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Visually-impaired people face double challenges

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STRESSING A POINT—Nyika at his dwelling place

Having a visual impairment is punishment in Malawi due to lack of specialised equipment, such as walking sticks, that can ease mobility. As if that is not enough, YOHANE SYMON, in this FRIDAY SHAKER, exposes yet another problem—such physically challenged people use either street kids or children as aides, thereby denying them an opportunity to go to school. It is a twin problem that shatters the hope of the visually-impaired and their wards.

Alifa Saidi, who is 10 years old, starts his day by fetching bathing water for his grandfather before they start their daily activities.

Where they stay, they do not have kitchen utensils; hence, they need money to buy prepared food.

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However, sourcing money is a big challenge.

Usually, Saidi and 70-year-old grandfather Nyika Issah leave their dwelling place at 9am and go on begging errands in Mangochi Township.

Saidi dropped out of school to be his visually-impaired grandfather’s aide.

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Nyika, who is from Minyanga Village, Traditional Authority Jalasi, in Mangochi District, was born without visual impairment.

He became blind in 2003 after undergoing unsuccessful eye operations.

After becoming visually-impaired, Nyika was being taken care of by his wife from Mandimba area. But life became harder when the wife died seven years later.

After selling off all his possessions to make ends meet, Nyika resorted to begging.

Every morning, well-wishers used to take him to Chiponde Market and, in the evening, he could ask somebody to take him back home.

Eventually, Nyika realised that life was becoming unbearable; hence, he relocated to Mangochi Boma where, he was told, begging was as lucrative as being employed.

“However, on daily basis, I could only make less than K500 which was not enough to meet my daily needs. My only worry was where I could go if I left Chiponde,” he said.

Nyika moved to Mangochi, accompanied by his then eight-year-old grandchild Saidi, who became his aide.

“When my wife died, Alifa’s mother was taking care of me. However, she was not giving me everything I needed because she was poor and single.

“My other children are based in Mozambique. They no longer think about me. I feel like they died because I do not hear from them anymore. So, the death of Alifa’s mother was another blow to me because she left me with a son to take care of,” he said.

Life in Mangochi was not rosy for the two. They soon started sleeping under bridges, grocery shops and other unconventional places.

Alifa’s dream of becoming a police officer died as he eventually dropped out of school while in standard three so as to act as his grandfather’s guide.

Every day, Alifa takes his grandfather around town on begging errands.

He envies his peers when he sees them playing childhood games. Sometimes, he returns to the town to play with his fellow street children at night.

He, in some cases, sleeps within the town but rushes to pick his grandfather back to town for begging tasks in the morning.

Alifa knows that he cannot leave his grandfather alone. He is his grandfather’s eyes.

“Whenever I see my grandfather, I feel sorry for him. I cannot leave him alone. I wish I could return to school but who do I leave him with?” he said while looking at his grandfather.

On some days, Alifa is joined by another street kid, 14-year-old Mike Christopher, who helps Alika to take care of his grandfather.

“When Alifa was young, he used to come and abandon his grandfather at Ahad Shop. Whenever he received money, he used to ask some of us to identify the money so that he could put them in separate pockets,” Mike said.

After noticing that there were some streets children who were stealing money from Nyika, Mike offered to start guiding him and share whatever they earned on that particular day.

“I felt sorry for him. I joined them he shares with me whatever he gets every day. On a good day, we get about K3, 000. But life is hard. People have no money and begging is no longer profitable,” Mike said.

As is the case with Nyika in Mangochi, visually-impaired people who beg across the country face serious mobility-related challenges.

Most of them use their children or form partnerships with street kids to act as their guides in exchange for a share of the loot they make every day.

MAKESHIFT HOME—Alifa sleeps anywhere after dropping his grandfather

Elsewhere, people with visual-impairment receive assistive devices such as walking sticks, technically known as white canes.

With the sticks, visually-impaired people move on their own when on errands.

However, the situation is different in Malawi as most visually-challenged people rely on children or relations as guides.

Apart from denying visually-impaired people freedom to move, the absence of canes forces more children out of school as they act as guides for their parents or relatives with visual impairment.

The future of most children for visually-impaired parents and guardians is doomed because they cannot go to school.

Malawi Union for the Blind Executive Director, Ezekiel Kumwenda, said his organisation has 170,000 members who are either visually-impaired or visually-impaired and deaf.

Out of the total number, Kumwenda said 57,000 go to school. A fraction of them, according to Kumwenda, are employed or have formal business enterprises.

But Kumwenda said the majority of the visually-impaired people in Malawi face serious mobility challenges, which require the government’s urgent attention.

Kumwenda said they have tried to engage the government to provide their members with canes, to no avail.

Each white cane, according to Kumwenda, costs K50,000 ($70).

“For a visually-impaired person like me, a white cane is everything.

“It gives us a sense of independence because, in most cases, we are able to go wherever we want using the sticks. We have had situations where some of our members fail to move around because their children, who act as guides, have dumped them. This is sad,” he said.

Kumwenda fears for the future of children born to visually-impaired parents since they are unable to go to school.

He urged the government and other stakeholders to find ways of making the white canes available to visually-impaired people.

“The walking sticks can change the lives of blind people. Most of our members are poor; they cannot afford to buy the sticks at $70. We believe that the government can do something so that people with visual-impairment can be empowered to walk on their own. We are killing the future of our children due to failure to support blind people,” he said.

Globally, it is estimated that 1.3 billion people have visual-impairment.

Out of them, 188.5 million have mild visual impairment, 217 million have moderate to severe visual impairment, 36 million people are completely visually-impaired and 826 million live with slight vision impairment.

Some leading causes of visual impairment in the world are uncorrected refractive errors and cataracts.

But World Health Organisation (WHO) says 80 percent of cases of visual impairment globally are considered avoidable, meaning that if countries invested in preventive measures, blindness could be avoided.

In its publication, WHO says most people with visual challenges are below the age of 50 years and in developing countries such as Malawi.

However, just like Nyika, WHO understands that a good number of blind people lack support from the governments and other stakeholders.

In Malawi, Gender, Child and Social Welfare Ministry looks after issues of disadvantaged children and people with disability such as blindness.

The ministry said it was not aware of the actual number of people with visual impairment in Malawi.

The ministry’s spokesperson, Lucy Bandazi, said they were waiting for the National Statistical Office to provide the number of visually impaired people, based on the 2018 Housing and Population Census.

However, Bandazi said her ministry was doing enough to help the concerned people.

For instance, she said, in Mulanje there is a vocational school which trains visually-impaired people in how to use white canes and other assistive devices for walking.

“As a ministry, we do not allow parents, who are blind, to use their children as guides. We want to warn people that beg in the streets that it is against the law to use children as guides,” she said.

Bandazi said most visually-impaired people, who beg in the streets, graduated from vocational schools they were sent to under government programmes.

“It should be known that the country trains visually-impaired people at Mulanje Vocational Training Centre. We also have programmes targeting visually-impaired people, among other community-based rehabilitation programmes which are championed by Malawi Council for the Handicapped,” she said.

On children, Bandazi said her ministry had been committing street children to social homes where they receive support to go to school.

But Nyika and Alifa said they have neither been approached nor supported by the government or any organisation.

“When I could see, I was doing some business. If I get support, I can do some business to sustain myself and my grandchild. At the moment, I cannot provide him with his school needs. If it was possible, I could have allowed him to go to school while I go around on my errands,” Nyika said.

For now, Nyika’s life and that of Alifa—just like most visually-impaired people and their guides—are stuck with no hope save for surviving on begging. It is a twin problem that requires urgent attention.

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