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Friday, January 21, 2011

Is blind Muhumuza's legal profession the next big thing?

He had to hire people to read for him sometimes, move him around and he came from remote Kanungu District, but Boaz Muhumuza overcame even taunts to top Makerere’s Law class, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza.

Boaz Muhumuza having a light moment with a friend
In the movie, The Great Debaters, James Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) says, education is the only way; “the way out of ignorance, the way out of darkness into the glorious light.”

To Mr Boaz Muhumuza, who was born without a silver spoon in the remote Kanungu District and lost his sight at the age of three, Whitaker’s words ring true. He surmounted poverty, prejudice and other debilitating issues and will this Friday graduate at the top of his Law class with a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of 4.21.

Beating 311 students in the most competitive and prestigious Humanities course at Makerere University is a stellar achievement, although the crown for best overall at the 61st graduation belongs to a female student, Ms Barbara Nansamba, who scored a CGPA of 4.9 in Computer Science.

In a course that is qualitative and analytical in nature; requiring students to cite several legal cases and quote accurately from endless legal works, and other complexities involved in making arguments, getting a First Class degree is rare.

As Human Rights and International Law lecturer, Mr Kabumba Busingye, says, “An Upper Second in Law is a very good achievement. Muhumuza also benefited from the concept of reasonable accommodation which gave him equal platform with other students.”

Mr Brian Bwesigye, a classmate, said: “Muhumuza’s brainpower is mesmerising. We all consulted him.”

But intelligence without diligence is like faith without works –it is useless. This much Mr Muhumuza recognised in primary five and set the goal of becoming a lawyer and toiled toward this fulfilment. He would have wept and wallowed in self pity following the teasing from fellow pupils at St. Helens Primary School, but nothing was going to obstruct or destruct him.

“I decided that anything a sighted person can do I can do,” he says. “I believe I’m ordinary, I believe in me!”

The believer became an achiever early on when he scored 11 aggregates in the Primary Leaving Examinations to join Iganga Secondary School, a girls’ school. He studied there for six years because the school has an annex for the blind. He learnt to use Braille, a writing system that enables people without sight to read by touch.

He excelled in O’level examinations, scoring 14 aggregates in eight subjects. He sat for UACE examinations in 2005, and beat Iganga District, with a whopping 25 points (4As) in History, Economics, Literature and Divinity and Credit 3 in General Paper. This earned him a government scholarship to study his dream course at Makerere University.

“Education for the blind is extremely expensive. The machine I use to write costs Shs2.5 million, a mere rim of papers costs me Shs70,000 and the software for my machine itself costs far more than a computer.” He adds: “Then you have to hire someone to read for you sometimes and to move around with. Then the negative attitudes here and there, but I refused to be drained by those.”

Mr Muhumuza was born with full sight but as a child suffered from a rare disease called retinoblastoma, a malignant tumor of the eye. It is was not painful, so by the time it was discovered, and the boy rushed to Mulago and Kenyatta University hospitals, it was too late. The last born in a family of 11, Muhumuza was showered with endless love.

“So I grew up thinking life is normal but later realised it was not so. Kids used to laugh at me, some people don’t think you are worth anything, so it was very challenging, but I was lucky, I’ve strong parents who care and took me to school.”

There’s no trace of resentment in his voice when he speaks about what it means growing up blind. He has accepted his situation so much that he does not long to regain his sight.

“My belief is that God does everything for a purpose,” he says jocularly. “If I was sighted, you would not be here covering this story, so I look at my being blind as a miracle in itself.”

A man of majestic physical stature, complete with a paunch, Muhumuza speaks contemplatively. His equanimity drifts into boy-like affability when he begins to speak about his love for soccer and good company.

“The English soccer bug has not spared me either, I support Arsenal and we’re taking it this time round,” he laughs. “I love dancing too, and one day you’ll catch me in a club having some wild times on the dance floor.”

Mr Muhumuza is pursuing a post-graduate diploma in legal-practice at the Law Development Centre.

“I have a passion for human rights,” he says. “I want to contribute all I can to create a perfect environment for people with disabilities; help them know their rights and benefit from the policies, laws and structures that there are.”

The son of Mr Pancrius Bazaara and Ms Florence Tibifumira has certainly proved that disability is not inability but ability and possibility. He has given meaning to Whitaker’s words in the movie that the education of the child is the most important job. Most of all, by letting his academic light shine, others can step out of the darkness and follow suit.

