The Observer (Kampala)

13 November 2012

Uganda: A Vision for the Future

column

Madera school gives hope to blind children:

In part six of our series on disability, OUR REPORTER looks at the issue of access to education for visually impaired children.

When I ask Eseza Achieng how long she has been in this school, she smiles, raising her head and looking at me with her large, bright, kind eyes. "For me I don't count," she chuckles, as she tries to fix a sheet of paper into the grey typewriter-like machine, with what looks like a dozen keys. "But I came when I did not know Braille."

After several attempts, the paper fits, when Achieng uses her three middle fingers of the right hand to feel the top edges. And then, klaklaklaklaklaklak. She types furiously, fast, all the while looking at her keyboard. "So, can you read for us what you have written?" says teacher Francis Ogoj gently.

Achieng feels the paper, where small dots have been forming. "De-ar Vi-sit-ors, you are we-lco-me," she reads, running fingers over the dots that, to a normal eye, look like uniform little swellings on the paper.

Although Eseza Achieng has some of the most beautiful eyes you will ever find, they are not normal eyes. The girl from Parima in Peta sub-county Tororo district has been totally blind since her childhood. Which is why she was brought here to the 55-year-old St Francis primary school for the Blind at Madera, just outside Soroti town.

Now in primary five, Achieng is the head-girl of the school, and a model student. She has been here for five years, according to teacher Ogoj, and can now type and read Braille with humbling ease. When she grows up, Achieng hopes to be a professional musician, and she already has a bias for gospel music. "Mastering this thing is a skill of its own," Ogoj says, emphasizing the enormity of the task as Achieng continues punching away.

Achieng is among the lucky ones. According to Her head teacher, Sister Mary Kevin Nasirumbi, many of the blind children are languishing in the villages, never getting a chance to go to school. For some, it is because their parents do not see any sense in taking them to schools like Madera. For others, the schools are simply too few and too far away from home and too expensive.

Yet many of these schools are in bad shape, largely neglected by the government, and unable to rely on parents, some of whom have very little interest in their visually-impaired children. Fortunately, Achieng's school is government-aided, meaning the government pays the 17 teachers who handle the 80 pupils. But beyond that, the government only gives negligible support.

When The Observer visited in October, the school had only received Shs 900,000 from the government since the beginning of this year. Yet this is a school that must give a lot of scholastic materials (Braille machines and paper, tactile maps, slates, cube frames, etc), attention and care for pupils like Achieng to thrive.

"The challenges we have are many," starts Nasirumbi. "Parents are supposed to contribute Shs 220,000 per child per term but only about half of them contribute. Some come with as little as Shs 50,000; some are still paying debts from last year. But we accept them because we cannot turn them away."

To put the school's funding needs into perspective, one ream of Braille paper costs between Shs 100,000 and Shs 150,000. The school uses about five reams a week, which means that the money the school has got from the government since the year began would not even buy the school enough Braille paper for one month. Nasirumbi's views are echoed by Joseph Malinga, the communications manager at the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu).

"Education [for the visually-impaired] largely remains inaccessible," Malinga says. "Scholastic materials are not readily available. Visually-impaired [learners] use specialized equipments such as adaptive computers, Braille machines and paper that are very expensive thus not affordable for parents, pupils, and schools."

Officials say in the absence of meaningful government support, the school is forced to hold out the begging bowl. This year, donors like Christian Blind Mission, Partners for Children Worldwide, and ChildFund International have provided about Shs 70m, although officials speak of donor fatigue, as donations begin to dwindle.

Life-changing:

Achieng, a second born of four children, is lucky that her parents have supported her to come to Madera. According to officials at the school, one of the major challenges the school faces - other than poor funding and decaying structures - is the bad attitude of families of visually-impaired children. Sometimes school closes and the families do not collect the children. Some children are also mistreated at home, where they are seen as a burden, of whom nothing good will eventually become.

"That is why some of them hate going back home," says Ogoj. "When they are here with their colleagues, they are very happy; but the moment you say it is time to go back home, you see them becoming sad."

One person who knows the value of the education here is Angela Symphoroza Amuge. Now 59, Amuge lost her sight at 5, reportedly after contracting chickenpox. Her father brought her to Madera in 1958, when classes for the blind were held under a large mango tree that still stands today.

"When I started, we were studying together with sighted children because our own premises were still under construction, and it was very expensive for my father but he persisted," says Amuge, originally from Palaam sub-county in Usuk county, Katakwi district. "My father used to buy for me things to use, but I would lose them because I could not see."

Amuge would complete primary seven at Madera and join Kidetok Girls for junior secondary. But then she lost her benefactor, a white nun. Out of school, she returned to the classroom, teaching primary one children between 1970 and 1979, before love came calling.

A mother of four, today Amuge spends much of her time either training blind adults in life-skills or on the affairs of the Soroti Agricultural and Craft Association of the Blind (SACAB), where she is a coordinator. Through crafts work and industry, Amuge keeps goats and cattle in Katakwi, and has managed to educate her children, two of them to university level.

"One of the things that concern me a lot is that blind children are missing out on nursery education; we do not have a nursery school for blind children and yet nursery is the foundation of education," says Amuge, who, despite being blind, moves around Soroti town with ease and does her own shopping unaccompanied.

"I am able to do all this because of the education I got at Madera and other training," Amuge says. "Of course as a blind person, there are many things we miss; we are missing the internet, for instance, and we can't read newspapers."

Poor access:

According to John Robert Odongo, a programme assistant with the Soroti District Union of Persons with Disabilities (Sodipu), the situation for the disabled in the Teso sub-region is improving, but depends on the nature and magnitude of disability. For instance, Odongo says, while a physically-disabled child may be able to make it into a normal school, a blind child cannot benefit from the universal primary education.

And schools like Madera, where Eseza Achieng goes, charge fees that many parents either can't afford or, because of ignorance about the intellectual potential of blind children, do not want to pay. Consequently, Odongo says, many of Achieng's schoolmates are not from this Teso sub-region, which has been dogged by problems of insurgency and high poverty levels, and illiteracy.

And without education, it is difficult for disabled people to find work and fend for themselves. "Unemployment is high in Uganda, but it is worse for PWDs," Odongo says. "Sometimes even if someone qualifies, it is hard to get employed."

In a bid to improve the situations, the Soroti District Service Commission is supposed to have a representative of PWDs. But the method of the selection of that representative is controversial.

"We feel that it should be the disabled persons unions to nominate their representative, as opposed to other people simply appointing someone on our behalf," Odongo says, adding that the current PWDs representative on the DSC is seen as an elderly, rather than a disabled, person.

Back at St Francis Madera, Achieng is walking with two classmates when I call her name. She turns, answers, and waits. I ask her to come over where I am, just outside the driver's door of the car. She takes four hesitant steps, and then paces up. I hold my breath. I fear she will bump into the car. But she walks around the vehicle and comes within one metre of me, and waits.

Despite what many think about blindness, what I have seen here suggests that children like Achieng may be even more intelligent than those with normal vision.

Continues on Friday:

This Observer feature was prepared with support from the National Union of DisabledPersons of Uganda (Nudipu)

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