It was the first time I was meeting her. From a distance she cut a posture of an amiable personality. Within minutes of talking to her, it felt like I was talking to someone I had known for years. This was my first encounter with Dr Beth Mukarwego, a visually impaired lecturer at University of Rwanda’s College of Education. She is a lecturer in the School of Inclusive and Special Needs Education in Kimironko, a Kigali suburb.
Despite her impairment, Mukarwego has a story that shines beyond her visual impairment.
VIDEO: Meet Mukarwego, Rwanda's first visually impaired female PhD holder. Source: YouTube/TheNewTimes
Like a seasoned teacher, she was just in time for the interview and also thanked me for keeping time. As we walked to her office, she also reminded me about her busy schedule. The soft-spoken lecturer had in fact just returned from upcountry, where she is campaigning for a political office. She is contesting to become a Member of Parliament in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) representing people with disabilities in Rwanda.
As we took a stroll to her office, she moved with a sense of urgency despite using a white cane. At one point, she neatly folded the white cane, placed it under her arm and walked like she had regained her sight.
“I can easily find my way around. I hardly make use of the white cane,” she said as she opened the door to her office.
Dressed in a black and red dress, she invited me to have a seat in her office. It is a small but neat office with books and files placed on a table. It is from here that she spent over 20 minutes to share her inspirational life story.
Mukarwego was born in Burundi and raised in Kenya. She was born with visual impairment and is the second born in a family of four. She spent most of her life in boarding school in Kenya. Having joined when she was only five years old, she would go back home only once a year, and that was the only time she got to spend with her siblings.
She joined boarding school at a young age because there was no school for children with special needs in Burundi at that time, and so she had to go to Kenya.
She joined Thika School for the Visually Impaired for primary education.
“Things weren’t as tough since I was being helped, and there were other children with the same impairment, so we all learnt together. We were taught how to type using a braille typewriter, that is a special typewriter for people who are visually impaired,” she says.
However, after primary, there was only one school in Kenya that specifically handled children with visual impairment and it only admitted 15 students.
Mukarwego was the 15th on the admission list; however, she tied with a boy in the same position and eventually it is the boy who was admitted.
After her hopes to get enrolled in the school were crushed, she joined a regular school, Machakos Girls High school and later, Kahuhia Girls High school for A Level.
“For secondary school,” she recalls, “ I went to an inclusive girls school where I was the only person who had visual problems, and the teachers did not know braille, so when I was doing my exams, I would listen to a tape recorder and type my answers using a type writer.”
In 1997, she joined Kenyatta University for a Bachelor’s degree in Education and in 2008, she enrolled for a Master’s degree before pursuing a PHD in Special Needs Education at the same institution.
“I had to learn and understand the actual keyboard to know where the letters were. That’s how I survived. I also depended on other girls who helped read the text books to me and also what the teachers were writing on the chalkboard. I struggled so hard to get the information like other students, but I never gave up. Actually, in O- Level, I used to be the second best. University was really hard but I never failed any module,” she recalls.
Despite all that hardship, Mukarwego was determined to continue where others could have easily given up.
“I really wanted to complete university education with or without a struggle because I always said that I needed to show others that it can be done. I used to work extra hard and spent sleepless nights. I would depend on so many other people and even spend money so that they could help me with some work to be able to succeed,” she says.
“It was not easy but I was determined to make it because if I failed, that would also have affected me psychologically. I didn’t want people to say that I was failing because I am blind,” the teacher adds.
During the course of the interview, we were interrupted by her colleagues and students inquiring about different things. And each time, she would turn and politely say “sorry for that.” More amusing was the fact that she knew everyone just by their voice.
Before she joined University Of Rwanda College Of Education in 2009, she lived in Nairobi and was a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Special Needs Education where she taught for nine years. Earlier she had also taught in a high school for the visually impaired.
“I lecture courses related to special needs education and also education psychology modules. Currently, I have been offering guidance and counselling to our students. I also teach braille, a tactile writing system used by people who are blind or visually impaired, to students who are pursuing special needs education.”
Teaching when visually impaired is no easy feat, so what inspired her to join the field of education?
“I chose it because I like socialising with children. When I was young, I used to do role play with my classmates and always acted as the teacher,” she says.
However, she says, if she didn’t have visual impairment, she would have ventured into other areas like medicine or law. Mukarwego chose education because like medicine or law, she felt it would also be a good way to help other people, especially those with disabilities, to pursue an education.
With modern day technology, Mukarwego says that teaching while visually impaired has been made easier, for instance, her laptop has a voice application that guides her.
“Whenever I am typing and I make a mistake, it informs me and I correct it. I make notes and use PowerPoint, then display them on the wall using a projector for the students to follow, as I follow my notes in braille,” she says.
“I lecture all students and not just those who are visually impaired,” she adds with a smile.
As a single mother to a 14-year-old girl, Mukarwego’s day-to-day struggles go beyond the classroom. She, however, travels with her daughter all the time and this has kept their relationship intact.
As far as work goes, the lecturer says that the lack of enough ‘friendly’ reading materials is a problem.
“With text books that are usually in print and marking students’ exams, I have to hire a reader as I mark and it’s expensive because I have to pay them and I don’t have an allowance for that. Otherwise, the struggle isn’t that much, the students are cooperative and they like me because they haven’t complained about my teaching. They pass very well,” she says proudly.
What her colleagues say about her
“She does her duties just like everyone else, including supervising students doing internship,” says Shantal Kabanga Dusabe, an assistant lecturer at the School of Education.
“Her close connection to her students and colleagues makes her a lovable woman,” she adds.
The Deputy Dean Dr Patrick Suubi, School of Inclusive and Special Needs Education says that after the idea of inclusive education, they decided to have Mukarwego teach all students regardless of whether they were visually impaired or not.
“Her ability to teach such a class will teach students a lesson or two about discrimination and inspire students who have the same condition like hers to take on anything they put their minds to,” he says.
As far as inspiration goes, Mukarwego is moved by the simpler things in life, like seeing most students with visual impairment, especially girls, progress academically, she says.
“Most of them drop out to deal with early pregnancy, among other problems. I want to see them educated and get a job to earn a living instead of just sitting back and looking at other people for support. I would love to see that happen to people with disabilities, to reach as far as they possibly can,” she says.
Emmanuel Mberimana, an assistant lecturer and resource room technician, has worked with Mukarwego for a year.
He says he has learned from her that disability is in many cases not an excuse and that when given materials, one can work better. “She has been an advocate for her students to get the required materials to aid their learning.”
But teaching isn’t all for Mukarwego. She is currently trying to venture into politics. This week, Mukarwego was on a countrywide campaign to contest for Member of Parliament - East African Legislative Assembly to represent people with disabilities in Rwanda.
“If I join, I will have the opportunity to look at what other East African countries do and see how such services can be brought to our country to meet the needs of persons with disabilities,” she said.
STUDENTS SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS
Mukarwego’s skills in linguistics coupled with her kind character makes her one of his favourite lecturers. She is easy to approach. Her education level and the fact that she has a PHD also motivates us to aim higher.
Having a lecturer who has vision impairment but is able to teach students who have normal sight is exemplary. We shouldn’t discriminate against the disabled, especially since we’ve seen first-hand that learning in an environment with the visually impaired gives us better knowledge of what they go through and how they respond to their different needs.
Additonal reporting by Donah Mbabazi