In an environment where even able-bodied children face serious difficulties along the path to adulthood, disability acts as another strike against those with physical or mental impairment. In one remote part of the country though, a primary school offers a chance for children to not only believe in themselves, but also a point of departure from the disadvantages of impairment and a glimmer of hope for a brighter future.
Makalala Integrated Primary School in Mafinga, Mufindi district in Iringa region is host to 60 pupils with both visual and intellectual impairments. Emmanuel Kidava is 14 year-old and a Standard Seven pupil at the school. He is blind but was not born that way. Born in Dar es Salaam but currently living with his mother in Iringa region, he lost sight at the tender age of two after suffering from bouts of cerebral malaria. To add to his woes, his father died in 2008, leaving his mother to take care of him and his three siblings alone.
Despite all the odds against him, he is still very positive about life and the future. ÒI consider myself lucky because my parents found out about this school very early and so I did not join late like many other pupils here. At the moment I am very comfortable here, I only had difficulties when I first started because I could not move around with ease,Ó he says.
His story and that of other pupils at the school is both saddening and inspiring. He is as jovial as any other 14 year-old and to add icing to the cake, he is regularly top of his class. Last year he was the overall fifth pupil in the ward. All that achievement coming from someone who was almost certain never to join school from the beginning is in itself remarkable.
Being visually impaired, he has an incredible sense of hearing and sharp memory. He only needs to hear your voice once and he will easily recognize you the next time you meet. Similarly, due to his disability, he has developed a love for listening to the radio. He has thus decided that he wants to pursue a career as a radio and television presenter after he finishes his studies.
Another pupil, Tafiti Kahise, also 14 years-old, is partially blind. He is in Standard Five though he is the same age as his friend Emmanuel. TafitiÕs parents learnt about the school a bit late and thatÕs why he started his primary education at an advanced age.
But he has no regrets, as a matter of fact, he is very happy that he got to go to school at all.
His parents hail and live in Njombe, a newly established region which was once a district in Iringa region and is not far from Mufindi district. They are both peasants and could never have afforded to send him to a special school for people with visual impairment. Tafiti is also an outstanding pupil; he emerged top of his class last year and is determined to become a lawyer.
The two lads however share a common concern; no matter how they excel academically, they remain uncertain if they will ever make it to higher learning institutions due to their disabilities. They said that after they complete their primary education, they will go back to their parents and have to wait for government assistance to send them to schools that can accommodate people with their condition.
But the remoteness of the school alone gives one something to savour. The government school receives support from various stakeholders, notably the not-for-profit organization Sightsavers and on June 16 when marking the African Child day, a team from the organization led by its Country Director, Dr Ibrahim Kabole, visited the school in a show of camaraderie.
The school does not only give the children a foundation for a better tomorrow and something to believe that they too can dream and live their dreams, it also reduces the burden of caring for children with disabilities to many poor families in remote parts of the country.
It is no secret that many children with disabilities in remote parts of the country are abused and discriminated; some are even considered as a bad omen or a curse to the family and kept away from public view. To drive the point home, Dr Ibrahim Kabole, Sightsavers Country Director, said that education is the only way to help disabled children to know their rights and thus be in a position to fight for the same. A well informed public too will help to end prejudices against children with disabilities.
Dr Kabole observed that providing education to children with disabilities is not a privilege but a basic right and commended the school and the district in general for the great job they have been doing to ensure children with visual and intellectual impairment receive education.
ÒThe district and the school are doing a great job, but it is still not enough. We have been assisting this school for many years and every year we are seeing great progress. This encourages us to continue to keep assisting because of the work that you are doing. I am sure that if we work together we will improve the standard of education at the school,Ó he said.
He hinted that Sight Savers plans to assist the school by introducing a resource centre which will include a library and computer room and that the organization will construct a two-room building for that purpose which will be handed over to the schoolÕs administration by October this year.
ÒWe will also provide some of the computers necessary for the centre to cater for both disabled and normal children as well as inclusive education teaching and learning materials, Braille books and other necessary materials,Ó he said. On hand to even inspire the children more, a Dar es Salaam based lawyer, Mr Amon Anastaz, said that he had gone through the same educational system and has reached where he is today because he was determined. Mr Anastaz said that education system may have its shortcomings but it has proven a success, calling on all the pupils to be exemplary and those with disabilities should not allow their impairment to determine their character.
Makalala Integrated Primary School Head teacher, Mr Shemu Mheni, said that the school was first established in 1954 as a missionary school but later in 1974 it became government owned and in 1977 the school became integrated by accepting visually impaired children. In 1990 the school started accepting intellectually impaired children as well.
Mr Mheni was quick to note that disabled children at the school perform exceptionally well but also admitted that keeping track of the pupils after leaving Makalala has been a serious problem thus they are unsure what becomes of them in adulthood. However, one teacher at the school, himself blind, Mr Lazaro Nziku, is a product of the same school.
The head teacher also commends the current Municipal Executive Director, Mr Limbakisye Shimweta, for taking bold measures to improve services for the children at the school, including their nutrition. The director was appointed in 2007, according to Mr Mheni, and has since constructed a fence to cordon off the childrenÕs hostel compound. As for Emmanuel and Tafiti, the green mile is still too stretched and there are many hurdles to overcome. The two lads, however, have shown great determination that they will not let up. With help from organizations like Sight Savers, there is every reason to believe that they can and will make it.