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In a different light

Friday April 29 2005
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MILDRED NGESA meets six blind people and comes away convinced that lack of sight has given them an edge over those of us who think we can see

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From left: Edwin Osundwa, Jeremiah Bitok, Derrick Shimoli, Millicent Obonyo, Angeline Akai and Robert Gitau outside the offices of the Kenya Society for the Blind in Nairobi West.

There were six people in the room, all blind, but they all "saw" me when I walked in, later describing my physique to a T, right down to the gap in my teeth. The only thing they could not accurately tell was whether the gap was on my lower or upper teeth. "For that, we will have to do a Braille on you!" I was told amid laughter over some secret joke. 

Above all else, I was intrigued by how they knew about the gap. They said it was because they could detect a faint lisp in my speech, so slight it is barely noticeable
— even to myself. 

Blindness is not disability, I can confirm after a visit to the Kenya Society for the Blind. On the contrary, my hosts told me, sight actually hinders the full development of your other senses. 

"If you are cooking, for example, you have to keep looking at the onions to see if they have turned brown before adding other spices. We don't need to because we have keen smell," says Edwin Osundwa. A coin can fall on the ground right now and because I am keen on the sound, I can point out the exact spot where it landed and can even tell you if it was a 10 shilling coin or a five shilling coin." 

Many people visualise blind people as beggars on the streets, hands stretched out asking for alms, an assumption that thoroughly irks my hosts. "Imagine walking into a shop with the intention of buying a shirt. The moment the shopkeeper sees you, he drops one shilling into your palm and ushers you out to 'go and beg elsewhere'.

Yet all I wanted was to buy a shirt!" exclaims Jeremiah Bitok.  

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And do they know how to dress! Their clothes are all well coordinated; colour clashing is an absolute no/no. "In primary school, you learn about primary colours and secondary colours and how to mix them. You can also feel the texture of a fabric and know what it is. We are not exactly stupid, you know!" quips Derrick Shimoli.

And yes, the men can tell from how a woman talks and sounds whether she is a beautiful or not. "From her movements, the way she matches her steps, the pressure she exerts on every step, the tone of her voice and how her sentences flow, you can easily tell if she is beautiful in heart and body." 

Sometimes a little innovation is necessary. "If my woman takes longer than usual in the bathroom or when dressing up, I know she’s going to be very smart today.

When she is in the bathroom, you can run your hands through the clothes laid out on the bed to know what she is going to wear, then give her a compliment once she
is dressed!" 

Blind people can also tell when those close to them are unhappy, angry or sad. It is all there in the tone of the voice, no matter how hard you try to conceal it. It is in how you cut your sentences, how you finish them off, how you inhale and exhale. It is in every conscious movement that you make."

But society has not been fair to people who cannot see. The press, for instance, has not given them much thought. "We are not even going to read this story you are writing about us, are we?" they asked. And why? Because there are no Braille newspapers! 

Relating with a blind person does not require much effort, just a little extra consideration. "Let conductors on buses and matatus announce to us the various stops so we can know when to alight. When I ask for directions in the streets, please take my arm or let me hook my hand into your arm; don’t just hold the edge of my stick as if you are afraid to touch me. We don’t bite, you know!" they quipped good naturedly. 

Above all, the visually impaired crave the company of good friends. "When you go out, for instance, take us along. It feels so bad when people around you say they are going to town, then they say 'see you' and walk off, as if you would be a burden if you went along. All we need is to be able to hang out with you in a "normal" way.

By the end of our meeting, I was totally impressed and awed by my six new friends, for they had opened my eyes to a totally different world, and I told them as much. Their response?" We know, Mildred, we can hear it in your voice!" 
 
Jeremiah Bitok, 25, trained teacher/computer student: 

 

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Jeremiah Bitok tries his hand on the black board.

If he were given a chance to see just one person, Bitok would wish to see Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai. 

Why? Because her feat as the global peace prize winner is just too humongous an achievement for him to fathom. Her spirit and resilience make her awesome before his "eyes" and for this reason, Bitok  perceives her as his sole role model.  His dark glasses and white cane are his trade mark. From the time he was born, Bitok, who also describes himself as an accomplished braillist, says with an easy laugh that he did not quite stand a chance. "When I was a child, I played with other children and thought all of them were 'normal' like me, that they were all blind, only to realise later that I was the one who was not 'normal' because I could not see." 

He was born with the congenital cataract condition that makes him legally blind.  The second in a family of seven, Bitok says his blindness could be hereditary.

Almost all his siblings have serious eye conditions, but his was the most serious. 

He remembers with nostalgia how much fun he had swimming in River Kipkaren in Nandi District as a child. He would love to go swimming again today, he says, but the pool at the Nyayo National Stadium where he once used to swim is not "compliant" to the visually impaired, nor are the logistics of transportation to the venue.

