Looking at the sweep of green lawn and well-tended garden outside a building on the corner of 5th Street and Nelson Mandela in the CBD – an area most often thought of as cramped and grey – passersby do not fathom the challenges that lie behind its creation. The man responsible for this beautiful space, 52-year-old Alexander Mnkandla, is in a wheelchair.
Even more remarkable is that Mnkandla is not only a talented landscaper and gardener, but has a high reputation as an athlete in various disciplines, and is an active family man too, being married with four children.
His life was changed two decades ago when, fleeing a snake, he fell off a cliff. He ended up in a wheelchair but was recuperating and fully expected to walk again. Then, during his rehabilitation, bad luck struck once again when he was hit by a car. This second blow landed him in his wheelchair for life.
Yet Mnkandla has risen to great heights in spite of this, becoming a respected participant and organiser for wheelchair road racing events, wheelchair tennis, body building, and basketball.
He is the current president of the Association of Spinal Cord Injuries in Sport in Zimbabwe, he sits on the Zimbabwe Paralympics Committee Board, Body Building and Power Lifting Board, and the Body Building Commission for the Disabled where he is responsible for raising awareness and setting up support structures for athletes.
In his capacity as a sportsman, Mnkandla has had repeat appearances at the prominent George Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge, the Soweto Marathon and many other local tournaments. He is also a decorated weight lifter and basketball player, and holds a special place in his heart for wheelchair tennis – which he entered into in the spirit of exploring new frontiers.
“I played basketball at first, then I later took up wheelchair tennis after realising basketball was the first sport of preference for disabled sportsmen,” says Mnkandla. He then took it upon himself to develop the sport locally. “After seeing that there were no structures in place for wheelchair tennis after I started to play, I engaged the International Tennis Federation and they assisted me, even sending used rackets and tennis balls.”
Alas, given the huge shortfall in support and sponsorship for disabled sports in Zimbabwe, Mnkandla must pursue whatever other work he can to make ends meet.
While working at an insurance brokers’ office in town, he developed an aptitude for gardening. His first job was at the front door, greeting and directing visitors, but he soon took an interest in the small but barren space outside the office. Mnkandla started tending to it and, as it brightened up, his boss took an interest and asked him to take care of the whole area. People are surprised to see a disabled man tasked with such physical work, but given his lifestyle, managing some grass is the least of his worries.
He starts every day with a vigorous early morning gym session near his home in Mufakose. He then navigates his way to town during rush hour – when kombis often ignore his requests for a ride, since his chair must occupy kadoma – the small seat behind the driver. It’s illegal but commonplace to put a passenger there. “I won’t pay for it,” insists Mnkandla, who explains too that, “sometimes they will leave me behind because I occupy that space, and also it takes a bit longer to load my chair.” It’s not always like this thankfully. “Some drivers are used to it now though, and even call me over when the recognise me,” he says.
Some days, he doesn’t use kombis at all – choosing instead to log some training on his three wheeler and using his own steam to get to work. “Surprisingly the kombis that sometimes won’t wait for me to load up, are more tolerant with me when we share the road,” says Mnkandla.
Be it networking, sporting, gardening or spending time with his family, Mnkandla won’t let his disability get in the way of his dreams and adventures. So next time you’re in town, and maybe passing by Fifth Street, look out for Mnkandla. He’s the man for whom the grass is always greenest right where he is.