When he was a boy, his mother carried him on her back, wrapping strips of cloth around her body to hold him tight.
When he started school, she carried him to and from his lessons, a half-mile there, a half-mile home.
She reminded him: Education is the path to a better life.
So Konan Blaise Koko finished primary school in his village in Africa’s Ivory Coast and when he grew too big for his mom to carry, he walked on his polio-weakened legs with the help of a stick.
Pain shot through every step and the boy couldn’t cross the street without resting. The bigger he got, the harder it became to pull his legs along.
But he listened to his mother. He left home and attended middle school and high school and college, where he got his first wheelchair — shared with two fellow members of his wheelchair basketball team.
He tried to be last on the court with the chair, he joked Wednesday. “So I could take it home with me.”
Koko was 3 when polio swept through his village. He became a power lifter after college, bench-pressing 370 pounds and becoming a champion in both his country and the continent and winning medals in the Paralympic Games.
For the past two years, he’s lived in Lincoln, studying nutrition at UNL on a Fulbright scholarship.
Shortly after he arrived, the native French speaker began taking classes to improve his English and his teacher suggested joining a club to practice his skills.
He chose Rotaract, the college version of Rotary. It was a way to make friends, he said, and to perform service.
“And, I knew already what Rotary was doing in my country to provide vaccinations,” said Koko, 40, now treasurer of the UNL club.
He had his own mission — the survivors — a perfect complement to Rotary International, the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization’s goal to eradicate polio.
The thousands of children in his country who couldn’t walk and didn’t have the means to buy wheelchairs. Students like him, carried by their mothers and fathers.
“People there cannot afford to have a wheelchair. I have to find a way to help them,” he explained.
In 2016, the new UNL Rotaract member suggested a project to his club — Wheelchairs for the Ivory Coast.
“It was something he was passionate about,” said Andrew Musil, club president. “And because Rotary is pretty involved in trying to eradicate polio, we tried to put a polio spin on it.”
The small, but growing, chapter set a goal to raise enough money for one wheelchair that first year.
Koko visited Lincoln’s Downtown Rotary club No. 14, explaining the project and the plight of polio victims in his country.
He challenged members to a match of “hand wrestling,” $5 apiece. He added the $35 to the wheelchair fund.
In July, with the money in his pocket, Koko went home. He drove 200 miles to Nigeria to buy the chair, presenting it to a young woman selected by a government agency for those with disabilities. A crowd of dignitaries gathered. Government officials, members of Ivory Coast Rotary clubs.
Afterward, Koko emailed a message to his friends in Lincoln: It was an emotional moment. She was so happy because she is a freshman and the wheelchair will be very important for her on campus. Like me, her mother has been carrying her most of the time in her life.
This fall, Koko made presentations at two of Lincoln’s three clubs; afterward a member came forward with money for one chair. And then he pledged money for four more at $290 apiece.
The Rotaract club members added their own muscle, holding bake sales and tackling yard work, earning enough for a sixth chair.
Thursday night, they’ll bus tables at Pizza Ranch at 84th Street and Lexington Avenue, where 10 percent of sales and all tip money will go to the project.
Rotarians will be out in force, said Keith Larsen, a member of No. 14, and the liaison to UNL’s Rotaract chapter. But the entire community is welcome, and contributions — beyond pizza — are tax-deductible.
The Rotaract club has set a goal: 10 chairs.
One wheelchair changed his life, Koko said.
At school, he’d felt ashamed that he couldn’t walk like the other kids. “I sat in my corner, and it made me feel very introverted.”
He felt isolated. His legs ached constantly. After three years in college, when he finally got a chair to call his own, he gained confidence. Through sports he forged friendships, he applied for — and earned — scholarships. He transformed.
“I do not feel ashamed to approach people,” he said. “And that changed people’s perceptions of me.”
It’s why the project is so important to this strong man who hopes to get his Ph.D. in America and return to the Ivory Coast to help improve his people’s health.
Koko’s father died when he was 11, but his mother who carried him on her back for so many years is still alive.
“I always said one of my inside desires is to make my mom be always proud of me and achieve my goals,” he said. “So she will not ever feel she has wasted her time or effort.”