Scaling heights. Francis Kinubi, the head teacher of Salama School of the blind in Mukono District, did not allow his condition to prevent him from pursuing his dreams. He tells PHIONAH NASSANGA his story.
“Becoming visually-impaired was a misfortune to my family, but I got a chance to become a teacher, not a herdsman,” Francis Kinubi, the head teacher of Salama School for the Blind in Mukono District says.
Leading me to his office, it all seems so unbelievable how Kinubi, with ease finds his footing using a white cane. At the office, he reaches for keys in his pocket and opens the office. “I know this office like the back of my hand,” Kinubi says, as he offers me a seat.
While most people cannot imagine navigating life without sight, Kinubi’s story is from 55 years ago.
Growing up he felt like nobody understood what he was going through. Kinubi was often discriminated against.
However, his mother’s love and the nuns at St Francis Primary School for the Blind, Madera in Soroti District made him yearn for a bright future.
Kinubi is the fourth born of 11 children. Raised in a family of the late Yokana Muganga and Agnes Berahwo, both nomadic pastoralists, they were constantly on the move. He was a healthy and happy child who used to follow his siblings to graze his father’s cattle in Sanga, Kiruhura District.
At the age of four while in Mubende (Kiboga District), he was diagnosed with measles. Lacking immediate treatment, his sight was affected. He was later taken to Mulago hospital and in two weeks Kinubi mysteriously became visually-impaired. He felt his mother’s struggle to defend him from his insensitive father, who used to scold him and wanted nothing to do with a blind child. Home turning into a living hell.
“I had become a burden, especially to my father who first denied me support. I could not look after his cattle like my siblings or do any house chores.”
Hoping that the doctors would find a solution for her son, Kinubi’s mother paid frequent visits to the hospital. But, one of the nurses advised her to take Kinubi to St Francis School for the Blind in Soroti District.
Kinubi says his mother thought it would be a waste of resources but to protect him from his father’s insults which traumatised him, she took him to school.
Life at school
In 1965, at five years, Kinubi was taken to St Francis School for the Blind in Madera, Soroti District, the only school for the blind then, which was headed by the white nuns from The Little Sisters of St Francis of Assisi congregation.
Hearing his mother bid farewell, Kinubi burst into tears and tugged at his mother’s dress scared of living with strangers. He kept to himself for a couple of days afraid of rejection. But, it turned out different because he was welcomed and showered with love.
“During my time at St Francis, we all had orientation and mobility instructions. This helped us to adapt to the environment, equipping us to be independent. We were taught important skills for daily living such as getting dressed, knowing our way to the dormitories and classrooms,” he explains, adding, “Life at Madera helped me build my self-esteem.”
He never wanted to go back to the hostile home environment.
Unlike other schools, Kinubi says they only had Christmas holidays. Before breaking off for the holidays, announcements would be aired on Radio Uganda in different languages for all parents to pick up their children from either Uganda Railway or at the National Theatre.
“During the Christmas holiday, our teachers would put us on a train to Kampala where our parents would pick us up,” he narrates.
For unknown reasons, on many occasions Kinubi’s parents did not come, so he would spend the year at school. He reckons that these were among his worst days. Although he loved school, he only enjoyed it with his friends.
After his primary education, with four of his classmates, Kinubi joined Iganga Secondary School (the present day Iganga Girls’ School ) in 1975. He says it was the only secondary school admitting visually-impaired students. He says, it was not easy.
“Visually able students and some teachers in the main stream school did not seem to understand the lives of the visually-impaired. We were teased and made fun of. Mastering where the kitchen, dormitory and toilets were was hard for us,” he recalls.
In Senior Three, he was meant to make choices of subjects to study. The Ministry of Education sent a letter stopping the visually-impaired students from pursuing Biology, Physics and Chemistry, which Kinubi says were his best.
“Maybe the ministry thought it was impossible for a visually- impaired student to do science practicals.”
Losing his father in 1978, he was unable to go to Senior Five and his mother could not foot the bills. He enrolled at Bishop Willies Primary Teachers’ College in Iganga District. Kinubi says he was the first visually-impaired student to join the institute in 1979.
However, a year before his final exams he received a letter from the National Institute for Education, a body which was in charge of the teachers’ training colleges stopping him from sitting his final examinations. He says in the letter the National Institute for Education cited that it was practically impossible for a visually-impaired student to become a teacher.
“This perplexed me, my tutors and the college. There was no option but to take matters to court,” he explains.
