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Blind Oonyu defied stigma to change his community

By Vision Reporter

Added 14th April 2009 03:00 AM

IT was not his neat, fitting grey jacket. It was not his ingenuous smile. It was something else that made Francis Oonyu stand out. “I was a teacher in Amuria… we had no electricity and no scholastic materials…but we managed…” He wore tinted glas

IT was not his neat, fitting grey jacket. It was not his ingenuous smile. It was something else that made Francis Oonyu stand out. “I was a teacher in Amuria… we had no electricity and no scholastic materials…but we managed…” He wore tinted glas

By Stephen Ssenkaaba

IT was not his neat, fitting grey jacket. It was not his ingenuous smile. It was something else that made Francis Oonyu stand out.

“I was a teacher in Amuria… we had no electricity and no scholastic materials…but we managed…” He wore tinted glasses; we, therefore, could not see his eyes. He neither could see ours.

Oonyu was recently speaking at the launch of the eighth round of the FORD Foundation’s International Fellowships Programme (IFP), an initiative that funds postgraduate education for talented, but disadvantaged young people.
He was among the 17 candidates that had gone through rigorous interviews to win scholarships to top universities in the UK and the US.
Each of the candidates presented commendable qualities, but Oonyu’s caught my attention.
Blind, he beat over 2,000 applicants to the scholarship. It was not so much his condition as what he accomplished under such a condition that got him this far.

Tough childhood

Oonyu was born normal to John Edward and Mary Magdalene Ojwere on March 14, 1970. According to his mother, he lost his sight at the age of four after a measles attack.

“It nearly killed him and eventually spoilt his eyes,” she says.
His mother took him from one hospital to another in a desperate attempt to find treatment for him. “I used to carry him over 10km to hospital on my back. I once spent eight months in Mbale Hospital. I had no money and no clothes,” she recalls.

Oonyu later joined Opucet Primary school, but found life hard.
“I was not a fast learner and because of my poor sight, teachers beat me all the time, wondering why I could not understand. My classmates teased me; they called me Etopil, a derogatory term for blind,” he says.

He was transferred to Madera School for the Blind, where, despite his condition, he emerged best in the mock exams. Oonyu later went to St. Francis School for the Blind and still came top in the O’Level final exams.

He struggled despite the inadequate facilities in Iganga SS and later in Kaliro National Teachers’ College, where he enrolled for a diploma in education. In class, Oonyu relied on friends to catch up with work.
“I would listen to the teacher and then request friends to read the notes for me as I typed,” he says.

During his school practice at Ngora Girls’ Secondary School, Oonyu had to pay a friend to read, write lesson plans and notes on the blackboard for students. “The students wanted to run away from my classes, they were not sure about me,” he says.
At the end of his practice, Oonyu applied for a job at the same school, but was rejected.
“Management said I was not fit for the job. They instead employed my other classmate who had no eye problem,” he recalls.

Oonyu applied for teaching jobs in several schools, in vain. One day, after a year without a job, he received a call from a friend.

New beginning

“He told me there was a vacancy at Amuria Secondary School in north-eastern Uganda, which I gladly took.” Here, he used a recorder and his old notes to teach. Through his efforts, the school produced its first academic star, Loyce Anigo, who scored credit three in Christian Religious Education. It was the best grade ever achieved in the school. Wishing to upgrade, Oonyu joined Makerere University for a degree in education.

At the university, he struggled to find his way around. “I once fell in a ditch as I struggled to find my way,” he recalls.
He tussled to cope in a class that had no special needs facilities, where some lecturers were not even aware of his presence. Some lectures were fast, sparing no time for this one student who, because of visual impairment, could not match with his more able counterparts. His application for financial assistance from the university special needs quota was also rejected.

In 2004, Oonyu graduated and thereafter registered as a graduate teacher, but he was not recognised by the education ministry.
“I continued getting a salary of a Grade Five teacher even as a degree holder.” His appeal to the Education Service Commission fell on deaf ears.

In 2005, he was posted to Kamode Senior Secondary School where he mobilised other teachers to introduce new learner-based teaching methods. He often gave inspirational talks to students and teachers.

Soon, he was appointed the teachers’ representative to the Parents Teachers Association and also put in charge of teachers’ welfare and examinations. It was then that he applied for the Ford Foundation scholarship which he won.
“I realised that nothing is impossible, even with disability,” he says.

If all goes well, Oonyu will soon join a university in Hawaii, Texas or Kansas for a masters degree in Special Needs Education. He attributes his success to the Almighty.

“God has answered my prayer…” he says.

Facts about the Ford Foundation scholarships

The Ford Foundation International Fellowships programme provides opportunities for advanced study to exceptional individuals from social groups and communities that lack access to higher education.

Target group

  • Individuals with proven leadership skills in their workplace or communities.

  • People who belong to, or work on behalf of marginalised groups.

  • Individuals from areas or groups which lack access to higher education.

  • Female students
  • Individuals who have never attended institutions of higher learning overseas.

  • Persons living and working in rural areas, slums, conflict and post-conflict areas.
  • Persons with disabilities.


  • The programme provides fellowships of up to three years to pursue masters, doctoral or postgraduate degrees in a range of academic disciplines in any university in the world. Areas of study are: Public health, natural resource management, indigenous languages, education, law, public policy and development studies, among others.
    In Uganda, the programme is administered by the Association for the Advancement of Higher Education and Development. A total of 94 Ugandans have benefited from the programme.

    Blind Oonyu defied stigma to change his community

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