Ever so often, the right side of Ritah Asiimwe’s body tries to reclaim its natural, dominant role. The right arm, instinctively, reaches out for any task. But then, she says, the left has to remind it – that without the right hand that was once there, their roles have to switch. Thought has to override instinct.
Asiimwe, like most people worldwide, was born right-handed. Growing up, she was fond of sports such as volleyball, table tennis and running.
It all changed on a day in January 2005 when she was assaulted. She woke up in hospital, weak from loss of blood, her right hand missing.
She decided, then and there, that she wouldn’t allow the catastrophe to hold her back.
“From the day I woke up, I said I never want to see myself taken to be too vulnerable. I want to be an independent person, I want to be a person making my own decisions, with my own will, so I never let the depression of losing a hand take over,” says the 35-year-old, who’s competing in women’s singles SU5 at the Tokyo Paralympics.
“It was on January 4th that I was assaulted. When I woke up in hospital I realised I didn’t have a hand anymore, (but) I need to finish my school. In February I went back home, and in March I went back to school. I wanted to complete my studies. I never wanted to see myself left behind because of what happened. I wanted to finish everything. I never wanted to see anyone look down on me or feel pity for me, I wanted to fight my challenges.”
Having lost her dominant hand, the first major challenge was to train her left hand; she had to learn to write and do the things that the right was accustomed to doing.
“I started training my left hand when I was in hospital. I had to train my left hand from scratch. I was like a baby in kindergarten, trying to write A, B, C. My teachers said I can’t finish high school because I had to learn to write. I had to catch up. I couldn’t sit for more than five minutes because my body had become so weak. I needed to keep going. I wanted to be ready, so when opportunity knocked, I had to be ready.
“Just like badminton knocked, and it found me ready.”
Growing up, Asiimwe had played many sports, but wasn’t familiar with badminton. She stayed active after losing her hand, keeping herself busy meeting friends, dancing, and going to the beach. Then she happened to visit the Uganda Para Badminton International in 2018 and realised that Para badminton was what she’d been looking for.
And just as she taught herself to write, she taught herself to play badminton with the non-dominant left hand.
There are peculiar challenges, though. Badminton is a sport of footwork as much as it is about strokeplay, and so she finds the right side of her body sometimes in conflict with her left. Instinct rules that the right leg or hand moves in accordance with the naturally dominant hand.
“I had to change my leg, it’s kind of annoying sometimes. Gradually I learnt to move with my left leg. Sometimes they collide. The right one always claims its position. I have to keep the left going.
“They do cooperate now. Every microsecond they need reminding. Sometimes when I have to hold something I check both hands and then I find I need the left has to take the place of the right, because the right still is more energetic, it tries to take over. But the left reminds it – no, you’re weak, so I’ve got to help you!” Assimwe laughs.
She’s managed to stay cheerful. And as she considers what Para badminton has done for her, she promises herself – she will keep going at it. After Tokyo 2020, she will aim for Paris 2024.
“It did take me a lot of time, around 14 years, until I found badminton. That’s when I found a new voice of freedom, that I can do anything… with badminton, I feel like I can manoevre and can do anything my mind wants to. I feel I have the guts to do it. I stopped thinking less negatively. So it’s keeping me positive. I know there’s a lot of setbacks and stigma, but it’s about your mindset.
“After the assault, my lifestyle had to change, coping up with the lifestyle of disability, the social way, everything had to change. It was a new life for me, and I had to step right from zero to where I am right now. I’m grateful, I think I can say it was a blessing in disguise. Right now, I feel like it was a blessing.”