The case lasted a year. In 1981, as Uganda joined the rest of world to celebrate the International Day of People With Disabilities at Nile Mansions, Kampala Kinubi’s case was among the issues presented in one of the speeches addressed to then president Dr Milton Obote, who ordered an immediate investigation into the matter.
Following the report by the investigation commission, led by MP Anthony Oulanya Olenge, the then state minister of Culture and Community Development, the president declared that no Ugandan was to be discriminated from pursuing education as long as he or she goes through the right procedure. Kinubi was allowed to go back to college and sat his examinations in 1982.
And the guerrilla war…
“During my training as a teacher, the war was raging throughout the country, but being in school, we were protected.” The guerrilla war was more like a tribal war between people from Western Uganda and those from the north.
After the graduation, Kinubi was posted to his former school St Francis School for the Blind in Soroti where he taught for two years. But for fear of his life, he asked to be transferred to St Helen’s Primary School, Nyamitanga in Mbarara because he was afraid of being mistaken for a spy.
When his request was granted, Kinubi asked his elder brother to help him transfer his property from Soroti to Mbarara. However, they found several roadblocks on their way to Kampala.
They arrived in Kampala at around 9pm and Kinubi had planned to spend the night at a friend’s place in Kisenyi. But at Blue Room (around the new taxi park) they were robbed by soldiers.
“All our property was taken. I had kept money in my shoes but I was asked to remove it. My brother was caned. Later the soldiers chased us. I held my brother’s hand and we ran away. I had no idea where we were heading to, but we survived.”
Teaching the visually able
“I taught English and Social Studies at St Helen’s between 1984 and 1991. While there, I got a new teaching experience as I was dealing with both the visually-impaired and visually endowed children,” he shares. However, he says it was challenging, especially with the visually endowed pupils for whom he had to write notes on the chalkboard.
“At first I thought I would use the lecture method but it was unfavourable for all pupils.”
To ease his work, he resorted to using his ordinary typewriter. He could type out notes then ask one of the pupils to write them on the chalkboard for the rest of the class to copy.
Due to domestic pressure, in 1992 he was forced to leave St Helen’s for Nakalanda Primary School in Mukono District.
“Being near my home area, my house had become a refuge for almost everyone yet I did not earn much,” he explains.
Advancing his career
As a Grade Three teacher, Kinubi felt the need to upgrade. In 1996, he enrolled for a diploma in Special Needs Education at the Institute of Teachers Education Kyambogo (now Kyambogo University). After his graduation in 1998, he was posted to Mpumu Primary School in Mukono District.
Shortly after, he was elected chairman of Uganda National Association of the Visually-Impaired where he noticed that there was no school admitting visually-impaired children in the central region. He also says the board noted that many parents with visually-impaired children could not afford taking them to school. And those who could afford had to either take them to the East or West.
“I felt this vacuum needed to be filled,” he says.
In 1999, Kinubi pioneered Salama Primary School for the Blind which started with only three pupils.
Parenting and technology
Kinubi married his first wife, Joyce Kaitesi in1993. However, after seven years without children, they decided that he marries her younger sister, Margaret Pindia with whom they have eight children.
“I loved Kaitesi because she was caring and loving,” Kinubi reveals.
Kaitesi died in a motor accident in 2007.
“My children are my eyes,” he smiles warmly.
For Kinubi, technology has been a godsend because with JAWS (Jobs Access with Speech), a talking software, he can read e-mails, notes, and can read caller IDs with ease.
“Life has taught me that disability is not inability.”
What others say…
I first met Kinubi in 1965. I was a teacher, he was a small boy when his mother dropped him off at a school where he knew no one. At first, he seemed unfriendly and for days he kept to himself, but later he picked up. I do not remember what he scored in his Primary Seven exams but he was among the best pupils in his class.
Sr John Josephine Aguti, 90, first Ugandan Headmistress, Madera School of the blind
I lost my sight at seven years in 1999 when I was in Primary Four. After four years without attending school in 2004 my parents were advised to take me to Salama School for the Blind. Mr Kinubi was a parent to many of us and I often confided in him because he was willing to listen and he believed in us. I am pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Education.
Jackline Nakiranda, 26, former student at Salama School for the blind
I came to know Kinubi in 2003, while at Kyambogo. He had come to sensitise visually-impaired pupils about braille education and to also encourage parents of such children to send them to school. In 2004, I joined Salama School for the Blind and he was one of the teachers who was concerned about our performance and welfare. After my Primary Leaving Exams, he advised me to join Iganga Secondary School where he thought I would have necessary education. We are still in touch and he follows up on my progress.
Abasi Luyombya, 23, law student at Makerere University