by Thomas Philip
EDITORíS NOTE: Thomas Philip is the President of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students.
Most of us think that we are the only blind people facing discrimination and rejection by society until we become part of the organized blind movement of the National Federation of the Blind. Nevertheless, there are millions of blind persons on different corners of the earth who face these barriers. Some have accepted the general public's misconception that blindness means inferiority and dependency, while others are assertive fighters on the battlefield of equality.
The blindís struggle for first class citizenship has been demonstrated to me across the globe.† I was born and raised as a happy child. My parents gave equal treatment to all their children in every aspect of life. But there came a time when my happiness was put to an end. When I was ten, I had a severe case of measles, which resulted in complete blindness. My father made it clear that he didn't want anything to do with a blind child. He wouldn't say it, but it was easy to draw such a conclusion through his actions. My mother loved me, but at the same time, she didn't know what to do with me. So, I stayed at home for two years babysitting my fatherís loved children.
I clearly remember one Sunday afternoon.† When I was babysitting my little brother, one of the elders of our village came to me and said, "Oh, my son Ladu! God made a great mistake by making you blind. It is better to die than to be blind."
"Do you mean I better die now?" I asked.
He looked at me with great surprise and said, "No! No! I mean it's better to die than to live in a daily torment."
I told him to leave me alone, and he did. It is considered rude in African culture for an eleven-year-old child to send such an elder away, but I did what I had to do. I knew then that he was wrong, but I didn't know what else to tell him since I hadnít heard of any successful blind people in southern Sudan. In spite of the negative attitudes towards blindness, I did not give up.
I wanted to go back to school, but I needed blindness skills to help me compete.† I began asking around and in a few days, I established contact with the director of Rejaf† Center for the Blind. He came in person to discuss with me my goals for training. He then promised to pick me up in a week. When I told my mother this good news, her heart was filled with great joy.
She said, "I will stand with you in all your endeavors. Maybe one day, God will open you a way to life. It is then that I will be a happy mother and a wife of the royal house."
Her words gave me encouragement and determination in my struggle for freedom. My father, however, did not like the plan. He said I was too young for blindness training. I told him that I needed the training while I was still young because I wanted to go to school. At last, he relented.† I gathered my belongings, and when I was leaving the house for school, my mother and I broke into tears of happiness.
I started my training that next week and it lasted for 9 months.† I was indeed the youngest student of all. The other students in the program were twenty years and older. But I enjoyed the training. At this center, I learned Braille, cane travel, activities of daily life, agriculture, and basket making, which were typical classes at traditional African schools for the blind. Although the training program there was not great, I acquired the skills I needed to go back to school.††††† When I went home, I told my father that I was ready to return to school. He said he would go and register me together with my siblings.† On the first day of school, I went directly to the director of the Catholic school to assure my status. He told me that my father only registered my siblings and not me. I, therefore, told him that I wanted to join his school. He said I couldn't since they had never had a blind student at their school or at any other school in southern Sudan, for that matter. I explained to him that I could use Braille to take notes and have the teachers give me oral exams since they didn't know Braille.
He said, "Why don't you sit at home and have your friends tell you what they learned at school?"
I told him that I was qualified to be a student and the fact that I was blind should make no difference at all. He then said that I could be a student for two weeks to determine whether or not I could manage at their school. I was grateful for the chance to try things.† When I went home that evening, I talked to my father of how he was discriminating against me due to my blindness. I then told him that I was given the opportunity to try a key to life.† My mother was very annoyed with her husband's actions, however, she was overjoyed with my victory. I started going to school every weekday from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. I would rest for an hour, then my friends would take turns reading the textbooks for me, which I Brailled using a slate and stylus. At first it was apparent that all the teachers had been directed to ask me most of the questions in class, but I was able to answer them.
The director of the school never told me his decision until I went and talked to him two months later. He said I was the best student at Kolye Primary School, according to the reports he received from the teachers. He, therefore, asked me to pay my school fee, which became a problem. My father refused to pay it. So, I borrowed some money from my friend, and began selling cigarettes and making baskets until I paid off the debt and the tuition.
After three months of school, I took the first exams, on which I earned the highest score. As a result, most of my friends were disappointed and deserted me. However, I did not lose. I continued to be an outstanding student, not only in Juba, but also in the entire southern Sudan.
After finishing eighth grade, I had to deal with the Sudanese Ministry of Education since I wanted to continue my schooling. They told me that I could not sit for primary leaving exams because I was blind. I told them that I could do the exams either orally or in Braille if Rejaf Center for the Blind would help them with Brailling and grading. Finally, they decided to test my capability by giving me exams from previous years. I took the tests in Braille and did really well. I was then allowed to sit for the real exams and I received the second highest score in the southern Sudan. This led the Ministry of Education to throw a party for me at which my father confessed his misconceptions about blindness. Since then, things changed dramatically for me, as well as for the blind students of southern Sudan.†
This is what I wish to share with all of you, my dear brothers and sisters in the Federation. As freedom fighters, it is important to remember our history. The Ibo people say,† "He who can not tell where the rain began to beat him can not know where he dried his body." You and I know where the rain began to beat us and who we are today. It is this history that we should pass on to the children who will carry ahead our struggle until we arrive at the promised land.
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