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Kenyan man to travel 2,500 miles by wheelchair to raise money for spinal injury unit

Zackary Kimotho, a paraplegic after he was shot in a robbery, is traveling in his wheelchair from his native Kenya to South Africa to raise money for a spinal injury center.
"Nobody prepared me for what happens after you get released from the hospital. You go home, alone. You're in a room with nothing to do. You are enclosed," Zackary Kimotho said.
"Nobody prepared me for what happens after you get released from the hospital. You go home, alone. You're in a room with nothing to do. You are enclosed," Zackary Kimotho said.Sven Torfinn for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

There are a few basic facts to know about Zackary Kimotho.

One, Zack, as he is known, is an exceedingly uncommon name in Kenya, which has bestowed a certain degree of curiosity, and respect, on Mr. Kimotho.

Two, he was an up-and-coming Kenyan veterinarian, specializing in large animals, expert at diagnosing pneumonia in sheep and taking the temperature of camels, which is not an easy or especially pretty thing to do. But all that came to a premature end one afternoon outside Nairobi, when he was the victim of a botched carjacking and shot in the shoulder, leaving him a paraplegic.

Three, he is trying to travel in a wheelchair from Nairobi to Cape Town, a journey of about 2,500 miles, through some of the poorest countries on earth, to raise $3 million for a desperately needed spinal cord rehabilitation center in his country. More and more Kenyans are having their backs broken in minibus accidents, which sometimes kill upward of 20 people, or are shot and paralyzed in holdups, and there is no place in Kenya dedicated to spinal cord rehabilitation.

That is Mr. Kimotho’s cause.

Twenty days in, he has made it about 60 miles. His first pair of gloves has already worn through, and his shoulders ache. At this rate, about three miles a day, it will take him more than two years to reach the bottom of Africa.

“Man,” Mr. Kimotho said this week, taking a breather in the shade. “Somebody got some water?”

Mr. Kimotho’s journey has lifted spirits across this land, where people are eager for a homegrown “Rocky” story and a break from the ethnic politics and terrorism fears that have dominated the headlines lately.

Just about every Kenyan seems to know Kijana Zack, as some call him, or young man Zack, as a result of a slick marketing campaign paid for by Safaricom, one of Kenya’s leading cellphone operators, and other corporate sponsors. His Web site,, makes his journey look almost like a safari, featuring an image of him rolling along a picturesque, acacia-lined road, hazy green mountains rising in the distance.

On a recent day, the whole town of Kajiado came out to cheer Mr. Kimotho’s arrival, from old men swinging traditional wooden clubs spiked with giant bolts to thousands of children jostling for a peek at the small, nice-looking man with copper-colored eyes, twiggy legs and thick arms wheeling down the middle of the street.

“We decided to let the children out of school to see this,” said Esther Ipite Nchani, a government education officer. “He is alone, and he’s out to save many lives. When the children grow up, they will remember this.”

A rolling street party
The word has gone around to all the schools along the way to let the children out when Mr. Kimotho comes to town. He may not be setting a world record — Rick Hansen, a Canadian man paralyzed from the waist down, wheeled 25,000 miles — but that is not Mr. Kimotho’s point. He wants to spare people from going through what he did.

“Nobody prepared me for what happens after you get released from the hospital,” he said. “You go home, alone. You’re in a room with nothing to do. You are enclosed.”

Mr. Kimotho’s journey is not all sweat and pain. This is Kenya, after all, and thumping music is as vital to the mission as the endless cartons of bottled water. At times, his trek is more like a rolling street party. Of the 26 people in his entourage, there are rappers, dancers and D.J.’s who preside from two huge trucks. You can see heads bobbing and feel the bass from a quarter-mile away.

Mr. Kimotho, 44, was born in the central highlands outside Nairobi, the son of a farmer and a teacher. He had a dog named Michael and at an early age connected to animals.

“An animal is honest,” he said. “If they like you, they show it. If they’re cross, they show it.”

He won a coveted spot at the University of Nairobi to study veterinary medicine, worked for the government after graduating, got his own car and driver, and married his longtime girlfriend, Dorris. In 2001, they had a son, Daniel.

But then Mr. Kimotho’s luck turned, and a charmed life morphed into something different. Less than two years after Daniel’s birth, Dorris died, of a “short illness,” is all he would say.

In early January 2004, three thugs attacked him as he was trying to pull his car onto a highway. They yelled at him to get out of the car. When he reached over to unfasten his seat belt, a gunman shot him in the right shoulder.

Son didn't recognize him
The bullet sliced through Mr. Kimotho’s back, slammed into his vertebrae and blasted bone slivers into his spinal cord. But the doctors did not know all that at the time. They simply plucked out the bullet and sent him to another hospital in the back of a pickup. His spinal cord was compressed, jarred and damaged even further.

For months, he was paralyzed from the neck down. He said the worst part was when his son visited the hospital for the first time and looked blankly at him, not realizing the man in bed was Dad.

“At that moment I went down,” he said.

Did he cry?

“I’m an African man,” Mr. Kimotho said, smiling shyly. “I’m not supposed to show emotion.”

Slowly, he regained sensation in his arms. He started using a wheelchair and met a witch doctor at church who promised to get him walking again for the princely sum of $3,000, several times the average annual income in Kenya.

“You know I paid,” he said, saying his family gave him the money. “I wanted to walk.”

It did not work, but the heavy massages the witch doctor gave him seemed to stimulate something deep in his wounded nervous system and in his heart.

A few years ago, Mr. Kimotho discovered the Kenyan Paraplegic Organization and learned that about 75,000 Kenyans had debilitating spinal cord injuries and that the group had bought land for a rehabilitation center. It had even dug a borehole for water but needed about 250 million Kenyan shillings, around $3 million, to complete it.

So he spoke to friends about a way to raise attention — and money — and came up with the idea of propelling himself to the tip of Africa, Cape Town. He trained by wheeling a couple of hours around his suburban Nairobi neighborhood.

'This isn't easy, man'
His friend Vincent Ogada, a librarian, has taken time off work to help.

“Me and Zack used to drink beer and eat roast meat,” Mr. Ogada said, sad now because Mr. Kimotho’s injuries make it hard for him to digest meat. “He was never at home, and very social, which is why he took it so hard.”

But Mr. Ogada added: “This whole thing has opened my eyes. You got to be humble. You never know what will happen.”

The Bring Zack Back Home campaign says that if at any time along the way to Cape Town $3 million is reached, Mr. Kimotho will come home. So far, less than $1 million has been raised. People can send in as little as one shilling a day, a little more than a penny, using their Safaricom cellphone service.

And if the $3 million goal is reached when Mr. Kimotho is in southern Tanzania or rural Zambia, will he wheel home or catch a ride back?

“I will go back by truck!” he laughed. “This isn’t easy, man.”

This article, headlined "On the Road, Cheers for a Kenyan and His Cause," first appeared in The New York Times.