by Julius Gale
JUBA, Nov. 11 (Xinhua) -- David Kerkede, 31, lost a leg in 2005 in a gun battle during South Sudan's long struggle for independence from Sudan.
Last year, Kerkede took up playing wheelchair basketball to enable him socialize with his able-bodied friends and barely a year later, Kerdkede is now part of the country's growing crop of wheelchair basketball enthusiasts.
"We people with disabilities have suffered isolation for so long, but when we get engaged in sports like this, it makes us happy. It makes us feel equal in society," Kerkede told Xinhua during a training session in Juba on Saturday.
In South Sudan, over 400,000 people live with disabilities-mainly caused by diseases and physical injuries suffered during more than two decades of war and violent conflicts.
But since the introduction of wheelchair basketball into the country shortly after independence in 2011, many people are turning to the game to salvage themselves from isolation and societal vices.
James Amaodit Makuei, 19, was attacked by polio at age three, and since then, he has been tied to a wheelchair after his legs got paralyzed.
Makuei said his childhood was so disastrous because he suffered isolation, stigma and negligence by family members and the community around him.
"Life was not good before I started playing basketball. I used to stay at home with no movement. I was always alone," Makuei said.
"Since I started playing basketball, I'm very strong and gaining some strength. Basketball is a good game and changing my life a lot," he added.
Like Kerkede and Makuei, many disabled South Sudanese have shown interest in the once unpopular sport in South Sudan.
Over 60 basketball enthusiasts took part in eight days of intensive training organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Red Cross brought American wheelchair basketball coach Jess Markt and his South Sudanese-American assistant Malat Wei to the east African nation to train players, coaches and referees with an aim of boosting the game and promoting inclusion for persons with disabilities.
Speaking at the conclusion of the training program on Saturday, Markt said the young nation has huge potential to succeed in the global basketball arena if the available talent can be nurtured.
"There is a great potential for basketball in South Sudan, unlike many countries where I coached, there is a real basketball tradition. With time and technique, we can build a great basketball team," Markt.
Stephen Lugga, president of South Sudan Olympic Committee, said the country is at high gear preparing to make debut appearance at the 2020 Paralympic games.
The 36-year-old Onisimo Wani, who began playing basketball five years ago said the sport has brought him some opportunities to make money and friends.
"Basketball has changed my life because now I have friendship with people, both able-bodied and those with disabilities," Wani said.
"After five years, I want to travel the whole of South Sudan and the rest of the world to represent my country in the Paralympics," added Wani.