The Braille Monitor February 2003
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From One World into Another
by Ahmed Chaing with Debbie Kent Stein
From the Editor: Are you looking for a bit of inspiration? Could you use a dollop of reassurance about the resilience of the human spirit? If so, the following story is just what you need. It also puts into perspective the problems blind people have in twenty-first-century America.
Ahmed Chaing and Debbie Kent Stein were both members of the NFB leadership seminar that took place over Labor Day weekend in 2002. Debbie came to me during that gathering and said she had discovered that Ahmed had an incredible story to tell. I encouraged her to help him do so. Here it is:
Mal was a tiny Sudanese village of mud‑and‑straw huts surrounded by patios of hardened mud. In our hot climate children didn't wear clothes. In Mal we knew nothing of money, nothing of the government, nothing of schools or hospitals. If we wanted something, we bartered for it. We could trade food, goats, knives, or pots, but we didn't have government currency.
From the time I was small I explored my surroundings freely. I learned my way over the entire village. I knew all the rocks and trees, dips and rises as landmarks. There were no cars, no machines of any kind. No one even had a gun. The men hunted using spears. I remember the sounds of animals in the bush-‑the chatter of monkeys, the grunts of hippos, even the roaring of lions. Sometimes the other boys teased me, throwing stones at me and dashing away. I would take my time and hunt them down. When I caught them, I pounded them mercilessly. I won the boys' respect, and we spent many happy hours playing hide-and-seek or making figures with the clay we gathered on the banks of the Nile.
Because my mother couldn't walk, she sent me on a lot of errands. She would often send me to bring water from the river, either on foot or on a donkey. When I was nine or ten, I started going with the other boys my age to herd the cattle, goats, and sheep. I recognized my family's animals by the sound of the bells they wore. If one of our animals wandered away, the other boys chased it back for me. At harvest time I used a sharp blade to cut the stalks and helped the other boys separate the grain from the chaff.
I did my best to make myself useful, but my father was bitter about my blindness. Sometimes he got drunk and beat me, shouting that I was a burden to the family. When I was about eight, my father went away with one of his other wives, leaving me and my mother alone. To keep the two of us alive, my mother made pottery, which she traded for food. Mostly we lived on manakala, a grain resembling rice.
One day, when I was ten or eleven, my mother got into a dispute with a neighbor. They argued over a goat which my mother wanted to give to her brother as a wedding present. The next morning, when I got up, I called my mother as usual, but she didn't answer. I searched the hut and found her lying cold and dead, a cord pulled tight around her neck. Some of the villagers thought the neighbor murdered her, but to this day I don't know for sure how my mother died.
After my mother's death I went to live with my aunt, my mother's sister. This aunt was also one of my father's wives. Little by little the outside world was reaching toward our village. One of my older half brothers, Luanj, took a boat north to the city. A year later he came back with amazing stories of paved streets, cars, and shops. He brought the first money we had ever seen. He showed me the laway he was wearing, a long, flowing garment that hung from his shoulders, and I was very impressed. Luanj urged the whole family to move to the city, where life wouldn't be so hard.
The world finally crashed in upon the village of Mal when Sudan erupted into civil war. Soldiers stole our cattle, and gunfire rumbled across the hills night and day. My father decided to move the household north to safety. He wanted to leave me behind to die, convinced I would slow them down in their flight. But my aunt insisted on bringing me along. At last we set out on foot with everything we could carry, heading north. Nobody guided me, and of course I had no cane. I had to keep up with the others as best I could. I didn't dare ask for help, even when I tripped over rocks or cracked my head on branches. After a day's journey on foot, we came to a larger village where we all crammed into an automobile for a jouncing three‑day ride along dirt roads to the city of Rank. Rank stands on the west side of the Nile, and we crossed the river on a raft.
After a short stay in Rank I moved with my family to Joda. Rank and Joda were full‑scale towns with roads, cars, stores, and an economy based on money instead of barter. Most of the people spoke Arabic, a language we didn't know. Town children taunted me and pelted me with stones because I was blind and didn't wear clothes. Finally some of the adults intervened and told the children to be kind. I discovered I could earn a few coins by singing in the streets, and this was a new way for me to be useful. I gave the money to my aunt to help her buy food.
