On February 18, Special Olympics Côte d’Ivoire’s National Director Claude Tano reached the volatile city of Bouaké ahead of the team of Healthy Athletes Clinical Directors. The air was tense and the screening venue lay quiet and empty. Tano gave his Special Olympics ‘troops’ the green light to proceed with the event in two days despite the impending risk of unrest. It wasn’t an easy decision. Côte d’Ivoire’s Head of State had recently dismissed both the Government Cabinet and Independent Electoral Commission resulting in planned protests and political demonstrations in the area.
On the day of the event, the noise of violent demonstrations and looting taking place just 400 meters away echoed through the venue. Yet, the Healthy Athletes team adamantly continued and served the athletes who were able to make it safely to the screenings with their families.
Bouaké lies 350km north of Côte d’Ivoire’s capital city, Abidjan and has been the home to the rebellion factions gathered into the denomination “Forces Nouvelles”, which have been operating under a shadow cabinet since their failed coup d’état in September 2002. Special Olympics Côte d’Ivoire suspended sub-program activities in this region despite having conducted a coach training a week prior the coup d’état as the factional violence and the thousands that were displaced as a result made program implementation impossible.
After a Peace Plan was signed between the official Government and rebel leaders in 2008 and relative appeasement followed, SO Côte d’Ivoire began working to re-establish the sub-Program with a local “founding committee” including many who had stayed through the political and military unrest of 2002. Despite some initial difficulties, SO Côte d’Ivoire managed to schedule a coach training seminar coupled with Healthy Athlete screenings for early in 2010 and began actively recruiting new athletes, coaches and volunteers.
As news of the imminent protests spread the night before the Bouaké event, however, some clinical volunteers began to withdraw their services. But the core team of SO Côte d’Ivoire and Clinical Directors stuck to their plans and met over a lively dinner and then arrived at the venue, the Auberge de Bouake, early in the morning of February 20 to set up for the volunteer orientation and screening.
Although only 24 athletes were screened in 3 disciplines (MedFest, Healthy Hearing and Opening Eyes) and 12 athletes were referred or given prescriptions, this event showed the power of Special Olympics to confront adversity and persevere in its quest to reach all athletes, especially those who are marginalized and neglected, or victims of the political context of their regions.
As the Program National Director was completing the first week following their return from Bouake, Moumouni Apiou, the acting leader of the local rebuilding committee, strongly reminded him on a phone call of the need to schedule another Healthy Athletes event as soon as possible.
“It is important to continue with such screenings despite the difficulty and risk, because we know that, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” he said, before adding immediately. “Our Bouake athletes will be expecting you.”
Following the event, the sub-Program leaders were inspired by the team’s resourcefulness and dedication and have vowed to persevere despite the obstacles ahead, reaching out to new athletes and holding regular events and trainings.
The Program and Healthy Athletes leadership too were united by this experience and have committed themselves to reaching out to the most vulnerable athletes in the country and have thus scheduled a screening for January 2011 in the far west of the country that borders with historically unstable Liberia.