The drive to thrive  – one woman’s appetite for independence

“My name is Nomajwarha and I’m a contract civil engineer at the Water Authority of the Amathole District Municipality in East London.  Although engineers are generally required to do a lot of travelling as part of our job, I travel now less than I used to a couple of years ago.  This is because a car accident left me with severely impeded leg mobility.  But I don’t let that stop me from moving!”

Nomajwarha Sitonga can recall every detail of the car accident that changed her life in 2014.  An oncoming car swerved to avoid hitting a donkey on the road between Peddie and East London, and smashed into the car in which Nomajwarha was a passenger.  She knew immediately that her injuries were serious. Upon being admitted to hospital, Nomajwarha was suffering from blunt abdominal trauma that caused paralysis from the waist down, and resulted in permanent lower leg weakness.  After five months in hospital (including two in rehabilitation), she was discharged using crutches and ankle foot orthosis (AFO) braces.  Today, she no longer uses the crutches, but the AFOs are a necessity as they stabilise her feet, provide extra support and keep her feet at the required 90 degree angle for walking.

At the time of her accident, Nomajwarha was an intern at the Municipality.  She was 27 years old.  She says, “When you are told that you won’t be able to walk unassisted ever again, the first thing that comes into your mind is that you are finished; that your life has come to an end.”  As someone with a very independent spirit, Nomajwarha felt that she simply could not accept this.  She began doing online research, investigating ways that might assist her in becoming mobile once more.  She found that it was possible for normal cars to undergo special adaptations to enable people with limited, or no mobility, to actually drive.  (Nomajwarha could drive prior to her accident.)  This was the piece of news that she had been looking for!  She recalls how she began to pester those around her with the information: “I was having therapy at the Life St Dominic’s Hospital’s rehabilitation unit for mobilisation, and I told the staff at the unit that I wanted to drive again.  They began to help me find a supplier that could accomplish car adaptations.”   It was from a Johannesburg-based supplier that Nomajwarha heard about Nicky’s Drive, the only non-profit organisation in South Africa to specifically provides funds towards car adaptations for people with limited or no mobility.  Nicky Abdinor, the founder of Nicky’s Drive says, “Prior to her accident, Nomajwarha had a bright future ahead of her.  She was determined that her disability was not going to change this, and her application for funding clearly reflected her determination for independence.”

The rest, as they say, is history.  After being discharged from hospital in September 2014, Nomajwarha was driving her newly adapted car, with special hand-operated accelerator and brakes, by November that year.  And she has been driving ever since.  Over time, as she becomes stronger, Nomajwarha sometimes uses her legs when driving, so that “they can get used to the idea of driving, especially for shorter distances!”  Longer distances are possible using the car’s adaptations, and she has been known to drive herself between East London and Port Alfred.

Nomajwarha believes that Nicky’s Drive gave her far more than the ability to move.  She says, “I am able to teach people out there – as well as myself – that you can do anything that you put your mind to, even if you have a disability. Being disabled doesn’t mean that you are less human; it just means that you do things in a special way.  I never feel like I’m trapped, because whenever I want to go out, I just take my car and go.”