My life was transformed in Joda when I met Babker, a Muslim, who ran a local shop. Babker spoke some Shuluk and took a real interest in me. He taught me the principles of Islam and encouraged me to convert from my tribal religion. I became a Muslim and changed my name from Omad to Ahmed. My family was shocked at first, but as time passed they accepted the change. My new Muslim friends treated me very well, even giving me my first set of clothes. Soldiers at the nearby military outpost made me into a sort of unofficial mascot. They were astonished when I recognized their voices and gave me coins whenever I performed this feat. I got to know everyone at the post, from the officers to the lowliest privates.
I was visiting my friend Babker at the shop one day when a customer described a program he had seen recently on television. According to this stranger there were blind people in Khartoum, the capital city, who knew how to read. I got very excited. I plied him with questions, but the man's information was extremely sketchy. To find out more, I would have to go to Khartoum myself.
For the next year I moved from town to town, selling candy, mangoes, and cigarettes in the streets. Wherever I went, I was dreaming of Khartoum, the magical city, where blind people learned to read. Finally a friend from Joda, a man called Mousa, told me that he had a house in the capital. If I could get there, I would have a place to stay. I memorized the address and the directions. But when I tried to take a bus, I found I didn't have enough money for the fare. Besides, some drivers didn't want to take a blind passenger traveling alone, afraid I would get hurt. At last, however, a bus driver let me ride on the floor, and I was off.
With Mousa's house as home base, I made inquiries about training for blind people in Khartoum. Eventually I learned of a school for blind children in the neighboring town of Bhari. I hurried to the school, eager to enroll, only to be told that I was too old. The school only accepted children between the ages of seven and ten, and by this time I was about thirteen. The teachers referred me to another program, the Blind Union, also in Bhari. The Blind Union was a training center run by the Dutch. There I learned daily living skills and some Arabic Braille. I really wanted a more academic program. One of the teachers told me about a scholarship that enabled blind students to study in the Mideastern nation of Bahrain. I applied and was accepted into the program. After what seemed an endless series of delays and complications, including turmoil caused by the Gulf War, I finally enrolled as a fourth‑grader at the school for the blind in Bahrain in September 1990.
For the next six years I studied in Bahrain, returning to Sudan when the school closed for its long summer vacations. In 1996 I completed ninth grade--as far as I could go in that program. Back in Khartoum I entered a regular high school, where I was the only blind student. None of my books were in Braille. I was lucky to have good friends who read to me and put some of my material onto tapes, but it was a constant struggle. One of my friends from the Blind Union had studied at a school for the blind in Egypt and told me it had a strong high school program. In 1998 I scraped together money for a ticket to Alexandria and tried to enroll at the school. To my dismay the director refused to accept me because I was not an Egyptian citizen.
For months I negotiated with the Department of Immigration in Egypt, filling out forms, pleading my case before officials, waiting, hoping, and meeting one disappointment after another. At last I learned of a United Nations‑sponsored resettlement program for refugees from southern Sudan. The application process stretched over six months. In April of 1999 I received the thrilling news that I had been accepted. In December I made the long journey from Cairo to South Dakota, from one world into another.
In South Dakota I joined a community of resettled refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia and enrolled in a state‑run rehabilitation program for the blind. Two of my friends from the Blind Union in Bhari were now living in the U.S., and I managed to get in touch with them. One of these old friends, now settled in Rochester, Minnesota, spoke glowingly about BLIND, Inc. When I heard about the training offered by this program, I knew this was what I wanted. I moved to Minnesota and stayed with a Sudanese friend until I could establish residence. Then I entered BLIND, Inc., to learn new skills and a whole new philosophy about blindness.
The NFB philosophy really made sense to me. All my life I had heard other people telling blind people what they couldn't do, controlling and excluding them. Now for the first time I met blind people who felt good about their lives and wanted to help others.
After spending a year at BLIND, Inc., I am in a GED program to earn a high school diploma. I work part-time for the Bureau of Collections, and I am second vice president of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students. In September of 2002 I had the honor of attending a national leadership seminar at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. I'm still not sure what I want to do with my life. I might like to be an Arabic‑English interpreter. And I would like to find a way to help blind people in Sudan. Whatever I do, I know my NFB philosophy will make it possible.
If you or a friend would like to remember the National Federation of the Blind in your will, you can do so by employing the following language:
"I give, devise, and bequeath unto the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation, the sum of $__________(or "______ percent of my net estate" or "The following stocks and bonds: ________") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."
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