World-class Runner Taonere Banda’s Destiny Was Set Long Before Her Disability At An Early Age

Photo © Sightsavers/Malumbo Simwaka

In a small village in Africa sits the western shore of Lake Malawi; on most days the air is muggy and hot, yet the water flows and waves peacefully what seems to be in sync with professional runner Taonere Banda’s daily jog. Banda, 25, is a para-sport runner who competes in middle-distance events.  If anyone has seen her run, they know she’s mastered her field, but her talent doesn’t measure to her passion of bringing awareness and inspiration to those who suffer from disabilities.   “I liked running. I never took part in athletics at school because most of the sports teachers were looking for people without an impairment,” she told Face2faceafrica. “They’d say, ‘No, you can’t do this. You cannot run with this condition.”

The condition she speaks about occurred when she was a week old, and her mother discovered that Banda had a problem with her eye. “She learned that I had developed cataracts, but there was only one pediatric eye surgeon in the whole country, and I was not able to get the sight-saving operation that I needed,” Banda said.

She added, “My grandmother sent me to school once when I was young, but I couldn’t see the blackboard, so the teachers told me to go home and come back when I was older and more literate. My grandmother worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope, so she kept me at home. It made me feel like education wasn’t for me.”

If her eye condition wasn’t enough, the racism she experienced by the educational system was daunting.  At age 10, she wasn’t granted permission to participate in sports because the perception was her eyesight was a hindrance.  “The teachers thought that because I couldn’t see well, I wouldn’t be able to compete. They would say: ‘No, you can’t do this. You can’t run with this condition.’ So, I had to hide my passions at school. It made me feel like I was incapable of doing sports like the other children.”

However, at 16, Banda, the mother of a son, was noticed by NICE (The National Initiative for Civic Education).  She attended their events for the disabled, and that’s when members of the Malawi Paralympic Committee took a particular interest in her. They were on the hunt for local talent to compete in regional and national championships, and Banda was selected to participate at the stadium in Blantyre, where athletes from 11 districts came to compete.   

She performed well, in fact, impressive enough to take place in 400m and 800m races.  She has since become the first athlete to represent Malawi at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, an accomplishment that earned her the honor as the flag bearer and sole representative of Malawi in the Rio Olympics—although she took 4th place after being disqualified for crossing into her opponent’s race track. However, unfazed, Banda regrouped and put on a masterful performance at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

She was named the 2019 Best Sportswoman with Impairment at the Malawi Sports Awards, a credit she gave to James Chiutsi, the president of the Malawi Paralympic Committee, for his inspiration in convincing her to pursue her athletic career.   “He is the one who saw the potential in me and gave me the resources to be an athlete. If it were not for him, I would never even dream of competing at a Paralympic Games,” she said.

She has been an ambassador of Sightsavers’ ‘Equal World’ campaign, which advocates for the rights of people and children with disabilities to be supported, respected, and honored with dignity.    “Some people still believe that people with disabilities can do nothing to participate in society. This is not true. Disability is not inability. I want young people with disabilities to see me as a visually impaired person competing, traveling, and achieving, and see that it can be done. Do not look down upon yourself like I was made to do. Look at me and believe that you can do it too.”

Rio de Janeiro – Primeiro dia das provas de atletismo nos Jogos Paralímpicos Rio 2016 (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)
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