It was a Thursday when I visited the home of Peter Nyankiko and his wife Venantie Mukanziza in Bibare Cell, Kimironko Sector in Gasabo. From a distance I heard them cracking jokes with their three children aged nine, seven and three. Mukanziza warmly welcomed me into the house. In their home there is a feeling of peace, something that makes you feel at home.
From the way they identify things and work, it is hard to notice that both are visually impaired. However, Nyankiko aged 36 and Mukanziza were not born with visual impairment; they both lost their sight to measles, also known as Rubeola. The illness, if not vaccinated against, can cause blindness.
“I was not born with visual impairment, but I became blind after a measles infection. I couldn’t continue with my studies at a normal school seeing as I was so young, so I was transferred to Gatagara School for children with disabilities in Huye,” Nyankiko says.
Gatagara School for children with disabilities in the Southern Province was founded in 1960 with the aim to support children with disabilities.
How they met
Born in 1980, Peter Nyankiko joined Gatagara in 1987 and it was there that he met Mukanziza, who was also a student.
“I was transferred to Gatagara after getting sight problems and that’s where we met. We lived and were educated together in that community,” Nyankiko says.
The two became friends and helped each other out in school. After Gatagara, both of them were moved to Groupe Scolaire Gahini in Kayonza District, Eastern Province for their secondary school education. The public school trained them to fight discrimination and also, carry on with life as normally as possible.
“It was tough at first. But we managed to sail through. As we grew older, I realised my wish was to marry someone who understood my disability because they too were just like me, someone like Mukanziza,” Nyankiko notes.
The couple got married in 2007 on January 28. “Our wedding ceremony was just as good as others. Very many people attended, I guess to see how two people with visual impairment decided to get married,” Nyankiko narrates.
Mukanziza says she did not plan to marry a blind man. “I did not imagine I was going to marry someone with visual impairment, but we fell in love at school. I used to think it was ‘young love’ and that it would end with school. However, our relationship blossomed and we found ourselves at the altar. I guess it was God’s plan,” Mukanziza says.
She adds, “I too got blind at the age of six due to measles. My parents took me to hospital to see if it could be fixed but unfortunately there was no solution. So she took me to Gatagara.”
Born in the Northern Province in Gicumbi District in 1979, Mukanziza became blind in 1986.
Nyankiko says that the greatest challenge they faced after they got married was that society did not treat them like normal people.
He says that the community failed to understand how and why two people with visual disability decided to get married; and so they were considered a burden to the community.
“The community thought they would be in charge of all our basic needs including food, clothing and fees for our children, which was not true. It felt like discrimination,” Nyankiko says.
Nyankiko says that it has gotten better with time; society has warmed up to them.
“It’s easy for people to focus on the disability. But we have a good relationship with our neighbours, we participate in discussions and we even invite them over to share meals and a drink like they do with us,” Mukanziza says.
According to Mukanziza, the children are well aware of their parents’ plight but that has not changed the way they relate.
“As they grow, they understand better what we are dealing with and work towards getting familiar with it. When, for example, one of them is sick or has a bump or rash on their skin, they call me and ask me to touch the exact place where the problem is,” she says.
Mukanziza says that taking care of children is just the same for them as it is with other people. Of course it is wonderful to know what your kids look like but, Mukanziza says, they have come to terms with the problem and refuse to be bitter about the fact that they can’t see their kids.
“We have become used to it; it’s been 10 years. We are not mad that we can’t see our children; the most important thing is that we can touch them and also, make sure they are healthy. The eyes are in the brain and that is what we use,” she says.
Some people may wonder how a person with sight difficulties can care for a baby but Mukanziza says nothing is impossible.
“We always search for any changes with the baby, for example temperature or a rash, among other things. We also know when a diaper needs to be changed and if the baby is hungry,” says Mukanziza.
“We also know where everything is kept so it is easy to get by. We are not entirely helpless,” she says with a smile.
After Gahini, Munkanziza enrolled at University of Rwanda’s College of Education (formerly Kigali Institute of Education) on a government sponsorship in 2007. Her previous experience at a public school helped her get by at the college, that and the fact that the school also offers special equipment for people with disabilities.
Mukanziza completed her course and got a Bachelor’s degree in English and Education in 2011.
After completing her studies at UR, she was employed by Rwanda Education Board as a mentor.
In September 2014, Mukanziza joined Kenyatta University in Nairobi on a government sponsorship programme, majoring in Special Education Needs to help people with disabilities. She will graduate in December this year.
“We have achieved a lot. We both had training in physiotherapy and in 2006, we worked with a string of physiotherapists in Remera Sector, Gasabo District.
Nyankiko says that his goal is to establish a marriage crisis centre where families or couples going through conflict can be counseled. He believes this is a great initiative as some marriages end prematurely yet they can be saved.