About the Author: Heather Carlin Fabrikant serves as the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
What do the arid dunes of Mauritania have to do with the snowy mountains of Idaho?
The Mauritanian National Special Olympics Snowshoeing team, of course!
Busy preparing his team for the February 7-13, 2009, Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, Coach Eyde Ould Sidi Mohamed took a few minutes to reflect on the team’s upcoming trip and explain how a team in Mauritania trains for a winter sport that could never exist in this balmy, dusty and flat capital city.
“Countries without snow practice in sand,” Eyde explained simply. “They use the dunes like mountains.”
The Middle East and North African Office of the Special Olympics, based in Cairo, recently sponsored a snowshoeing training session for coaches, in which Eyde participated. The regional committee provides the equipment for training and the eventual games – including snowshoes, hats, gloves and jackets – items unavailable in the arid desert. Unlike the Paralympics – for those with purely physical limitations – the Special Olympics take place every two years and target the developmentally disabled.
A full-time English teacher by trade, Eyde was recruited by the Special Olympics regional office in Amman, Jordan. In 1997, with enthusiasm and hope, he accepted a job to coach the team and has juggled the two careers ever since. With Eyde, Mauritania has participated in four Special Olympics Competitions: two in the United States (North Carolina, 1999 and Alaska, 2001), one in Ireland (2003) and one in China (2007). Before 2003, the Special Olympics games were held exclusively in the United States.
When asked about his past trips to America, Eyde said: “We love the diversity of the U.S.”
For this year’s games, the Mauritanian team is paired with a host town in Idaho that will welcome them two days in advance. This year, a non-athlete delegate – Hamza Ould Idoumou – will participate in a concurrent Global Youth Summit. Last week, Hamza received a phone call from the Special Olympics director in the U.S. asking him about his favorite sports and cautioning him to bring warm clothes. When asked if he had any questions, Hamza wondered whether he would be able to call his parents from the U.S. Most athletes migrate to Nouakchott from their home villages miles away – including Kankossa, Ayoun and Kiffa – in order to train for the competition. Due to the high cost of transportation, their families are unable to join them in the capital and can only wish them well via telephone.
In a country of barely three million, with at least 1,300 recognized developmentally handicapped citizens, there is little public information about disabilities. Most schools refuse to accept mentally handicapped children and few specialized institutions are equipped with appropriate programs. Even in the capital, individualized care is not available.
The Special Olympics provide a chance for the team members to become respected and productive members of society. Aside from their training, the athletes take part in public awareness activities designed to dispel stereotypes and open communication. Eyde finds that these are effective; family members of disabled athletes are often initially ashamed to talk but come to accept and revvitalize their loved ones. In addition, he draws a distinction between perceptions of the mentally challenged in the interior of the country where literacy and education levels are lower, and those in the capital where more people are exposed to, and educated about, handicaps.
In 2006, Mauritania began its First Annual National Special Olympics Competition, designed to run concurrent to the global games. Over 150 athletes took part, and by the second edition of the games in 2008, there were over 200 competitors. All of these events are made possible through a vast network of volunteers. Eyde says he initially relied on those he knew – his family and friends – but as word spread, the volunteer base expanded.
When asked if things have changed for the mentally handicapped since he first began taking part in these games, Eyde states “This year is better than 1999, but there is much more work to do.”
He explains that many Mauritanians suffer from epilepsy and lack the money, medication and the ability to follow a regime of daily doses. During the Special Olympics Games, athletes benefit from free screenings in the “Health Athletes Program,” but many need this kind of attention at home.
The 2009 snowshoe team explained their motivation to participate in the Special Olympics in many ways: sports are healthy, they are fun, they have the opportunity to travel and meet people with similar challenges from around the world.
After avowing that the games were more about participation than competition, three-time Mauritanian Special Olympics athlete Silla Boudy stated with a grin, “We beat Venezuela 3 – 0 in soccer in China… We will bring back a Gold medal this year!”
Stay tuned for reflections from the team when they return from Boise, Idaho.