15 November 2012

Uganda: Muhumuza Lacks Sight but Not Vision

In this second last part of our series on disability, Shifa Mwesigye meets one man whose story demonstrates, yet again, what disabled people can do, if the world gives them an opportunity.

"To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable".

That was said by John Milton long ago, but if anyone epitomises it, it is Boaz Muhumuza. One phone call to him and I can't wait to meet the man with a deep, firm, welcoming voice. I meet him at the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, where is the regional programme officer for disability rights for Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan and Rwanda.

Many of us think of the visually-impaired as people who need help to go around and get by, or people sitting at a street corner holding out the palm for their next meal. Muhumuza is among many who defy this stereotype. And he is not just your run-of-the-mill lawyer. He is an inspiring personality and an excellent mind. Having excelled in his 2010 Law class at Makerere university to score an upper second (with 4.21 CGPA), he sailed through his bar course at the Law Development Centre.

"A blind student does not need special education like people think," he says. "While other students write with a pen, we write with machine," Muhumuza says. "I give my best in everything I do. I believe in myself and I don't care what society thinks. I read quite a lot on the internet, and listen to audio books." Muhumuza adds.

Hopeless beginning

When Muhumuza's parents, Pankrus Bazaara and Florence Tibifumura, learnt that their son had been blinded by Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye, they were devastated.

They had not seen it coming because Muhumuza was fine when he was born on June 22, 1985. His eyes started to get a little pain and tears but they thought it was a normal eye problem that would go away. Being a very poor family in Kanungu district, they treated him with herbs. They did not help, and his eyes had to be removed.

"I was quite young. I didn't know much and didn't care much that I couldn't see," Muhumuza recalls. "I just cared that I couldn't play with other kids. To my parents, at first they felt like this is a total loss; it was a point of better dead than alive."

The community didn't help matters, constantly reminding his parents that they now had to live with a hapless son for the rest of their lives. But a family friend happened to be visiting and convinced the parents that their blind son could go to a school for the blind. They took him to St Helen's primary school in Mbarara.

"For them it was like putting me away to keep me busy. I always came back with very good reports but it was not enough and they said 'ok he could be bright but what else?' They had never seen an employed blind person," he says.

In Mbarara, he learnt how to use the Braille machine, which enables blind people to write and read. He also learnt how to do things on his own - washing, ironing, fetching water and move by himself. Those skills would stand him in good stead.

Today, in his office, he hardly needs help. When I ask for a phone number he gets his phone, goes through the contact list, listens and reads it out for me.

"The problem of parents is oversympathising with kids with impairments and they spoil them. They treat you like you cannot do anything; you cannot wash or dress yourself. My parents didn't give up on me; they showered me with love but they kept me in school. I knew I had to work hard to give them their money's worth so they could continue to pay school fees for me," Muhumuza says.

He scored aggregate 11 for PLE and moved to Iganga SS were he scored 14 in eight subjects at O-level. He won a scholarship from Standard Chartered bank and went back to Iganga SS for his A-level, where he surprised himself by scoring AAAA and 25 points.


His first days at Makerere University's Law school were quite interesting because he could feel the questioning from students who had never seen a blind person studying. He spent half of his first term answering questions on how he got in with them; how he read and wrote.

"Once they realise you participate equally and pass quite highly, you get a number of friends. I had friends to read with and discuss with for long hours. The teachers, being lawyers, have a human rights approach and believe in being just to everyone," Muhumuza says. From his lecturers, he found his calling as human rights law.

But it didn't come cheap. The Braille machine alone that he needed to study cost more than Shs 2.5m, its paper Shs 70,000 a ream. Yet the government funding could not even cover half of his expenses. He needed money to hire someone to walk with him on busy streets and also read for him as he took down notes.

"For a blind person to achieve something, you must put in three times more effort someone else puts in. Law school is partly about reading but also partly about analysis, being pragmatic and practical. I read, worked hard and part of it was luck. Sometimes it was stressing but it was a worthwhile test for my mind," Muhumuza says.

Fortunately, his siblings always came through for anything else he needed. But he knows that not every disabled person gets the opportunities that he got. And yet there are laws and conventions ratified and passed by the Uganda government binding itself to provisions.

"What persons with disabilities need from the world is creating an environment where they can exploit their potential. We don't need charity or sympathy but an opportunity, creating the space and making the world equal for all of us. Provide the education so that I can care for myself and you will not see another disabled person on the street," Muhumuza says.

Sky is the limit

Muhumuza says the world is now his stage and he is only starting. He cannot rule out joining Parliament to take up one of the five slots reserved for the disabled. But he must finish his Masters degree in international human rights law and probably even pursue a PhD.

He says he will fight for the rights of disabled persons without fail but later in life he would wish to join academia and teach law.

"Success... is quite inspiring for myself and to other blind people and it keeps me going. It breaks barriers, whoever thought of you as a useless man realises you are doing very well," Muhumuza says.

When he is not busy, he enjoys a game of football with friends but also goes to Club Silk and Ange Noir discotheque to dance. An avid joker and talker, Muhumuza won't let anyone put him down.

"You meet a person who says 'here is Shs 5,000'. I tell them 'no you need the money here is Shs 20,000'," he says.

His friend Brian Bwesigye describes him as a very gifted person.

"He is so brilliant some people would recklessly joke that he is as brilliant because of the visual impairment [rather than] in spite of it," Bwesigye says. "But that aside, Boaz is also assertive. He goes for what he wants and it is rare for him not to get what he wants."

While he may not regard himself as a ladies' man, he says he loves the women in his life.

"The truth is I date, I was one of the top benchers at campus. I love my life and I love my girls. Maybe I have a girlfriend maybe not but I know I have friends. We blind people date and we date very beautiful women who are sighted. You don't need to look at a person to know she is beautiful. Beauty is not in sight, it could be physical, it could be character," Muhumuza says.

He says he will get married and have two children but right now, his career comes first.

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

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