A woman who surmounted early childhood challenges and used an extraordinary opportunity for the wider good returns to the country of her birth, Rwanda, and becomes a beacon of hope for the visually impaired.
By DUSABEMUNGU Ange de la Victoire, bird news agency
Losing sight in both eyes at five, plucked from the place she called home and spirited to a unique school thousands of kilometres away, Dr Donatilla Kanimba would have good reason to have embraced a new life and the many successes she has experienced along the way to enrich herself. Instead, she has found her way “home”.
For the 62-year-old, the journey started in the “land of a thousand hills”.
The fifth child in a family of eight, Kanimba was born in Gisangara District in the Southern Province of Rwanda, but the family had to flee to Burundi when she was two, to escape the 1959 Rwanda civil war.
“I was born in Rwanda. When I was about two or three years old, my parents moved to Burundi as refugees,” Kanimba recalled in a recent interview.
When she lost her sight while in a refugee camp in Burundi, a benevolent couple working as Salvation Army Church missionaries among the refugees arranged for Kanimba to be sent to Kenya to attain an education.
Kanimba refers to the couple as the “two soldiers who fought for my education.” She is forever grateful to them, saying they gave her a chance in life.
In Kenya – where there are facilities for those with visual impairments – she was able to attend primary and secondary school and go to university. She graduated with degrees in Sociology and Governance graduate from the University of Nairobi.
But while she realised she was lucky to have had the opportunity to study, she kept worrying about the plight of those back “home”, who had nobody and no structures to support them. So she decided to take matters into her own hands, and change that.
When Kanimba finally returned to Rwanda, it was with a white cane in one hand and some assistants working with her. She may not have known it but she was embarking on a life-long journey to make life better for the visually impaired. The journey would not have been easy even for an able-bodied person – and Kanimba had little idea of what lay in store for her.
While at the university, she started engaging two Rwandan classmates with the idea of forming an organisation to help those with visual impairments. At first, they wanted to set up in Burundi—the country that had sheltered them as refugees.
“Well, as we grew older, we realised that this was not very feasible. First of all, maybe we’re not so very welcome in Burundi. And then it would be a very costly thing to start a school,” she explained.
“But we began thinking about having an organisation for blind people similar to what we had seen in Kenya; The Kenya Union of the Blind. Luckily, our dream became a reality when we met a former Rwanda Patriotic Front Army soldier who had lost sight and was keen to help other blind people in Rwanda.”
After graduating from the university in 1980, she started working with the Kenya Union for the Blind as the women’s programmes coordinator. Here she built skills that would become crucial later on.
During this period, together with her former classmates, and with assistance from the former soldier, they got to work on starting an organisation that would work with the government to help the visually impaired people in Rwanda. That vehicle would be the Rwanda Union of the Blind, or RUB.
“We came up with this idea, specifically so that the Rwanda Union of the Blind would be the voice of blind people to influence government policies and programmes to ensure that blind people also receive all of their rights and services, the same as other citizens’ she said.
In 1995 Kanimba got to do what she had long dreamed of. She managed to found the Rwanda Union of the Blind and two years later, completed a circle in her life, moving back to the land of her birth, to run it.
“It is some years after graduating at the Nairobi University, I managed to return to Rwanda to run the Rwanda Union of the Blind, which we had established some two years before I came,” she said.
“The first thing I did after we formed Rwanda Union for the Blind was to look around for blind people in their local communities, to see how they live…we went around the countryside asking them to for our first meeting.”
From 1995 to date, the Union has been able to bring together about 3,000 visually impaired members and extended support to over 10,000 others across the country.
A survey by the union shows that there are an estimated 57,000 persons with visual impairment in Rwanda, an indication of the need for more support.
Kanimba argued that since its inception, RUB has been a catalyst for public awareness and the empowerment of people living with disabilities, especially those with visual impairment. One area of improvement has been education – the springboard without which she herself would never have been able to provide assistance to others with impairments.
“There are many things that I can say I am very proud of, especially as the founder of the Rwanda Union of the Blind and as the one who has been running this organisation for nearly the last 25 years. First of all, now, it is the usual thing, all learners with visual impairment who have been in school now sit all the national exams to proceed to the next level like others,” she said.
“When I started, that was not the case. The belief was that there was no need to give an exam to learners with visual impairment before the end of primary school because they would not manage to go to secondary education. But now, they sit exams and progress into secondary school up to university.”
And looking back at the 25 years since setting foot in the land of her ancestors she hardly knew, she is happy that her mission to empower the visually impaired people has been such a phenomenal success.
Kanimba said her accomplishments were in large part due to her early learning. She used her sociology and governance skills to grow the institution she founded and modelled it along the lines of the Kenya Union of the Blind – ensuring it became a beacon of hope for the visually impaired.
Her empathy, she said, was not because she was similarly visually impaired but because, unlike her, those her organisation assisted had little or no opportunities in life, due to the lack of support structures.
Empowerment of the visually impaired, Kanimba explained, enabled them to not only compete for employment opportunities like everybody else but also to overcome stigma, neglect, and other forms of trauma. Some even no longer rely on support.
“We have many who are employed because they have the required qualifications to be in the employment, we have some even who have obtained the master’s degree. We now have several blind people who are in (a) social stratum that means that they are not at that level where they must be supported by the government.”
“That is because we have trained them to be independent and resilient. They are engaged in economic work at the local level, most of them engaged in farming, and some of them doing other work outside of farming. We have introduced vocational training, and we have some self-employed people who are also employing other people who have no disabilities.”
Ntawiha Marie Chantal, a graduate working at RUB, credits the union’s support and public awareness initiatives for her successes.
“Before the establishment of RUB, visually impaired persons could not even reach the secondary school level. Most of them were only supposed to finish their studies at the primary level,” she said, pointing out that advocacy for inclusive education was a crucial first goal of the organisation.
“At the time, we were not less capable academically, we had skills, but the main obstacle was the society’s mindset on visually impaired persons,” Chantal says.
Sévérin Ingabire, a graduate of the former Kigali Institute of Education, concurs with those sentiments.
“After the 1994 Genocide, there were advocacy efforts to allow visually impaired persons to do the National examinations,” adds Ingabire.
“Many people could not understand our ability to do the exams, it was in December 1995 that through RUB’s advocacy that persons with visual impairment were allowed to sit for the national school primary leaving exam,” said Ingabire, who works with the National Union of Disability Organisations of Rwanda (NUDOR) and also serves as an adviser of the Board of the Rwanda Union of the Blind.
Ingabire noted that while empowerment of the visually impaired has not been an easy journey, the government has since done a lot to create space for visually impaired persons to exercise their rights.
Kanimba is herself proof that the future for the visually impaired in the region looks promising. From 2018 to 2021, she served as the president of the World Blind Union, and during those years, used her position to further the plight of visually impaired people across the region as well as globally.
“When we have reached a point where the boss is the blind person, I feel very proud,” she said. “We have gone beyond the situation of being maskini ya mungu (helpless people).”
“I was given a chance in life, and I too will try to give others with visual impairment a chance in life… that is my mission,” she concluded.
bird story agency