Tony Opio has been blind for three decades. But that has not subdued his relentless passion to effect change in our society through his music, Noah Jagwe writes
Tony Opio lost his sight after he fell into an ambush of armed soldiers at the age of 31 in 1983. He was on his way back home when he encountered the men who beat him severely until he went blind. In an attempt to restore his sight, he visited several hospitals, but his hopes were shattered when he was told he would never see again.
As if to add red hot pepper to a fresh wound, his wife left him. He sobbed for a while, but later put his sorrows aside.
“I felt bad that a woman I had loved for quite some time could leave me”, Opio says.
As he pondered his next move, a friend came to his rescue. Opio’s friend advised him to learn to live with his condition and build different abilities. He was taken to the Machakos Institute for the Blind in Kenya for counselling and later trained in carpentry from 1992 to 1995.
“I know how to handle a hammer and chisel and create things,” he says.
But he was not successful in putting into practice what he had learnt. He went to the National Union for Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) looking for somebody to help him with funds for the simple tools to start his own workshop.
But he was told that the funds are meant for people in a group of 10 or more, yet he had nobody to team up with.
After another attempt to get funds failed, Opio gave up on carpentry.
Enter the music
Luck presented itself when he received a guitar as a gift from an Italian friend. Little did he know that it could become his source of livelihood. He had taught himself how to play music, but did not know how to play a guitar. A British friend told him about an opportunity for training in Kenya. He went and learned to play the guitar.
Opio’s musical breakthrough came in 1996 when a colleague, who was then a permanent secretary in the ministry of gender, invited him to play music at fundraising parties.
The first deal Opio got was with Marie Stopes to do mobilisation campaigns for family planning, HIV and domestic violence awareness around the country.
He has since then got other contracts to perform at weddings and other meetings. One of his most outstanding memories is when he sung before Pope John Paul II.
Opio does not wallow in pity. He says those who sympathise with him are the ones that are blind and disabled.
In his song, Disability is normal, he sings that disability has and will always exist. He urges for more opportunities for the disabled; they should not be treated like second class citizens. “I am not disabled, I am abled,” he says.
Opio lives alone and does his own domestic chores. He cooks and mops his own house. His wish is to get good promoters rather than sympathisers.
Long way to go for disabled
There is still a lot of work to be done regarding the economic empowerment of People with Disabilities (or PWDs), as the majority of them live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank statistics.
Many employers have denied a number of the PWDs employment due to other costs that come with them, such specialised tools, special toilets and other user-friendly facilities, especially, at buildings.
The national member of parliament for PWDs, Sofia Nalule, says PWDs still encounter great challenges, such as lack of education and accessibility to loans.
Nalule says according to the research done around the country, disabled persons have been denied access to NAADS grants on the mistaken grounds that they already have other benefits.
Nalule says a number of provisions and benefits have been stifled. She says despite government commitment to protect PWDs, nothing is done to improve their situation. Many public buildings, for example, still do not have user friendly facilities for the disabled.