Grahamstown welcomes an adventurous new student with an amazing story and a lesson for everyone. Thandi Bombi reports below.
As the engine failed and the helicopter hit the water, Warren Boggs and his colleagues saw themselves being flipped upside down. The water, like the panic, was beginning to fill what was quickly becoming a small box with little moving space and even less air to breathe.
After what seemed like an eternity, Boggs unfastened his seatbelt, moved towards the designated emergency escape and broke his way to freedom. As he gulped in air to fill his lungs, Boggs looked over his shoulder at those who weren’t as quick as he. Although still alive, those still in the helicopter knew that if it hadn’t been a drill, things would have been different; they would have drowned.
After this unnerving ordeal, Boggs could add Helicopter Underwater Escape Training to his long list of achievements.
This was seventeen years ago, before the hiking accident in Thailand that left Boggs in a wheelchair. But it exemplifies that spirit of adventure that the 42-year-old Rhodes undergraduate brings to all he does.
“If you don’t do something for yourself once, it’s okay,” said Boggs, “but if you keep having people helping you then you lose your self-worth.” This sums up his proactive, hands-on lifestyle. Although too modest to admit it, the best way to describe Boggs would be as a quiet, soft-spoken James Bond.
Boggs has proven to have a sense of adventure that even the townsfolk of Grahamstown find unfathomable. Over the weekend he participated in the Makana Green Fun Run. Although he was competing against able bodied runners, Boggs was determined to wheel himself past the finish line. “While I was participating in the 6km green run, a woman came up behind me and, without acknowledging me, immediately started pushing me,” said Boggs, “by her action she was denying me any sense of accomplishment that I would earn by pushing my way around what is a pretty tough course.” Boggs not only finished the course but he was able to come in five minutes before the lady and prove that he was just as good, if not better in his chair.
In 2001, 28 year-old Boggs broke his lower spine and suffered a very bad head injury after falling from a cliff in Thailand. Although even today Boggs has no recollection of the incident, his brother, Guy Boggs has filled him in about the moment that changed his life. While on a break from a hike in the forests of Thailand, Boggs walked into a shallow stream to wash his hands and cool off. With one quick slip he found himself grabbing out for something stable to keep him from drifting along the stream. With no clue that danger was near his brother and cousin helplessly watched him being swept away.
As they rushed to the edge of the cliff; there he lay, meters away on a rock, still conscious but unaware that the moments that had just passed would change his life forever. “My brother and my cousin Astrit Johnson made a makeshift bamboo stretcher and carried me to a ranger’s station about 100km south of the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand,” said Boggs. He then spent a little over five months recovering in the Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital.
While having adapted exceptionally well to his chair, Boggs reminisces about his able-bodied days. “As an environmentalist, I would be dropped off, by chopper, on remote, uninhibited islands off the coast of Australia,” said Boggs, “The one time my colleague and I were forced to enter shark infested waters to save a whale that had been caught in a pearl net.” Boggs’ experience in saving whales was further enriched in Richards Bay, South Africa, when he found a beached Mink whale while taking a stroll early one morning. “It was out of pure luck that the whale was a baby whale and had not already crushed its own lungs to death,” said Boggs, “We were able to get a specialist vet to fly in and after hard work and heavy labour we were able to get the whale back into the water.”
Having lived in over 14 countries and visited 20 in total, Grahamstown is lucky to have Boggs. Not only does he have an inspirational story to motivate the people of Grahamstown, his experience as an international wheelchair tennis player will come in very handy at the Grahamstown Tennis Club, “I have always enjoyed playing tennis and discovered that I was reasonably good at wheelchair tennis,” said Boggs, “when I was offered my first opportunity to play in a wheelchair tennis tournament, at the Australian Open in Melbourne, I jumped at the chance.”
Meanwhile on campus as the only student that is in a wheel chair, Boggs feels that the students could definitely benefit from a lesson on disability awareness. “When people see me in my wheelchair all too often their first thoughts are that I need help,” said Boggs, “people think like this automatically – I just wish that perhaps people would observe me first, watch what I am doing and understand what I am trying to achieve.”
Even for Boggs this experience can be an overwhelming one, “Not a day goes by at Rhodes where this does not happen, and I hate it,” said Boggs “I just want to lock myself in my room and never come out.” Boggs experienced this after students moved their own chairs into wheel chair designated seats at the Barret Lecture Theatre.
While fellow students could easily argue they don’t know any better, Boggs should be the reason why we take a step forward and educate ourselves and one another. “One of the most difficult things I found in being in a wheelchair are people’s attitudes towards me, said Boggs, “Not often do people first see me as a person and thus do not treat me as one.”
Where do our priorities lie as a community?
If people would go out of their way to ignore cultural differences and unite then why is it so difficult to see past a wheelchair?