THE whiff of a cool breeze hits you as you walk across the lush greenery. The birds flap from the trees, producing a melodious sound. It is a serene tune enhanced by huge trees scattered randomly around. As I walk through this expansive compound, a man walks towards me, with the aid of a white cane.
â€œWelcome,â€ he says cheerfully.
Standing by him is a group of children looking on with empty, yet anxious faces. Although I had earlier talked to him on phone and we had exchanged text messages, I was not expecting him to be a blind man. I was aware that he runs a school of the blind but I did not think he is also blind. See, he had called me and told me to send him my number by SMS. And he replied by SMS! When out of curiosity I looked at his phone, it turned out to be a normal Nokia with no special features. And this is a man who was blinded as a result of measles at the age of four.
Francis Kinubi shares a lot with the children. They share a common life history. They are all blind and most of them became blind before their first birthday. Their life forms the heart of a little school called Salama School of the Blind, located in Ntejeru sub-county, about 13km outside Mukono town.
The story of the school starts when a young four-year-old Kinubi becomes blind as a result of a measles attack. He struggles with life and graduates from college as a teacher.
By 1999, he had risen to become the chairperson of the Uganda National Association of the Blind. But while Kinubi survived the childhood problems of blindness and made it through school, he knew that many of the children born blind do not live to see love and care in life.
â€œWhen a child is born blind, the parents point fingers at each other. Usually the man accuses the wife of bringing a bad spell in the family and marries another womanâ€¦ And not to be left out, the woman also marries somewhere else,â€ Kinubi explains sombrely.
The medium-sized man of dark complexion then tilts his head, keeps quiet and looks towards the children, before proceeding: â€œAnd what happens to the child? It is left under the care of the grandmother or worse still, on their own.â€
The school records confirm his words. Most of the pupils get their fees from grandparents, who are unable to pay sh100,000 per term. And with the increasing food prices, Kinubi is already feeling the heat of trying to be charitable without means. He sees no hope in continuing with the school if he gets no work with him.
â€œWe are not ready to go to prison. We have a debt of sh4m in arrears for food, electricity and medical bills. Things are running out of hand. I canâ€™t keep getting food on credit when I am not sure of where the money will come from,â€ he says.
Kinubi says initially, the Government provided materials like desks and mattresses, but by the time he applied for government support, the school had 40 pupils. Now the number has increased to 60. He also claims that the Government promised to contribute sh10,000 per child per term, but this has not been forthcoming. Kinubi also knows that a school cannot depend on handouts.
â€œThe biggest challenge is sustainability. How long will the school survive on handouts? We want to put up a poultry farm, buy cows and also start food production for the school, because we have enough land. But where will the capital come from?â€
Maureen Kyomuhendo, the Coca Cola communications manager, who was visiting the school, said: â€œThey need to start a self-sustaining project. Even if one gives them food, what will happen when they finish it?â€
Salama School for the Blind lies on 40 acres of land. It has pipe water and a borehole.
The school has three blocks which house seven classrooms and the administration offices. These were constructed in 2004, following President Yoweri Museveniâ€™s campaign pledge in 2001. Each classroom has capacity of 40 children, but at the moment, the school has only 60 pupils â€” 24 girls and 36 boys. Ideally, the school can admit over 200 pupils but the accommodation facilities are not enough.
Kinubi says in 1999, the children were only using Salama as a home for sleeping, while studying elsewhere. They used to walk 2km to Mpuuma, where the school was. On a rainy day, school was hard. Children would not access food; there was no way they could walk 2km to come back for lunch and go back for classes.
To go around this issue, Kinubi applied to transform the home into a school. In 2006, he was granted permission to run the school. Since the school started, it has produced 170 pupils.
The children are taught how to type, read and write. Last year, nine candidates sat for the Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) and eight of them passed to go to secondary level. But Mathematics is still a problem for most of them. â€œMaths is still very challenging for the children because of limited gadgets,â€ says a teacher.
The Government pays teachers.
The stories of pupils here are those of hope and faith. â€œI have been blind since I was a childâ€¦ but now I can read and write,â€ says Joan Turyahikayo, who wants to become a teacher.
Kinubiâ€™s vision for the blind hampered by lack of funds