That has not stopped him from living his life to the full, though. Bitok takes his blindness in stride, and it never depresses him. "On good days, I can actually 'see',
especially in natural light," he says, and his colleagues laugh aloud mockingly. "He uses solar energy to see!" one of them quips, and Bitok readily concurs. "Natural light helps me perceive things. I can, for instance, pick out Kenyatta International Conference Centre up to somewhere like the fifth floor; I can make out things," he insists. Bitok illustrates what he perceives to be a tree on a piece of paper, but it is nothing like a real tree.
 
Two operations were done when he was a child to try and correct his vision, but they made no difference. But Bitok is not sitting around waiting for a miracle, and is getting on with his life. 

He attended Kibos and Thika schools for the blind, then trained to be a teacher at Highridge Teachers College between 2002 and 2004. He has been on teaching
practice in three schools so far, and is now waiting for his posting from the Teacher’s Service Commission. Bitok says he would have liked to be a lawyer, but doesn't think he would have made it. "I would have needed to see facial expressions in court to gauge people’s reactions, wouldn’t I?" he asks rhetorically. 

A rather quiet man, Bitok has a pleasant sense of humour and enjoys listening to golden oldies, like music by Julio Iglesius. He is currently reading a novel titled Sweet Sir, the name of whose author he cannot recall. For good measure, Bitok adds that he is "very single and up for gabs!"    
 
Derrick Shimoli, 30, Computer Student/Former DJ:  
 

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Derrick Shimoli sending an SMS.

He may not be able to see, but he sent me two SMSs from his mobile phone! "It is not a problem for me to use my phone, just like it is not a problem for you," begins Shimoli, a cheerful bloke with a friendly demeanour.  

So if he can SMS, how does he read his messages. "That’s my secret," he quips, then laughs, amused by how little we, the sighted, know about the visually impaired. 

Shimoli's idea of a good excursion is going out to the beach at the Coast. He loves travelling, he says. But what is there to love about travelling when you cannot enjoy the scenery. "Forget about the other landmarks. When you are by the ocean, you enjoy the breeze, the sound of the waves and the openness, the serenity.

You get onto a ferry and enjoy crossing the ocean from one end to another," Shimoli remarks. "You don’t have to see what is around you, you just have to feel it all." 

For someone who lost his sight as an adult, Shimoli seems to have adjusted quite well. At our first meeting he wore an attractive white African print shirt and while commending his choice, I wondered aloud how he picked it out. "You can touch the fabric and from its texture and design, and you would just know how cool the
shirt is."   

One minute he was a rising DJ, much sought-after in the entertainment world, and the next he was in the dark world, having lost his sight completely. Born and bread in Nairobi’s Buru Buru estate, Shimoli attended local primary schools where he thought he had "regular eye problems".
 
"First, I couldn't see the blackboard clearly from the back row, so I moved to the centre, then to the front of the class." Up until Form Four, Shimoli who could still see, albeit with difficulty. He attended Thika School for the Blind but insists that even then he could still see and read normally.  

After Thika, he got a job with a local film company as a projector director, a job that greatly engaged his sight. All the while, he harboured a love for music. He practised with several disc jockeys before being appointed as the lead DJ at the then newly opened City Cabanas entertainment joint in 1998. "I was a resident DJ for between six to seven months. Then at the end of the year, West African Musician Kofi Olomide due for a show, but a day before the performance, Shimoli's eyes were puffy, painful and tired. "I just could not go to work the following day, so I called in sick."

Two days later, Derrick took himself to Kenyatta Hospital, from where he was referred to Kikuyu Hospital. "This is where my life changed. I was told that there was a serious build-up of pressure in my eyes, constricting my optic nerves, and I had only two choices: to walk out and risk losing my sight, or to have an operation using laser treatment that would burn down the pressure in the eye."

He did not have much of a choice so he opted for the operation. "At the end of it, they told me that things had not worked out, and that they had unfortunately been unable to restore my vision. I was devastated; I felt that God had been unfair to me. I was alone at the hospital so I gave them a number to call home with so that someone could come for me. Imagine I had left home with my sight in the morning and returned in the evening blind."   

Then began a long mourning period for Shimoli that lasted four years. "I just locked myself in, and shut out the world. I did not want to see anyone. I sold all my records, just shut out everyone and I did not even want to think about anything." 

It was four years of hell for him and for his family, who were at a loss for how to console him. Sometimes in the year 2002, Shimoli says he listened to a personality profile of gospel singer Reuben Kigame, who is also blind, and from then his life changed. "It touched me deeply. It was as if he was speaking directly to me. From there I just knew I had to take control of things. He enrolled at the KSB and from then on began viewing things differently. He enrolled in Braille and computer classes, and has been learning other skills that help him in his daily life. 

