Zambian runner Monica Munga: from living in constant state of fear to a Paralympic dream 

The 400m runner tells Olympics.com how she is using her Tokyo 2020 platform to demystify albinism, and encourage disabled people to take up sport.

Monica Munga fears for her safety whenever she is outdoors, especially in the dark.

Her sprint training is always supervised by her mother or her coach.

As a visually-impaired albino, she is a target for people who believe that using her body parts in magic potions and witchcraft can bring good luck and wealth.

“When I am moving, I need to move carefully,” she told Olympics.com as she prepared to leave for the Paralympics.

“I don’t move during the night. I'm afraid because when it's dark, and they attack you, no one can see you. Our skin and other (body) parts can be used for rituals.”

She will be the only Paralympian representing Zambia at Tokyo 2020.

Monica Munga will represent Zambia at the Paralympics in Tokyo.(Photo: NOC Zambia)

Growing up with albinism… a struggle

As a young girl in Chipata, North East of Zambia's capital Lusaka, Munga grew up with an acute awareness of albinism. She was different.

Her skin tone was lighter, and she couldn’t play outdoors freely as other children did.

The lack of melanin pigmentation also meant her skin was very sensitive to sun and light.

“In the village, life was very difficult,” she recalled of her background in the remote village near the Malawi border.

“I couldn’t play outside (and when I tried) to play with my friends they would mock me. They would laugh at me. I could only play with my mother.”

Regrettably, her safety at home was also compromised.

Her genetically inherited condition strained her parent’s relationship.

“It was hard…I was being tortured by my father. My mother then opted for divorce because of me. They broke up because of my status. She told herself, ‘I can’t let my child suffer because of my marriage’.”

She was sent away to a local boarding school for the blind, which offered her relief and respite from discrimination, and gave her an opportunity to pursue another interest. Sports.

“I went to the boarding school when I was five or six years old. There, I found a lot of people living with albinism and others were blind like me. I was happy because I didn't know that we are many.”

“I started running. When I was around 12 years (old), I was doing 200m and 400m and that’s when the government saw my potential.”

Monica Munga will represent Zambia at the Paralympics in Tokyo.(Photo: NOC Zambia)

The making of a Zambian Paralympian

Munga was picked by the Zambian government to train abroad as one of its top athletes.

The 22 year old decided to focus on the 400m, following in her mother’s footsteps, a retired provincial sprinter.

It was during her stay at the Nippon Sport Science University in Japan where she started to understand the value of the Paralympic Games, and began dreaming of competing at Tokyo.

The Zambian then qualified for the Paralympics at the 2019 World Para Athletics Grand Prix Dubai, where she was officially classified as a T13 and F13 track athlete.

She topped out in the T12/13 400m event, earning qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

“I got a gold medal in 400m and silver in 200m. I ran within the qualifying time as I did 1:08.40. I lost by 30 milliseconds and missed qualification for the 200m. I was then invited to come and train in Lusaka.

"In Chipata I couldn’t train well. I trained on the roads, I didn’t have proper equipment and facilities.”

Like most athletes, Munga lost months of training time in 2020 due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But that wasn't the only challenge.

During the lockdown she gave birth to her first child, a boy. Her focus remained, however, and just seven months later she reported for the national residential training camp in Lusaka, determined to realise her Paralympic dream.

“If it wasn’t for the coronavirus, I would not have been able to travel to Tokyo, so it was a blessing in disguise for me,” the Crispin Mwale-coached athlete said smiling.

“I started competing last year when the baby stopped breastfeeding at seven months. I have since been able to reduce my time and even improve my record. I am now targeting one minute, from 1:04.”

MONICA BY FELIX MUNYIKA-10

Sports Against Stigma: Albinism is just a colour

Munga will be the fourth Paralympian ever to represent her nation at the Games, and only the second woman.

Nancy Kalaba was Zambia’s first female Paralympian at Sydney 2000 in the 100m T12.

The Southern African nation debuted at the Paralympics in Atlanta 1996 and has sent athletes to four editions of the Games.

The lone athlete hopes Zambians will draw inspiration from her participation.

“I am just working hard to be out there so that we can have more people come to join me - Monica Munga.

“I would be happy to have more athletes with disabilities," she told Tokyo 2020.

"To travel to a tournament with four or five others and not alone. Then people can also say Zambia has produced athletes living with albinism. There are many but there is fear.”

People with albinism are profoundly misunderstood, socially and medically, and face multiple forms of discrimination worldwide.

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, they are often the object of superstitious beliefs and myths, which not only foster their marginalization and social exclusion, but also lead to various forms of stigma discrimination and violence.

“I never moved alone even when I was in grade four (18 years) I would be escorted by my parents to wherever I am going. Because it was always , 'Don’t go there, they will kill you!',” Munga recalled.

“Even now I am afraid (to go out) when it’s dark because no one can see me or know when I am attacked.”

“This (fear) makes parents reluctant to release their children. So, coaches have been going door-to-door to request that parents let their children train. They ask them to sign some papers and assure them that if something happens ‘to blame the government’.”

The Zambian Central Statistics Office estimates that there are over 30,000 persons with albinism.

“Most of the time in the media you hear somebody has had their fingers, hands or legs cut off. They think our skins and (body) parts can be used for rituals.

"Most people are lacking knowledge of us. They also have myths about us that, albinos don’t die, they just disappear. At least now the government is trying to send sensible messages, educating people that targeting an albino is just like killing your friend. We are all equal it’s just the difference of colour."

Munga's journey to Tokyo even inspired an episode of a TV Series on African Paralympic heroes with support from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

The TV Series entitled Against All Odds is ‘set on shifting misconceptions and stigma around disabled people in Africa’.

Her message in Tokyo will be one of hope and inclusion as she continues to dispel false beliefs.

“I am a living example...I want to spread the message that sport is for everyone and not only for the abled. I am now known in almost half the country. If you ask anyone, do you know Monica? they will tell you, ‘Oh yeah! Monica the athlete, who is an albino...’”

Watch out for this Zambian star!

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