--Daily Monitor, Friday January 21, 2011

Anthony Ayebare has improved the lives of the Batwa

Fresh from school and torn between employment and humanitarianism, the then 23-year-old Ayebare chose the latter and brought a difference to the lives of the Batwa, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza.

After his university studies, Anthony Ayebare found himself on the crossroads: should he get a city job like many of his colleagues, or return to his rural village to help the vulnerable community there? After much contemplation, he took the road less travelled and as the famous Robert Frost poem says, “And that has made all the difference”.
A Batwa hut. Then Anthony with his mother
It has made the difference among the Batwa surrounding the Echuya Forest in Kabale District, where this 26-year-old hails. The Batwa, according to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, are pygmy people said to be the oldest recorded inhabitants of the Great Lakes region of central Africa. They are presently found in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda. In Kabale, Kanungu and Kisoro, the Batwa, now a significant minority, were driven out of their habitual forest lands of Bwindi and Echuya forests when they were made national parks. Homeless, they were forced to lurk around, suffering untold poverty, begging for a living, diseased, illiterate and stigmatised.

In 2007, Ayebare was impelled to reach out to them by founding the Global Batwa Outreach (GBO) to advocate for their rights, empower and help them find acceptance. “I grew up seeing them killed by mobs for petty offenses, saw them carry heavy loads of firewood to the Bakiga families in exchange for food, saw them work as guards on non-Batwa gardens, their children as herds boys. I didn’t question these practices because it appeared normal. Like many others, I thought the Batwa were like animals; what I saw was sub-human people who lived in the forest with wild animals.”

Ayebare sighs heavily and shakes his head: “People believed and still believe that the Batwa possess magical powers, a reason people, mostly in the Congo, believed eating them conferred magical powers onto them. When I developed a painful backache in 2004, I was advised to seek the magical powers of the Batwa to get healed.

It’s alleged that once one walks over a Mutwa while he or she is lying down, the backache gets cured. I needed to get cured, so I did walk over a child whose mom was my mother’s friend. I did not get cured; not only did the pain remain, it accelerated until I sought medical help. This pushed me into a world of questioning; I wanted to see any person claim they had gotten cured.

In a quest for answers, I landed on another disturbing brutal fact – the non Batwa elders had carefully crafted the backache myth as a way of getting free sex from Batwa women. Relying on the common misconception that sex helps get rid of backache and aware of the free availability of the Batwa women for sexual exploitation, they took advantage”. Such was the exploitation that existed, coupled with other injustices against the Batwa that broke my heart. I decided to do something.”

Just three years after the community-based organisation was founded, the welfare of the Batwa has improved and the way they are treated changed. Small-plot gardening and rearing chicken have not only had an entire Batwa school of about 130 pupils fed, but also come with some economic empowerment and good health to the parents and their hitherto malnourished children.

“We have started bee-keeping projects, given them dairy goats, pigs, plants, seeds, gardening tools, clothing, land and built them homes and toilets. But most significantly, we are educating the local community to accept the Batwa and treat them humanely,” says Ayebare.

Ugandan lawyer and human rights activist, Brian Bwesigye, after seeing what Ayebare has done for the underprivileged group, wrote on his Facebook page that, “Ayebare’s work in relation to the empowerment of the Batwa people can only be ignored by a deaf and blind man.”

But for this son of a primary school teacher and peasant mother, it has not been easy, considering the ridicule from some of his university colleagues who think he deserves better than “wasting” his future among pygmies. Local politicians too have not helped, but associate with GBO projects while campaigning, not forgetting some of the Batwa who would rather booze and abuse drugs than be helped. Ayebare has however soldiered on with the encouragement of his mother.

“While the rest of the community saw an opportunity to use the available cheap or free labour of the Batwa exploitatively,” he says, “My mother saw an opportunity to lend them land on a seasonal basis so they can plant crops.”

Ayebare threw a Christmas bash for over 430 Batwa families. His New Year resolution is to make operational the health centre that he has built to provide free healthcare to all Batwa.

This pragmatic Human Resource Management graduate of Makerere University may not have attained his childhood dream of becoming a catholic priest after studying at St Paul’s Seminary Rushoroza, but as the Executive Director of GBO, he’s doing a whole lot better shepherding the Batwa of south-western Uganda.

--Sunday Monitor, January 9, 2011