Today, Shimoli has rediscovered his love for music. He has mastered the art of electronic deejaying and is nostalgic about spinning discs again. He says his mixing skills are still as good, if not better, than before, because he listens to the music more, rather than depending on his eyes to choose the best records.  

If he could have his sight back for just a brief moment, Shimoli would love to see his younger sister (name), now aged 23, and to whom he is very close. "She was there for me throughout, even when I was being very nasty and had locked myself in. She was very patient with me and for that I am very grateful".    
 
 
Millicent Obonyo, 25; former journalism student: 
 

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Millicent Obonyo in a broadcating studio, her dream job.

Blindness came unexpectedly for Obonyo, at the peak of her young adulthood.  Dark and stunningly beautiful, with eyes that look anything but blind, Obonyo is withdrawn and rather reserved, still traumatised by her sudden entry into the world of the visually impaired. 

"I was told I was suffering from a condition known as Bahcet’s Syndrome. I had never heard of it," says Obonyo of the condition that eventually robbed her of her sight. 

Bahcet’s Syndrome affects multiple systems in the body, including sight. But by the time Obonyo learnt of this rare but deadly condition, she had already lost her sight. Born in Homa Bay, but brought up in Nairobi, Obonyo says everything was fine until 2002 when, as a student of journalism at the Kenya Polytechnic, things suddenly started to go wrong. "My eyes started paining, my legs were painful and I had a severe case of stomach ulcers."  

She went to the Kenyatta National Hospital and Jamaa Hospital, but medical investigations did not yield much. Her eyes were still painful and her vision sometimes blurred. Then one morning in May 2003, Obonyo woke up and realised that she could not see a thing. "It happened just like that. I opened my yes and tried to focus but I just could not see anything. I was rushed to Kenyatta Hospital by my Mum, then to Jamaa Hospital, where I was diagnosed with Bahcet’s Syndrome." 

From then on, Obonyo's life seems to have taken a downhill trail. First she had to comprehend the fact that absolutely nothing could be done to salvage her sight.

"Acceptance is the hardest thing to do. How could I accept that I was blind, that I could never see again? Your whole life changes, your friends disappear. You have to start learning how to do things on your own without your sight."

And learn she did, but that was after prolonged periods of denial when all she did was lock herself up in the house and cry. It was not until last year that she took up the challenge of going to the Kenya Society for the Blind. Here she began learning Braille and mingling with other visually impaired people who have given her hope, and shown her that things need not be so gloomy. Today she continues learning various computer packages, though she insists that her dream of becoming a broadcast journalist still holds. "I can perfect my Braille and still be a broadcaster in a radio station." The music lover in her is also intact. She loves listening to musicians R Kelly and Brandy and is also a big fan of Nation FM’s Talia Oyando and says: "I know one day I will be a popular broadcaster like Talia, despite this
handicap."
 
 
Angeline Akai, 21, masseuse/computer student: 
 

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Angeline Akai at work as a masseuse.

Ever heard of a Japanese type of massage known as Anma?  Well, Akai, a chatterbox with a disarming sense of humour, is a trained and accomplished masseuse, experienced in Anma therapy and loving every moment of it.   

To Akai, the term 'blind' sounds like some foreign jargon she cannot even begin to relate with. 

The Turkana-born dark skinned, petite girl lets out a sharp giggle to explain what her surname means. "In Japanese, Akai means red, in Turkana, Akai means beautiful house; so basically, I am a beautiful red house!" 

Akai was born with limited vision, and went completely blind at the age of three. "I cannot remember anything of what light is. I cannot recall what it feels like to see, but I know I became blind as a result of measles". Her childhood years were spent in Nairobi’s Kibera, where she lived with her family.  

With the help of Sight Savers, she was admitted to Kilimani Primary School, who run a parallel programme for visually impaired children. "In lower primary, you can just mingle with other children without noticing that you are actually different, but as you get older, everything around you changes, including people's attitudes. Then it dawns on you that you are actually lacking something."

Akai went on to Moi Girls' School, Nairobi, which has also has an integrated a programme for the visually impaired. When she left in 2002, she was briefly employed to teach at her former school, Kilimani Primary, for six months. "I had mastered Braille very well so teaching it to other visually challenged children was very enjoyable for me." Then she stumbled on Anma. Today she is still looking for a job while she takes computer lessons at the KSB. 

Akai reads a lot. It’s her favourite passtime. Currently she’s reading through a Braille copy of Reader’s Digest.  
 
 
Robert Gitau, 30, computer programmer: 
 

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Robert Gitau the DJ

It was four days before his 23rd birthday. Gitau was upbeat about it. Partying and hanging out with his friends was at the top of his list. Not in a million years could Robert have predicted anything as devastating as what happened to him on March 11th, 1998, and certainly nothing as awful as losing his sight. 

