The students inside the Deafblind Unit at Buckley High School are hard at work.
Eight boys and girls are hand-weaving mats with impressive efficiency. The faint rustle of palm leaves between their fingers fills the otherwise silent classroom.
Here in the Deafblind Unit, craftwork like this is more than a hobby. For children and young adults with disabilities in Uganda, weaving, beading and more advanced vocational skills like farming offer a rare path toward self-sufficiency.
“These activities help our children plan for the future,” says teacher Leah Mbeiza, who received training from Perkins International. “When we teach a student how to weave a mat or grow crops, I know the future will not be as hard for them. They will be able to earn money and sustain themselves.”
Students at the Buckley High School Deafblind Unit practice their weaving skills.
Life is not easy in Iganga, a town 75 miles east of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. This is especially true for people with visual impairment or deafblindness.
The Buckley Deafblind Unit does what it can with limited resources, but the strain shows. Inside, the paint is peeling off the walls, the concrete floor is crumbling and the rusted metal roof is the same dull shade of auburn as the dirt roads.
The students here all face an uncertain future – one day they will leave their tiny schoolhouse and navigate a difficult transition to adult life.
That daunting prospect is made easier with the help of a role model, someone who’s been through it all before, beaten the odds and built a successful life.
At Buckley, students in the Deafblind Unit look up to Walubo Yenus and Halima Nabirye. These former high school sweethearts are both deafblind. They fell in love while attending a vocational training program founded by Perkins International, which is why I’ve traveled halfway around the globe to meet them and hear their story.
Today, Walubo, 23, and Halima, 20, are husband and wife and the parents of a healthy baby boy. They grow their own rice and own a cow – which they named Perkins. Together the couple is changing the way people in their village view individuals with disabilities.
“They have become heroes to the deafblind children here,” Mbeiza says. “Thanks to Perkins, they’ve acquired life skills and are living happily and independently.”
The front gate at Buckley High School in Iganga, Eastern Uganda.
Bringing everyone together
The decision to marry did not come without a fight.
Community leaders in the rural village of Bukatube were reluctant to allow two people with disabilities to marry. Walubo’s father, Badiru, was convinced the arrangement would place a heavy burden on his family.
“But the boy insisted,” said Scovia Nansuwa, Perkins International’s program consultant in Uganda. “It took us some time to bring everyone together.”
Eventually – and with the help of several parent sensitization workshops led by Perkins International – the couple was allowed to wed. The knowledge and confidence Walubo and Halima gained from the vocational training program may have played a role in that collective change of heart.
Perkins International launched the program in 2010 at the Nabumali Training Center of the Blind. It was designed to aid young adults who are visually impaired as they transition to adulthood.
Walubo and Halima were accepted to the program in 2012 along with five other students. Over the next year, the couple learned how to plant crops and keep livestock. They even received a cow as “startup capital” for their life together, Nansuwa said.
“They were very determined,” she said. “Walubo only wanted to marry Halima, work hard and earn a decent living. And his father ultimately accepted the girl because she too works hard. Now they are both helping to feed the larger family.”
Scovia Nansuwa of Perkins International.
Developing strong transition programs is a key element in Perkins International’s strategy to expand and improve blindness education around the world.
In many developing countries, where resources are scarce and disability remains stigmatized, many adolescents with visual impairment go without the education and training they need to ensure a successful transition to independent adulthood.
In Uganda, where subsistence agriculture is commonplace, vocational lessons in farming and animal keeping offer a practical way to prepare for the future.
“These are skills that literally put food on the table,” said Angela Affran, Perkins International’s Africa programs coordinator.
For Walubo and Halima, graduating from Nabumali marked a turning point. They returned home, planted their first crops and started talking openly about marriage. Soon their community would see past their disability and embrace them like never before.
“All they needed was some additional support,” said Affran.
7,000 miles from Perkins
Three years have passed since Walubo and Halima last donned the lavender school uniforms worn by students at the Buckley Deafblind Unit.
