Johanna BensonÔÇÖs no girl next door any more



The tiny living-room is overcrowded with family members laughing in loud conversations that across the small hallway.
Outside in the dusty streets of Sea Point location, children are playing street-soccer while others run around barefoot, attracting dust to their feet.
Today, the Benson living-room at Erf number 569/31 along Eleventh Avenue has a lot of visitors coming in.  
Baby Benson, Johanna’s mother, sits calmly on a sofa in the company of her sisters and their husbands unwinding from another busy day at work. They seem to be a very close-knitted family.
I cannot make out what they are talking about in their mother tongue; a combination of Afrikaans and Damara.
All I can pick up is the English word - ‘celebrity’ - which seems to be repeated with emphasis.
“Our girl has made us very proud,” Baby finally turns to me to explain what the whole excitement was is all about. The rest of the family including aunts and uncles, nods in agreement.
This is the home where Johanna Benson spent her early childhood years since 17 February 1990; in one of Walvis Bay’s poorest neighbourhoods.
In the corner of the living-room, a big, flat screened TV rests on a small stand where the family has lately been glued to, to watch the Paralympic Games, except for Baby who says she usually locks herself in her room to pray for her daughter’s victory.
“I get cold-feet whenever she is about to run a race so I avoid watching TV at such times. I would rather hear the results from my sisters,” she admits.
Her brother-in-law, Jeffrey //Naubeb adds that Baby got very emotional last week when she heard that her Johanna had emerged as the winner once again, to win a gold medal.
“She could not contain her tears when we gave her the news,” he says.
A few months ago, the name ‘Johanna Benson’ was just another byword on the street, but today, Johanna has earned a place next to some of Namibia’s top history-makers of all times. As Namibia’s new golden-girl, she has received instant international and local acclaim as the first Namibian to snatch a gold medal at the Paralympic Games.
But life has not always been a bed of roses for the 22-year-old who was born with a foot that is smaller than the other as well as an arm and back paralysis that affected her normal functioning. However, her disability has never prevented her from reaching for the stars.
Born to Damara-speaking mother and an Oshiwambo-speaking father (Sebesteus Luanda), the last time Johanna saw her father was two years ago and that Baby raised Johanna single-handedly.
Those who know her best describe Johanna as an introvert who spends time alone indoors after school rather than go out and play in the street with children her age.
“Because of her condition, she kept to herself most of the time and only played with her two siblings or cousins at home,” says Baby, who is employed at the Gendor Holdings, a marine processing company, explains.
Not only was the timid girl an introvert but she could not bear anyone raising their voice at her. “She cries at the slightest thing so I have to watch my tone whenever I address her,” her mother explains, adding that;
“She is also a bit slow in understanding things but is a hard-worker and a go-getter.”
Baby also reveals that she struggled to put Johanna and her two siblings through school because the family was cash-stripped, “My brother has always helped us financially to make ends meet.” Johanna’s love for running began at the tender age of 14. She had attended a string of schools including Immanuel Ruiters Primary School, Duinesig Combined School, Tutaleni Primary School as well as Kuisebmund Secondary School where she participated in school sports with her peers.
“She competed with learners who were physically able than her but she was always ahead of them,” Baby remembers.
But Johanna’s rare talent would not go unnoticed by spectators and in 2008 while participating in a school race, she caught the eye of the former President of the Namibia Sports Federation for People with Disabilities (NSFPD), Tsire Tsauseb who immediately decided to take her under his wings by becoming her personal coach and mentor.
“She started participating in prominent races with other disabled people at the Sunshine Centre where she spent most of her time under the mentorship of Tsauseb,” Baby explains.
Johanna’s outstanding performance soon saw her racing with international opponents in Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand and notably, India, for the Common Wealth Games where she struck gold. One of her aunts, Felicity //Naobes, remembers a time when her niece had just returned home from India after the Common Wealth Games, empty-handed.
“She was upset that she did not return home with a medal so she took long walks around the neighborhood on her own, disappearing for hours without letting us know and we got worried.
“She felt like she had failed herself and the family. I often watched her sit by herself as if in deep thoughts and I sometimes wondered what she was thinking about.”
Felicity adds that since that time, she noticed a change in Johanna’s approach to life, “It was as if she vowed never to be defeated again.”
Felicity was right, when Johanna went to the Common Wealth Games in 2010; she indeed returned home with a gold medal and hasn’t looked back since. But her victory at the 2010 Common Wealth Games didn’t come without a price.
“Her schoolwork suffered and she couldn’t sit for the exams because she was in India for the Games and failed Grade 10,” Felicity explains.
Currently, Johanna is at the Namibian College for Open Learning (NamCol) to improve her grades but she is positive she will make it.
“Her dream has always been to be a social worker apart from her love for racing. She believes she can use her condition to motivate and inspire others by availing herself as a social worker,” explains yet another aunt of hers, Gisela Linus Benson.
Asked if Johanna has a love-life, everyone in the living room roars with laughter. “That one has never shown any interest in boys or dating, how can she when she is a tomboy?” Gisela teases.
It is pretty clear where Johanna got her running genes from as her own mother and aunts used to be front runners back in their glory days. “We are a very athletic and sporty family. We all love to compete in racing. Our ouma (grandmother) was also a very good runner and all three of our brothers were sprinters,” Gisela reveals.
The Benson’s great-grand parents were originally from Liberia and were one of the foreign workers who came to begin construction work on the coastal railway in Namibia in the 1950s.
One of her cousins and childhood playmate, Penda Benson recalls the fond memories when Johanna would treat the neighbourhood children with chips and candy, with the little pocket money she had, “She loved playing with the little ones and sometimes would attempt to pick them up with her disabled arm just for the fun of it, they were equally fond of her.”
Johanna also tried her hand at helping around the house despite her ailing arm. “I sometimes ask her to get some rest so I can help out with the house chores but she really gets mad at me, she doesn’t like it when people make her feel incapable,” Penda recalls.
Perhaps no one can be more proud than the Benson family itself that is already gearing-up to welcome its heroin at the airport when she returns tomorrow.
“The entire family will be going to the airport to welcome Johanna, this is a moment no one in the family wants to miss and we are counting down the hours,” says her proud uncle, Jeffrey.