunity comes?
Not in the nearest future. At least, not until Nigeria considers building a solid goalball team, male and female, and establishes a strong presence on the goalball scene in Africa.
You led your team to win bronze last year at the African championships, how did that make you feel?
It was a real honor representing Ghana at the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) Africa goalball Championship. Although this was the first time for our female team, we placed third ahead of Kenya, and after Algeria and Egypt who took first and second places respectively. I still have my bronze medal in my everyday workbag, reminding me of the duty of pride I owe my country and how much harder I need to work to win more.
Do you receive support from the government for the development and advancement of this sport?
Just like every other sport that is not football, goalball struggles to catch the eyes of the government and sporting authorities in Ghana. The GBSA fraternity constantly has to defend why blind and partially sighted people want to engage in sports, why we need financial support to represent our country and why spending time and resources on us is worthwhile.
In recent years and months, however, the narrative is changing, maybe because we won a medal at the just-ended competition, or maybe we have made enough noise to be heard, or even maybe because there is a global appreciation of issues relating to disability, I’m not sure. I must mention though, that goalball is seeing only a little portion of what it needs to fully develop in Ghana, and if sports can be a tool for employment, capacity building and awareness creation for persons with disabilities, then I dare say that the government, civil society and corporate establishments are not paying attention, hence, the culture of discrimination and stigma continues.
What other things (s) do you do in addition to your passion for sports?
I am a professional social worker with the Department of Social Welfare, under the auspices of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection in Ghana. My particular specialities include organisational planning, management and counselling. I also manage a disability support service company, Access360Consult Ltd where we provide tailor-made disability support services to our customers made up of PWDs and businesses.
I must mention further that I serve on the board of a few organisations for persons with disabilities, including Africa Union of the Blind (AFUB) in Nairobi, and the Africa Blind Leadership Forum (ABLF) in Ghana. I periodically consult for Ghana Blind Union (GBU), and Ghana Federation of Disability Organizations (GFD) under whose guidance I have received numerous capacity-building initiatives. In my spare time, I swim, listen to audiobooks and cook new recipes.
You say you want to advocate for the rights of PLWD through sports, how are you achieving this?
In my role as the president and captain of the Greater-Accra Blind Sports Association (GABSA), I organise bi-weekly sporting and recreational activities for blind and partially sighted people in the capital. Some of these people are newly blind from illnesses or accidents and draw on the social support from our community of blind people; others are students, civil servants, entrepreneurs and unemployed who simply choose to have a fun day out with us. We invite sighted people from the media, keep-fit clubs, civil society and from the corporate world to witness the show of sportsmanship by BPS persons.
How do you get support with what you do?
The majority of support comes from members’ individual pockets. We support one another with costs of transportation, water, food and any other expense associated with the game.
We believe that we owe it to ourselves to be happy; in spite of the circumstances of stigma and discrimination, we face on a daily basis. Occasionally, we get support from well-wishers and corporate institutions which we appreciate dearly.
How is playing this sport giving hope and life to you and others living with disabilities?
Playing goalball always has the effect of invigorating me. It gives me a chance to encourage my team never to give up no matter what the circumstances look like. I get to show spectators (the sighted world) how resilient a blind person can be if given the chance.
I also get to demonstrate that inner pride is worth dying for. I get to prove to naysayers that I can shape my own destiny as long as I play at my best, leaving nothing behind and after the game is over, to celebrate my victories without shame. This is the kind of narrative that BPS persons and PWDs at large want to be heard on a larger scale, that we only need empathy from society, instead of sympathy; that this very society is the cause of our disability and not us by ourselves. All we ask for is that physical and social barriers are removed, and then, there would be no case of disability.