From battlefield to streets: Meet ex-soldier who defeated disability

From battlefield to streets: Meet ex-soldier who defeated disability
Army veteran James Abdalla Nyika now pays bills by hawking on a wheelchair. [Photo: Yiep Joseph]

To most Juba residents who frequent the Ministry Road, next to Dr John Garang Mausoleum, right opposite Office of the President, James Abdalla Nyika passes as a normal street hawker.

From his specially designed motorised tricycle, Nyika, now confined to the seat, give no of a man who once repelled a a platoon of opposing soldiers.

From his tricycle, he displays several wares for his potential customers. On his ‘moving shop’ you will find assorted items like pairs of scissors, ink pens, socks, mostly for men, cigarettes just to mention but a few.

Nyika is a brave soul who has walked the earth – from the battle field to now relatively safe streets of Juba. He braves the morning cold with pride, the scorching midday heat with confidence and occasionally gets wet, from the perennial rain – all, in search of an extra coin.

Thirty five years ago Nyika would brave the same conditions, only that, by then, he had a gun by side. He was a soldier with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). But his stay in the army would not last long. Tragedy struck in 1992 in Malakal.

“I was wounded in crossfire in Malakal. War had intensified in Malakal between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLA) and the Sudan forces. There was exchange of fire and bombs whizzing past. I survived one of the bomb strikes that almost took my life. But my legs were no more,” he says.

He maintains the impression of a stoic. He strives to speak less than necessary. Many years after leaving the battlefield, there is a significant chunk of a ‘soldier’ left in him.

Recovers afterwards

He says after he recovered from wounds of the fatal bomb that left him paralysed, he abandoned the army and started a business in Malakal and other SPLA controlled areas.

His first wife that he declines to share her name for personal reasons later died just after delivering two children.

“I got married early, I married my first wife in 1980 and she died after she gave birth to two kids. After raising the kids from my first wife to adulthood, I remarried in 2008,” he says.

Once again he opens a lid into his life as a proud family man who puts the interest of his family first. Later in the interview, he would tell me how he ensures that he personally tales his two children to school every morning before he comes to work.

Once again he remains tight lipped on which schools they are attending and probably which grades they are in.

“They are still in primary school,” he says without giving further details.

James Nyika believes disability is not inability, and the best way to demonstrate that has been ensuring that he remains productive despite having no limbs.

He says that during the liberation struggle, many soldiers or various ranks and file were disabled and most resorted to begging, of course not out of their will.

“The war left many wounded soldiers vulnerable. Many also died. I was thankful to God that death had spared me, and as long as I lived, I had to find something to do,” he says. He believes everyone can do something.

“Start something, no matter how small it is. If you don’t start, then there is no way you can be helped in the long term if people really want to help you,” he says.

“My wife is here with me and my children in Mia Saba. This small money I get from here helps me to get food and sometime pay my children’s school fees. Sometimes, I can get SSP3,000 in a day in net profit or more,” he says and for the first time a wry smile forms on face.

His determination to be self-sufficient financially has come with serious setbacks. His journey in business has been an equally torturous one. He is no doubt a manifestation of resilience.

After the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between SPLM/A, and the Sudan government in 2005, he went to Khartoum to advance his business, hoping to take advantage of the peaceful environment created by the agreement. He would later transfer his business to South Sudan.

He loaded a boat with items from Malakal to Juba in 2011, but his items were robbed, throwing his business in an abyss.

“I left Sudan for South Sudan with a lot of goods, I loaded onto a boat food items and soaps with the intention of doing business in South Sudan. Unfortunately, my boat was attacked in Malakal along the Nile River and rebels took most of the items and burnt what was left. This took me some steps back as the goods were worth millions of pounds,” he says.

He arrived in Juba with very little that was left after the robbery and he started and he started selling sweets on the streets of Juba around Custom Market.

He says he started with SSP400, selling sweets on the streets. With savings here and there, he managed to expand the business by diversifying into other items.

“Before I was given this bike by Achai Wiir Foundation, I relied on boda (bicycle taxi) to bring my items from home to the market, and later use the same means back home,” he says.

But since he was given the bike, his movement and that of his goods has been made really easy. But he says as long as he has his brain intact, he will do anything he can to put food on the table.

His biggest challenge so far is inflation that has made prices of basic commodities skyrocket.

He complained that increased commodity prices posed a great challenge on small businesses. 

“There are bad days when we go home with nothing. Some customers cannot keep up with the ever rising costs of commodities. But we have our hands tied as businessmen because we can only sell depending on the wholesale price. If the prices shoot, we have to increase our prices as well because we don’t want to sell at a loss,” he says.

While he cannot boast of affluence, he believes he has set a precedence not just for his children who have seen him struggle to support them, but for the larger society. He doesn’t believe in sympathy, and that is why he pays his children’s school fees to the last cent.

“The school administration where my children go to school is very much aware of this. I have always told them that I will pay the fees in installments until I clear it,” he says.