Gitau had been asked by a relative to pick something up for him from the Village Market in Gigiri and take it to Ngong. He was driving a lorry, and took some friends with him. They stopped to change a tyre at a petrol station at Dagoretti Corner. Gitau says that as the tire was being changed, he was at he back of the lorry.

"Nilikuwa tu nakula njaro ( I was just relaxing)," he recalls in Sheng. He remembers the repaired tyre being brought to the back of the lorry, and after that, nothing.

The next thing he recalls is waking up in hospital, five days later.  

"You know, in my mind I was still in my room at home. I struggled to open my eyes and then realised that they were actually open. Then I thought that maybe I should reach out and put on the lights, but the room was so unfamiliar, I could not find the switch". In frustration, Gitau says, he yanked every tube from his body, attracting the attention of the nurse.  

"I was prowling in the dark, like a mad man looking for a black cat in a pitch black room" he says, laughing at his own joke. 

Gitau later learnt what happened that afternoon at the back of the lorry. The tyre they had stopped to fix was apparently not tightened properly. Since it was new, excess pressure pumped into it had caused it to explode into his face, with bolts and locks slashing him all over. What followed, he says, was eight months in hospital going through various aspects of reconstruction surgery. "I think my face was really messed up, they were fixing a whole mess of stuff — clipping my eye, rearranging my nose and patching it up, endless operations that left me so weak I could not have one more operation done on me."   

He stayed in hospital for so long, he lost count of the days. Anxiety and the fear he would never see again nagged him after every operation. Eventually, after the fourth operation, Robert finally accepted the prognosis that he would never see again. "It was hard.  It was very hard. You can actually go mad just thinking about it," he says. His life changed. His family was devastated, his parents being the hardest hit. His friends, he says, eventually disappeared. "Clearly they did not know how to hang around a blind man." There was also a girlfriend. "She hang around for a while but then she had to travel abroad and you know how hard long-distance relationships are hard to sustain..." 

For the last two years, he says, he has finally found some balance in his life, especially at the KSB. Initially, he attended the Machakos Training Institute for the Blind, where he got a lot of counselling. Denial, he says, robbed him of a lot of time. "You can never believe it, you know. Just to imagine that you will never be able to see again is enough to drive you crazy!" 

Still he is appreciative of those who have been there to guide him along. His family and a good friend named Kevin have never failed him. For Gitau, the face he most longs to see is that of his mother. "I know what happened to me devastated her. I know how much she cried for me, how much she still cries for me."  

Today Gitau, who is still pursuing computer studies, is more confident of himself. He travels from Dagoretti Corner to the City Centre and many other places on his own. 

"I get a lot of help from people. Being blind, the way you present yourself and approach people will largely determine how they respond to you. For me, people everywhere have been very kind." 

With his deep, clear voice, Robert says his dream is to one day read weather reports in a reputable radio station. Why the weather, I ask? "Because it would be intriguing to have  a blind guy up there reading the weather reports in braille!"     
 
 
Edwin Osundwa, 26, computer trainer: 
 

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Edwin Osundwa, the Computer trainer.

Osundwa has a very strong personality, and relishes it. Born and brought up in Butere, Western Kenya, Osundwa, whom everyone refers to as "mwalimu (teacher)" because of his computer skills, was born with an eye condition that allowed him limited vision. "I could make out things sometimes. But by Standard Eight, the blackboard was already too far for me to see." 

He was taken to the Thika School for the Blind, and it was here that he went completely blind. "After a school excursion, I just felt tired and my eyes were paining, so I went back to the dormitory to sleep. When I woke up the following day, I just could not see a thing." He was referred to Kikuyu Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a condition known as retinal detachment, which was at this point irreversible. 

"Within less than 48 hours, I had adjusted myself to my situation because since I was a child with very minimal sight, I had always been able to do things on my own like ironing and cooking, and still manage very well. Let’s just say, being confirmed to be "legally blind" did not change me a bit. I just went ahead with my life as usual."

Sharp and witty, Osundwa is a graduate of Kenyatta University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education and Business Communication. He has also done a couple of computer packages, which helped him get the teaching job at the KSB.  The challenge of teaching his blind colleagues how to use the computer has been refreshing, he says."

I do not see the fact that I am blind as a disability; to me it is a challenge that awards me the chance of excelling in this particular platform."  His only regret is the insensitivity of society towards the visually impaired. 

"Take for instance blind teachers: the TSC has yet to deploy visually impaired teachers to their stations. The fact that they are blind does not mean that they are not qualified. Also, all job stations which require one to use a computer should install the Jaws Programme (for talking computers) which blind people can easily use. These functions just like all the other computers except for the fact that they talk back!"

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