Yegue Badigue, who learned to play the piano at age 8 in Chad, continued his music education as a student at Perkins School for the Blind.
By Paysha Rhone
Yegue Badigue laid his fingers on the ivory keys of a piano in the Grand Cathedral in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Two hours of complex and beautiful Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven flowed out.
“It was 100 percent from memory,” said Badigue, who was born with visual impairment and limited hearing. “My brain and fingers were on auto pilot.”
He didn’t know it, but in the audience sat two people who would change his life forever. One was David Halstead, former U.S. ambassador to Chad. The other was Halstead’s wife, Michele, who couldn’t believe what she was hearing. How had this young man developed such artistry, she wondered, in the midst of poverty and civil war?
Michele Halstead quickly contacted her sister, Denise Fitzgerald, who works as director of transition services at Perkins School for the Blind. Please tell Perkins to accept Badigue on a one-year scholarship, she urged Fitzgerald.
And so Badigue’s extraordinary journey began.
Badigue was one of 10 children born to musical parents in a suburb of N’Djamena. Four of his siblings were also born with visual impairment, caused by an undetermined genetic condition. Badigue’s hearing loss likely resulted from malaria drugs in childhood.
His mother played rhythm instruments and sang. His father, now deceased, was chief of music for the army. “He would play musical marches and military tunes,” Badigue remembered. “And teach us rhythms.”
In 1988, when Badigue was 8, a French Jesuit priest started a school for children with blindness and began teaching him piano.
“A few years later, he gave me one of the pianos to take home,” Badigue said. As he practiced at home, his father caught every missed note. “He’d say, start over!”
At 11, Badigue began performing in public. He also learned to play the clarinet and drum. Now, he plays nine instruments, including cello, flute, harmonica, euphonium and accordion.
When he arrived at Perkins, it took time to adjust to his new life.
Fitzgerald – his “American mom” – educated him on everything from speaking English to wearing pajamas. He had to get used to sleeping without his siblings beside him and eating from his own plate, rather than a communal table. Radiators, vending machines, pizza, computers…it was all so strange.
And then there was snow. A sky full of gossamer white flakes was a shock and delight for someone from tropical Africa.
But Badigue thrived at Perkins, which he attended from 1999 to 2003. He grew seven inches due to improved nutrition and medical care, shooting up to 6-foot-1. He received hearing aids. His scholarship was extended for an additional three years.
Badigue continued his music education, and people noticed his extraordinary talent. He was invited to perform as a soloist with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.
“He responded so quickly to the Perkins education,” Fitzgerald said. “We fell in love with watching him blossom.”
Badigue went on to attend Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, Massachusetts, where he majored in international affairs focusing on economic development, and minored in music. He played in the college band and tutored others in music. In 2008, he was honored by the Boston Celtics as a “Hero Among Us” for his work helping people with disabilities.
He also met his wife, Jessica. In 2012, they moved to Jessica’s home state of California, where they now live in Los Angeles. In 2014, a son, Peter, joined the family, followed by Badigue’s guide dog Guinness.
With a passion for entrepreneurship, Badigue is now pursuing multiple ventures. He sells African products through his online store (yafricanatural.com). A speaker of six languages, he teaches French online. He gives music lessons.
He’s also considering getting training from the Randolph-Sheppard Vending Facility Program, which helps people with blindness open businesses on federal property. He dreams of opening a restaurant and bringing his siblings from Chad to work with him.
Badigue knows how far he’s come, and he’s determined to take advantage of all the opportunities America has to offer.
“I’m trying the break the expectations of what the blind can do,” he said. “You can’t be limited.”