But when I mention the couple by name, Oliver Kibwika still can’t help but grin.
“They are role models for other deafblind students,” says Kibwika, who heads the unit and is serving as our guide to Bukatube on this sunny October morning.
I’ve spent the last six days in Uganda interviewing educators and students for Perkins International. In this short time, the challenges of travel – bad roads and brazen drivers – have become somewhat routine. But I haven’t experienced anything yet.
It soon becomes clear that we’re in for a rough ride. The incessant thump of our van’s undercarriage against the crater-pocked dirt road serves as the soundtrack to this last leg of the journey. A dead battery only adds to the adventure.
We’ve already trekked three hours east from my hotel in Kampala to get to Buckley. The remaining hour drive south is arduous – and a white-knuckled testament to how getting from point A to point B in Uganda is never as simple as a map might suggest.
Gradually, the lush countryside gives way to a dusty avenue lined with grass-thatched huts and single-story brick structures. One of them on the right, No. 2006, fronted by a pair of bright blue doors, is our destination. We park the van and step out.
Our arrival is met with great fanfare, as dozens of young children follow closely to see what our unexpected entourage is up to.
It is here, some 7,000 miles from the campus of Perkins School for the Blind, that I am greeted by Walubo and Halima. Their wide smiles are infectious. The property we’re standing on is owned by Walubo’s father, who offers me a seat on a rickety plastic lawn chair.
“Thank you very much for what you’ve done for us,” says Walubo, who communicates using sign language. Kibwika, our navigator, doubles as our translator.
Walubo is wearing a tan button-down shirt, baggy khakis and old dress shoes. It’s quite hot and he periodically mops the sweat from his brow with a kerchief.
Halima is seated to his left. The mother-to-be wears a traditional Ugandan dress known as a gomesi. She’s very shy, and stays mostly silent during our visit.
I ask the couple how they were first introduced. Walubo lights up and tells us about the three-mile motorcycle trip to Nabumali with his father.
“We’d pick her up at her grandmother’s place,” says Walubo. “This is how we met.”
Children in Walubo and Halima's village gather to meet their visitors from the United States.
Perkins the cow
When a Ugandan man marries, tradition calls for him to move out of his parents’ home.
Walubo and Halima could not afford their own plot of land, so they’ve built a small brick house behind his father’s homestead.
It’s a work in progress, Walubo insists.
He recently upgraded the roof from grass-thatching to a corrugated metal sheet. They’d still like to make it bigger, and more rain-proof, especially now that a baby is on the way. (Three months after our visit, Halima gave birth to a son, Njiranzibu Ashirafu.)
After showing us the house, and posing for a few pictures with his wife, Walubo heads off to fetch their prize possession – Perkins the cow.
His father, Badiru, takes this opportunity to thank Perkins International for launching the Nabumali vocational program and for changing his attitude through the sensitization workshops.
“I realized after meeting other parents of deafblind children that I am not in this alone,” he says. “I had to accept it and allow my son to make the most out of life.”
Sensitization workshops helped Walubo's father and stepmother accept his wish to marry Halima.
Like so many people with visual impairment in Uganda and across Africa, life for Walubo and Halima has always been a challenge. Raised in a society that views disability with deep-seated suspicion and even superstition, they are used to being scorned simply for being different.
“Every child with a disability ultimately needs acceptance,” Affran later tells me. “Unfortunately, they don’t always get it.”
Maybe that’s why there’s a look of triumph on Walubo’s face when he returns with the cow, which provides milk to drink. His family grows enough rice that they can sell the surplus and use that money for home improvements.
Walubo and Halima may not have much, but they’ve worked extremely hard to build their life together and grow into respected members of their community.
Before we depart, Walubo again expresses his gratitude. Through training and support, he says Perkins International has given them hope for the future.
Standing in front of his home, with his wife by his side, he smiles and holds out his hands, forming the sign for “thank you.”