Perkins in Uganda: 'Our work is just beginning'

An on-the-ground report from our partners highlights triumphs, challenges of blindness education in Africa

Perkins reporter Brian Messenger leans over a table where several students use sewing machines to make placemats.

Students at Kireka Home for Children with Special Needs learn vocational skills by using sewing machines to make brightly colored placemats.

October 9, 2015

The children are quick to greet you at the gate of Kireka Home for Children with Special Needs. The head teacher sits proudly at his desk. And the lunchroom is alive with laughter.

In these ways, the Kireka Home (pronounced Chi-reka) is similar to any school in Uganda – or America, for that matter. But my visit Tuesday morning, along with trips yesterday to two additional Perkins International partners, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

The kids that I’ve spent time with in Uganda are full of joy. The special educators who teach them are passionate about their work. The challenges they all face are tremendous.

Children in the developing world who are blind or visually impaired are extremely vulnerable, especially those with multiple disabilities. This idea is easy to grasp.

To stand inside their classrooms, hold their hands and share laughs conjures deeper feelings. It’s something I’ll never forget – and truly brings to life the importance of Perkins International’s global mission to educate and empower all children with visual impairment.

At Kireka Home in Kampala, two students immediately ran over to meet us upon our arrival. Our first talk is with head teacher Patrick Osiru, who speaks excitedly about the IEP (individualized education program) training that he and two colleagues received from Perkins International consultants as part of the Uganda School Health and Reading Program.

These three educators went on to train the rest of the teaching staff at Kireka. Now all 80 students there are benefiting from IEPs – a foundational element of quality special education.

Next we are brought to a pin-drop-quiet room filled with children working attentively at sewing machines. They’re making brightly colored placemats as part of their vocational training.

Soon it’s snack time and the fun begins. There’s lots of joking, fidgeting and noise – a typical school cafeteria scene. But Angela Affran is watching the kids closely. Affran is Perkins International’s Africa programs coordinator, and she reminds me how Osiru told us there are only five children with low vision at Kireka. Affran has already identified several more.

“Our work here is just beginning,” she says as we head back to the van.

Our next visits two days later take us to Iganga in Eastern Uganda. At the Resource Center for the Blind at the Bishop Willis Demonstration School, students gather in a dim classroom to sing, recite poetry and tell us about their studies. Their teachers, who have received training from Perkins International since 2012, share their appreciation but also list a number of needs: more Perkins Braillers, braille books and skilled tutors, to name a few.

“We still need more support,” said special education teacher Francis Odongo.

Finally, just a short distance from Bishop Willis is the Deafblind Unit at Buckley High School. In this small room, Aggrey, 6, is learning the alphabet by playing with tactile foam letters. Older classmates sitting on the floor busily weave straw baskets.

Perkins International began training teachers here in 2010. It also launched a transition program at the Nabumali Centre of the Blind, where some of Buckley’s older students have attended. Among them is Walubo, 22, and Halima, 19, a deafblind couple from Bukatube that is now married and expecting their first child in December.

“They are role models for other deafblind students,” said Oliver Kibwika, head of the Buckley Deafblind Unit. “Perkins has trained them in the life-skills they are using today – agriculture, poultry and animal-keeping. It has helped them greatly, indeed.”

Brian Messenger is the international assignment writer for Perkins School for the Blind. He was in Africa to report on the 6th Africa Forum, held in Kampala, Uganda from October 4-8, 2015.

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