It is a cold and quiet morning at Irente School for the Blind in Lushoto District. The clean compound and the well-tended lawn are so welcoming.
I am at the school to meet two visually impaired teachers who studied at the school, went to teaching colleges and returned to teach at the same school.
When the school was established in 1963, it only catered for pupils with visual impairment. Over the years, the school started enrolling pupils with low vision and those with albinism. And this year, the school introduced inclusive education which allows enrolment of pupils without special needs.
Mr Godfrey Mshahara, 59, and Ms Enighenja Hemed,59, have known Irente school for over 30 years. They got their primary education at this school and came back to teach at the school years later.
Since Irente is a boarding school, the two teachers have lived here for a better part of their lives, both as pupils and teachers. Godfrey comes from Manola village in Shume Ward and Enighenja is from Mbwei village in Mlola Ward.
The two shared their inspiring story with Life & Style, explaining their struggles after losing their sight as children, how they coped and finally chose teaching as their careers.
Godfrey teaches English, History and Civics in standards three up to seven. He was not born blind but lost his sight at the age of 12 in 1971 when he was in Standard Four.
His vision deteriorated slowly and neither his parents nor his teachers believed him when he complained about the condition. They thought he was just lazy and did not like school.
“Since I was losing my sight slowly my parents and teachers thought I was lying to them. Slowly, I lost the ability to read notes on the blackboard. By the time teachers and parents believed me, I was almost completely blind as I couldn’t see clearly at all,” he says.
That is when his parents took him to the hospital for checkup but the doctor confirmed their son was losing sight and he would never be able to see again. His eyes had been badly affected by glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a disease that damages the eye’s optic nerve. If the damage continues, glaucoma can lead to permanent vision loss.
Dr Joseph Kalenzi from the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT) says, the risk factors include high blood pressure, use of creams, eye drops, inhalers and eye injuries/surgeries. He says the disease can affect children too.
“It is important for people to visit clinics for regular checkups. This will help reduce chances of diagnosing any kind of health complications at late stages,” says Dr. Kalenzi.
Godfrey’s parents enrolled him at Irente school after learning about the school through villagers. He joined the school in 1974 where he was enrolled in Standard Three. He was 15 years old.
“I was happy to be enrolled because I had only been looking after the cattle at home as I could not go to school anymore due to my low vision. Coping was not easy especially without counselling to help me adapt to the new life,” says Godfrey.
His vision deteriorated by the day and reached a point where he could no longer look after the cattle. He just stayed at home.
Life at Irente brought hope to his life again. He felt at home at Irente where everyone was friendly. He learnt to read braille and in a year he already could read and write in braille.
In 1980, Godfrey joined Mpwapwa Secondary School. This was an inclusive school, meaning it had students with disability and those without disability. Coping was not easy for Godfrey. Some students were a problem. Sometimes he missed meals because he could not go get the food himself from the dining hall. He depended on others to get him food. He says although the school had a separate class for students with disability, life was not that easy for those with visual impairment.
After secondary education, Godfrey joined Mpwapwa Teachers College in 1985 for a two-year-teaching diploma. He returned to Irente as a teacher in July 1986.
The reason he went to Irente was to give back to the community and to the school that nurtured him when he lost his sight.
The father of five calls upon the government and the community to give people with disability the opportunity to work and contribute to the development of the nation.
Enighenja became blind at the tender age of four. Small pox was the cause of her blindness, which like Godfrey’s set in progressively.
It took a lot of effort to convince her parents to enrol her at Irente school in 1967. A teacher introduced the idea to them but they were reluctant to let their child go. They were not sure she would ever return home.
In 1973, the mother of two joined Tabora Girls Secondary School for her A-level studies. The environment here was not as friendly as that at Irente. Learning with students without disability was difficult for Enighenja. They did not know how to deal with persons with disability.
She joined Mpwapwa Teachers College after high school where she studied between 1977 and 1978. Her first teaching appointment was in Mbeya where she worked for three years.
One of the schools she taught at in Mbeya was Katumbambili Primary School, which had a special class for visually impaired pupils. She requested to go work close to her family in Lushoto after three years in Mbeya.
Like Godfrey, she too wanted to teach at Irente, the school that highly contributed in making her who she is today. She teaches Kiswahili and History in classes III, VI and VII. Working there would also make her life easier as she would be closer to family. She also wanted to start her own family.
“It is easier to get help from peoplewho love you, especially relatives who know and accept your condition. In society some people look down on people with disability and cannot help them,” says Enighenja.
Her family assists her with things like house cleaning, cooking, washing and the likes, which cannot be done by just anyone.
Enighenja says it is not easy being blind and a mother. This is why she decided to work closer to home so she could get assitance from relatives to help her look after the children.
“As a mother I am responsible for taking care of my children. However, due to my disability I used to employ house girls, something that required a lot of patience inorder to keep them for as long as possible,” she says.
Her sons are now 21 and 20 years old. Enighenja will retire next year and as part of her retirement preparations, she has started a vegetable garden at her home. Her sons are the ones taking care of the garden.
Mchalo Alphons is the head of Irente institution which was established by the Evangelical Lutheran church of Tanzania’s Northern Eastern Diocese. He says in March 1968, the Tanzanian government in collaboration with the church entered an agreement to work together with the aim of supporting the school financially.
The school has 25 teachers who are paid by the government while the church pays the non-teaching staff.
The school is also supported by Christoffel Blinden Mission from Germany in form of funds and supportive materials for pupils with visual impairment. The aim is to enable them to obtain primary school education and life skills before they go to secondary school.
Mchalo says one of the institution’s activities is sensitising society on the importance of educating children with disability.
“Since the school started, there has been a lot of achievements including the introduction of inclusive education at the school,” says Mchalo.