[PHOTO/CAPTION: Dr. William Rowland]

Garden of Knowledge, Garden of Beauty

by William P. Rowland, Ph.D.


From the Editor: William Rowland is Executive Director of The South African National Council for the Blind and Second Vice President of the World Blind Union. When Dr. Maurer was in South Africa recently for a meeting, Dr. Rowland gave him a copy of the following article about the importance of Braille to the people who use it every day. Here it is:


At a party one evening I was drawn aside by an old school friend. The Intelligence Service had recently recruited several blind workers, and she was one of them. "I think you should know I'm being asked to read your letters" was all she said. That was the old South Africa, where even Braille mail did not escape surveillance.

To me personally Braille has always meant more than information on paper. That first shy love letter from a girl in class, my very first library book, my first spelling test with that cross-patch teacher--these are the memories that crowd into my mind as I write these lines. When I was a boy, I kept a dream diary and still today I can recall some of the nightmare images--flames all around me in a burning house, a leopard chasing our car as it careers down a hill. I would not have remembered these things if I had not written them down in Braille.

When many years ago I went on my first journey for the South African National Council for the Blind, halfway across the world, it was an exciting time, but also a lonely time. I had no money for phone calls, and contact with my family was limited to seamail. Then one day in New York a colleague handed me a letter from Helene, my wife, written in our quiet home above Cape Town with our five-year-old son Frankie at her elbow, making a thorough nuisance of himself and also wanting to send a message. Even today I treasure that little scroll of Braille.

Over the years I have developed a system of personal Braille to write concise notes on small bits of paper. I take a single sign or a couple of letters to stand for a concept or even a string of words which I like to use. Sometimes at meetings, when I am asked for a copy of my speech, and as something of a joke, I hand in these notes, much to the consternation of secretaries. The equivalent of scribbling, I suppose, but it is a tool I would recommend to blind students and professionals. In this way a great deal can be written with a simple pocket frame [slate].

At the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB), where I am employed, I take pleasure from the many Braille letters that reach me from all over Africa. Written on newspaper, wrapping paper, and waste paper of every imaginable description, they are without exception expressive of the longing for education, for work, for a place in the world. Written in poverty, they are rich in trust and hope. How guilty I often feel about the negligible answers I can supply, but I do always reply. Sometimes, though, the requests do bring a smile: "Please send me an airticket to France by next Friday, if possible." Or "I am a Christian boy from Malawi and would like to correspond with a beautiful young girl in South Africa."

One of the best things we ever did at my organization was to create a Braille youth magazine. It covers music, sport, politics, health, and much besides and is extremely popular. But what I enjoy most is the letter column, always crammed full. Once our young readers get going on an issue, they do not let up: the debate about whether a blind man should marry a blind woman went on for months until the exasperated editor had to plead with readers please to change the topic. One of the final contributions came from a teenage girl with a different perspective: she wondered, in fact, whether a blind woman ought to marry a blind man.

Yes, what would we do without Braille? How would we learn or work? Without it would we have our own organizations? Would there be a World Blind Union? Would we even care about blind people of other cultures? In my opinion a world without Braille would be a silent world, a world without communication. We should never cease to promote it and to pay homage to our patron sage, Louis Braille.

Once I wrote a poem in which I compared the sound of the fingers on a Braille page to a rustling garden. A garden indeed--a garden of knowledge, a garden of beauty.