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Africans united in amputee soccer match
National teams include survivors of war, rebellions
ACCRA, Ghana — Sani Boubakar, 28, lost his right leg 10 years ago in an auto accident in his hometown of Doutchi, Niger.
"On that day, I knew I would be disabled forever," he said.
He moped around his family's home for two years until he discovered other young men missing legs but playing soccer in a new national team for the Amputee Football Federation of Africa.
"I saw some of my friends doing it and thought, 'I'm strong, and I'm young, and I want my country to be known around the world.' So I joined," Mr. Boubakar said.
Last week, he and 15 teammates represented Niger in the competition for the 2011 Cup of African Nations for Amputee Football.
Angola, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone also fielded teams in the federation's third biennial tournament since 2007.
The sport is demanding: Outfielders on crutches, who chase the soccer ball around the field, must have lost a leg; goalies must be missing an arm. No artificial limbs are allowed.
The competitors played with surprising agility on the smooth, green turf of Ghana's Ohene Djan Sports Stadium.
However, the tournament is about more than playing soccer, according to federation President Francis Adjetey Sowah.
"They have showed they are connoisseurs of the game and that they actually have what it takes to do what the abled can do and that they can challenge perceptions about people with disabilities," he said. "Disability does not mean inability."
Amputee soccer teams in Africa began in Sierra Leone in 2003. The small former British colony descended into a bloody 10-year civil war in the 1990s marked by the gruesome practice of rebels hacking off the limbs of civilians who did not support them.
Liberia suffered civil wars for more than 20 years, beginning in the 1980s.
"If you look at Sierra Leone and Liberia, two countries that have gone through the trauma of war, once you give them a friendly game like this, it allows them to forget the trauma they have suffered," Mr. Sowah said.
Not all of the amputees in the competition lost their limbs as a result of civil conflict. Some were born with illnesses, and others were crippled in accidents.
Harouna Ousmane, 44, secretary-general of the National Paralympic Committee of Niger and the founder of Niger's amputee football team, said he decided to start a team when he noticed amputees playing soccer around the country's capital, Niamey.
"I would always come across them playing with the normal players, and I used to ask them, 'Aren't you suffering playing with the normal persons?' And they told me that whenever they played, they felt all right, and whenever they didn't, their bodies were in pain. So I noticed the importance of sport to improve their living conditions," he said.
Mr. Ousmane said most amputees in Niger lost their limbs because of disease or accidents, but some were injured stepping on land mines laid by rebels in the northern region.
Niger is among the least-developed countries in the world. The average person lives on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.
In Niger, as in many other African nations, disabled people are stigmatized and considered cursed, but Mr. Ousmane said that perception is changing slowly.
"We are educating people to let them know that disability is not a result of anger from the gods and that it can affect anyone," he said.
Henry Larbi, a scholar completing his master's degree in disability rehabilitation and development, has been focusing on the role sports can play in empowering the disabled and promoting national reconciliation.
"Through sports, people don't see their disability. They see their skills and their abilities, what they can do," Mr. Larbi said.
He added that sports can help in building peace, as it has in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where ex-combatants play together with those injured in the conflicts.
"Bodies like the U.N. have seen that sport is something that unifies people in Africa and the whole world, so part of its agenda has been to promote peace through sports," Mr. Larbi said.
For Mr. Boubakar and his teammates, the tournament ended in defeat. Ghana beat Niger 11-0, but sportsmanship prevailed.
After the match, the competitors shook hands and embraced to show that although national borders might divide them, their disabilities unite them.
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