A road accident changed my life

At the age of 31, Bright Oywaya was involved in a road accident that left her paralysed from the waist down, thus confining her to a wheelchair. After one year of denial, she tells KIUNDU WAWERU how she dusted herself up, quit a well paying job and dedicated her life to counselling and empowering accident victims

As a credit analysis officer in a leading bank, Bright Oywaya worked hard to rise to the top of her profession. The future was bright, the sky the limit. Until a tragedy occurred that altered the course of her life forever.

Bright vividly remembers the day — October 18, 1997. She was travelling to the Coast with friends when suddenly a car that was driving on the opposite lane hit their car head on while trying to overtake a trailer. Bright blacked out.

Bright Oywaya

Hours later, she laughed when a doctor at the Mombasa Hospital told her she would never walk again. What she didn’t know at the time was that she had injured her spine, ruptured intestines and some internal organs.

"I thought I was dreaming," says Bright. "I used to think that people with disabilities were either born like that, or their legs were cut off. Every day I woke up thinking life would go on, that I would get out of the hospital wearing my high heels."

Bright was single and hoping to get married. After two major operations in Mombasa, she left for Nairobi and sought further consultations at several leading hospitals.

"Their verdict was the same; that I would never walk again. That is when the reality hit me and I went through a series of emotions — anger, anxiety and frustration," she says, adding that mundane things became a struggle.

"Every time I wanted to turn I couldn’t. Basic things like going to the toilet became a big deal and people became sensitive around me," she says.

It was too much to take. To date, she has gone through 13 operations. "It has been tumultuous, emotional and psychologically draining. There were times when I thought it would be better if I died," Bright says.

She started to accept her condition and the adjustments she had to make after about one year. Even her social circle changed. Eleven months later, she resumed her office duties and worked for two years. During this period, she underwent professional psychosocial counselling and support from her family.

With time, Bright stopped wallowing in self-pity and a spark was ignited in her soul. She began to appreciate her luck, especially the fact that she still had her good job and a supportive family.

"I began to think of the other people out there living with a disability yet had no support?" she says.

Fanned by the desire to help other people with disabilities, Bright quit her bank job and enrolled for a Psychology class at the Kenya Institute of Professional Counselling.

"I wanted to do something that could help someone else in a similar situation. After my studies, I went to work with the Kenyan Paraplegic Organisation where I am now a director in charge of Counselling," she says.

The organisation seconded her to the National Spinal Injury Hospital, the only one of its kind in Eastern and Central Africa that rehabilitates road accident victims through medical help, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and, most importantly, counselling. As the hospital did not have a counselling unit, Bright spearheaded the introduction of one. She was given an office and assigned the role of counselling patients. It is while doing this that the harsh reality of the pain caused by road accidents, which she blames to road users carelessness and recklessness, dawned on her.

Long process

Bright counted herself lucky when she met men and women paralysed from the neck down who could only move the eyes and nod the head. The patients were disillusioned with life and most saw no point in living. Rehabilitation being a long process, Bright took it upon herself to visit the patients in their homes long after they had been discharged.

"Some family members don’t help patients with a disability and instead lock them up. I visit them to show them that I have moved on, and so can their loved ones," Bright says.

One of Bright’s first patients, Richard Bukachi, provided a great challenge. "He could not accept the change in his life so remained in his pyjamas for about four years. He refused to comb his hair, brush his teeth or anything else. I worked with him steadfastly until he saw the reason to believe in himself and go back to school. Today, he is a counsellor touching more lives."

Richard recounts his experience. "Like Bright says, I had thrown in the towel. I was a young father at the time and life lost all meaning when I got confined to a wheel chair. With time I came to appreciate Bright’s work and I began to believe in myself."

Bright adds: "Without hope, you can die. One of my patients died last year after years of counselling simply because she gave up. My involvement with people with spinal injuries was the beginning of my real life. Before, I lived in a cocoon where I thought that all there was to life was waking up, going to work and going back home."

The National Spinal Injury Hospital only has a capacity for 40 beds, which means there is always a large waiting list. Of the 40 patients admitted at the hospital, 70- 80 per cent are spinal injuries caused by road accidents. This got Bright thinking, what can we do to prevent the accidents?

After four years at the hospital, Bright left to head the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) in 2007. "ASIRT’s core is preventive, educating, creating awareness and advocacy," she says, adding that she works a lot with the government, advising them on road safety measures.

Her most visible work is the interventions she makes, including a school programme, doing poetry, essays and telling personal stories on road safety. "We also have a project with boda boda and matatu drivers in Naivasha and Thika. A fortnight ago, we had an interesting week long seminar with matatu drivers and traffic police," says Bright.

As ASIRT is a global organisation, Bright travels a lot. In 2007, she gave a speech at the first UN Youth Assembly in Geneva. That same year, she spearheaded the first ever World Day of Remembrance for Road Safety Victims in Kenya, which is marked successfully every year since.

"The greatest contributor to road accidents is our behaviour as drivers. We talk on our mobile phones while driving; drive while drunk; over speed and overlap... these are the major causes of road accidents."

Bright is living proof of careless driving. "Let us be disciplined on our roads," she urges. "Adhere to the traffic rules; don’t wait to be policed."

In her office at Westlands, a quilt is pinned to the wall behind her desk. It has names of people who have died in road accidents, scribbled by their loved ones as a sad reminder.