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Updated 17 March 2020

‘They said my disability was irreversible, but I can do everything’

Cape Town-born Suleiman Samaai met with an accident that left him with severe brain injury and physical disability. Now, more than 20 years later, he has managed to beat the odds, join a running club, and complete numerous races.

Blissful, ballsy and brilliantly funny is how Suleiman Samaai describes himself 26 years ago. This was until a tragic accident left both him and his family confused, conflicted and stuck in their situation.

Suleiman recalls the motor vehicle accident that sent his family, especially his wife, Basheerah, into an unimaginable panic. An enthusiastic motorcycle driver in his younger days, now at 55 he’s more interested in recovering the lost years with his family.

An accident that changed lives

Basheerah (55) was enjoying a restful Saturday afternoon in January 1993 when her phone rang. “You have to come,” her friend said. “Suleiman’s been in an accident.”

Suleiman was on his way to work with his friend, Shamiel, who gave him a lift, when their car collided with another on Kromboom road.

“I saw the car and thought there was no way Suleiman survived the crash,” Basheerah tells us.

But he did (his friend was fortunate to get off with minor injuries to his head). When Basheerah got to the hospital, the sight of breathing tubes connected to her unconscious husband left her in tears.

As a result of the head injury sustained, Mr Samaai has diffuse axonal brain damage which is irreversible. He presents with severe cerebellar and intellectual dysfunction as well as a hemiparesis and he will be reliant on a wheelchair and personal aid for the rest of his life. He will never be employable again, his medical report read.

Fast-forward a couple of months later, and 27-year-old Suleiman was beginning to defy all odds.

‘I was like a baby all over again’

Suleiman and Basheerah, from Belgravia Estate, Cape Town, met when she was 20 and he 21. It was a blind date at a community fair, set up by her brother and his niece. 

“When I saw him, I thought: ‘Kyk vir Michael Jackson’ [look at Michael Jackson] because he had this long, curly hair,” Basheerah jokes. 

But his recovery, post-accident, became a lottery of unpredictability and was an intense test of patience for his wife. 

When the former plumber regained consciousness six weeks later, he was in a state of confusion.

“When I was still in the hospital, I thought I had two daughters,” he recalls, although, at the time, they only had Shihaam (28) who turned two in April that year. Nawaal (22), their younger daughter, was only born six years later.

“I had to learn how to talk and how to eat. I couldn’t bath myself or cut my nails. I was like a baby all over again.

“I had a catheter and was very frustrated. I struggled to tie my shoelaces. I was struggling with the basics of everyday life,” says Suleiman.

“Despite all the challenges he had and still has to face, he always has a smile on his face. 

“He is brave for facing so many challenges over the years with pure determination. He is my biggest inspiration. With his actions he has shown me that nothing can hold you back,” says Shihaam about her dad.

Intensive therapy

After intensive rehabilitative therapy, which included physiotherapy and occupational therapy at Groote Schuur and the former Conradie Hospital, he started making progress.

Basheerah, who was a daycare mother at the time and became the sole provider, was positioned uncomfortably in the middle of it all. But a social worker left her with words she remembers to this day.

“She told me: ‘Don’t remember Suleiman the way he was; learn to know him the way he is now.’

“She also said that in our situation, 95% of marriages end in divorce, and told Suleiman: ‘Basheerah is like a butterfly – if you touch her too hard, her scales will fall.’ 

“He felt very insecure, and I just needed a bit of space. But we went for marriage counselling and things worked themselves out.”

A feat of endurance

The same man who doctors said would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life defied all odds and is now part of Vanguard Estate’s Nantes Athletic Club, having participated in multiple races.

His urge to start running came after Basheerah returned from one of her races with the club four years ago. Being unable to run was no problem for Suleiman when he joined the club, and so he started with slow walks with his wife.

When they noticed a woman who was running while pushing her baby in a pram, the creative innovator formed a plan, and knew exactly what he needed to build his own, personal walking and running aid.

After saving enough money he bought the parts needed for the walking aid: metal for the framework, brakes, and hundreds of screws to hold it all together. With the help of two friends – an electrician and an engineer – they started building it. A few months later, he ran his first Nantes race with it in Green Point. 

“I didn’t belong to the club, but they gave me a T-shirt for the race. And they clapped for me. I was the last guy that came in that day in the 5km race,” he says, beaming with pride.

Suleiman credits Nantes’ coach, Ammie Truebody, for supervising his training every Tuesday and Thursday.

The birth of Pinky

Suleiman soon realised that his invention was unstable and could cause him injury. But he was resilient, and soon after started designing "Pinky". (He wanted to raise awareness about breast cancer at every race, and therefore sprayed it pink.) The device was such a success that it enabled him to complete the Nantes’ Freedom Day race in 2018.

The races are daunting enough even for the fittest of the club members. This, however, did not deter Suleiman, for whom nothing is impossible and no challenge too great.

Wilfred Diedericks, chief executive at the Cape Town Association for the Physically Disabled, told the Athlone News in 2018 that one of the organisation’s main goals is to reintroduce disabled people, such as Suleiman, into society.

“I have been following Suleiman’s story because I knew what he was attempting to do,” he said, adding that due to insufficient funding, their sports facilities are limited.

'I can do everything'

To this day, Basheerah and Suleiman are still shocked about his close shave with death.

“They said I’d be wheelchair-bound and never thought I would be able to do what I’m doing now. They also said I wouldn't regain many of my functions, but look at me now; I can do everything.

“I may be a bit slow, but I’m fully functional. I was always optimistic about my recovery. I received an award from Nantes for ‘Most Inspirational Novice Runner’, which means I can motivate other people dealing with disability,” Suleiman says.

Basheerah has the last word: “It could’ve been worse. He could’ve been paralysed. I’m just happy he’s still alive and we can still do things together. He even taught me how to change a plug after his recovery. I’m a stronger woman today. I always say we make a mean team. We’re very compatible.”

Image: Zakiyah Ebrahim

 
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