David ole Sankok, a nominated Member of Parliament, contracted polio at a young age, leading to him being physically challenged. He admits it’s harder for people living with disabilities to find love and be loved, let alone getting a spouse, especially when they are poor.
“There is nothing as bad in this world like being poor and disabled and at the same time there is no hope. If you are rich and disabled your money can attract someone. If you are poor but abled, your muscles will attract someone as they know you will labour,” says Mr Sankok, recalling how some women would admire him while he was seated, but shy away after seeing him using crutches.
His worst moment while seeking love was in first year at the University of Nairobi. It involved a former primary schoolmate he was good friends with. When he brought up the subject, she told him that she smiled with him because she sympathised with his situation.
“She told me we live in a mud house and we are poor, yet she came from a well-off family,” recalls the MP.
That dented his self-esteem. He even stopped trying to engage any other woman.
“I thought I would never get married. I had figured out I would get rich and buy babies because that woman knew me but rejected me. She knew my struggles from my days crawling more than four kilometres because I didn’t have crutches. So imagine those who don’t know me?’’ poses Sankok.
He advises people who turn down those living with disability to do so without reminding them of their status as it lowers their self-esteem.
Without any girlfriend forthcoming, his parents arranged a wife for him through a family friend. His bride, Hellen Seiyeanoi, was 17 and in Form Four while he was 21 and in second year.
“She was Godsent,” says Sankok. “she came from a rich family but accepted to stay in a shared manyatta with me and slept on an animal hide.”
Sankok says being beautiful and learned helps a woman attract many suitors and to ensure his bride attracted less attention from other men he made sure he impregnated her “almost immediately and simultaneously until we got seven children. Most men will not easily engage a woman with seven children following each other like alphabets.”
In the first few years of marriage, Sankok ensured his wife was either pregnant or breastfeeding, mostly out of his own insecurity. He did not want her to leave him because of disability.
He advises single women to consider persons living with a disability as they have unmatched energy, love wholeheartedly and only shyness one feels is walking with someone in a wheelchair.
“We love hard, and we deserve to be loved. Most people think our sex life is boring but I dare them to try dating a disabled person, they will be mesmerized,” says Sankok.
“I eat ugali like other people, but my energy is not utilised or burned down because I don’t walk, or plough land, so where do you think this energy goes? Energy can’t be destroyed but can be transferred to other forms. People With Disabilities (PWD)’s sex life is an ‘A’ game.”
But Sankok laments about people with disabilities being taken advantage and women are worse off as “they are impregnated by men who don’t want to be seen with a woman on a wheelchair.”
According to him, the society makes matters worse. The attitude of most people is that if one is disabled, they are disabled in every way.
“The worst part is a woman going to the hospital while pregnant in a wheelchair. The nurses will start feeling sorry for her, and some even ask how they got pregnant,” says Sankok. “This perception should change.”
Is finding love while living with physical disability the same for women as it is for men?
Denita Ghati, a mother of one and a representative of People Living with Disabilities in Parliament, began using a wheelchair six years ago after a road crash.
The 41-year-old says “love has become elusive for everyone” but it is now easier for women like her to get married than before because perceptions are slowly changing.
“A woman with a disability has the same sexual desire as an abled woman. Those perceptions that the disabled can’t make good mothers are long gone,” says Ghati.
“Many people think the disabled don’t have sexual desires, the whites have moved on from this perception. Men are marrying disabled women and disabled men are also getting married to abled women and it’s not a big deal. In Africa, it still looks like a big deal.”
Denita says though she has a few changes in her body, her sex life is still intact just like before she started using a wheelchair.
“There is no magic; it’s about understanding between partners,” she explains. “People think this is a mlemavu (physically challenged) and she doesn’t have those bedroom gymnastics; that we are boring or rigid. It is a lie.”
The worst perception, for her, was people thinking she now has a lot of needs.
And though being conned for love is to be expected, disabled women should not be afraid to put themselves out there and find love even though they are more vulnerable to cons.
Besides being physically challenged, others suffer visual impairment which also becomes a hurdle while seeking love and when in love.
Moses Kilonzo, the chair of People Living with Blindness, lost his sight at 18 after suffering from an eye condition called glaucoma
“I wasted four years of my life trying to accept that I can’t see again. I got depressed. “Coming from a humble background, I couldn’t get any help but I had to rehabilitate and accept my condition,” he says.
The biggest challenge for Kilonzo, now 30, was finding love, given that the visually impaired cannot see, they can only feel it.
One of the most difficult things for a visually impaired man, says Kilonzo, is convincing a woman that he can provide for her, take care and protect her, yet he can’t see.
“People view the visually impaired as needy people who need help. So when you approach women they think of you as a burden they will have to provide for,” says Kilonzo.
The situation is no different with women who assume few lovers will desire them and in their desperation end up falling for anyone who makes the first move.
Kilonzo reckons that though people living disability attribute rejection to their status “they forget that even normal people get rejected or their advances are turned down.”
Kilonzo feared rejection, but once he conquered that hurdle, his advances were accepted. He, however, admits that it was not an easy task.
He tried dating four different women who rejected him. He then decided to work on improving his looks and financial status. That is how he won over the affection of his girlfriend.
“She could not say it but she was treating me in a certain way that I think she couldn’t treat someone else not living with a disability,” recalls Kilonzo.
In the early days, his girlfriend’s biggest fear was other people’s perception of dating a visually impaired man. To get around this, they mostly communicated through the phone as she avoided meeting him.
He says the visually impaired see with their minds and can picture how a woman looks like while talking to her. Others like him, had a chance to see women and thus “perceive women differently from those who have never seen a woman. Those who have never seen a woman cannot tell the complexion or if the woman has a good figure but they only get attracted to the voice.”
Kilonzo singles out lack of income as the one thing that disadvantages people living with a disability.
He says that most times, a potential love has financial security at the back of her mind.
So when he met his future spouse he explained to her that he was capable of providing for her.
“With time, she came to accept after realising I was capable of fulfilling few things she never imagined I could.”
Kilonzo adds that there is also physical security as most fear being without a buffer zone with a man in a wheelchair or one who cannot see.
“The other worry women have,” offers Kilonzo, “is going out on a date with someone on a wheelchair or a blind person who they have to guide. The other is introducing their disabled partner to friends.”
As for bedroom matters, he says it’s all a mind game and the visually impaired play it well. They have staying power as they are not easily distracted compared to those who can see.
“During romance their minds are with you 110 per cent and during the act they give 150 per cent commitment.”
Kilonzo says word goes round and sometimes the visually impaired gradually become a target for lovers “who want a good time.”
As for other people and what they thought about them, Kilonzo sat his girlfriend down for a talk and today, friends come for relationship advice from them.
He advises people with disabilities not to portray themselves as needy to attract lovers.
Those dating those hard of hearing also face certain challenges like in the case of Sarah* who married a deaf man five months ago. She recalls feeling pain during intercourse but could not explain verbally and using sign language in the position was also another challenge.
Then there are those living with albinism, which is affected by sweat and during intercourse “there is an extent that you can’t push yourself,” notes one interviewee who also sought anonymity.
“Sometimes it becomes a challenge to satisfy your partner.”