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"Providing tools for living and learning for blind young people in Africa"

 

A Brief History of Blindaid Africa

Blindaid Africa is a small family-based charity, the aim of which, is to provide the tools for learning and living for blind young people in Africa. Material goods only, are sent for that purpose. Medical care or financial support cannot be offered within our terms of reference. The sole mandate of Blindaid Africa is to provide equipment which facilitates learning and improves the quality of life for blind young Africans.

In 1994, in her capacity as transcriber for Sight Savers International, Rosalie Lees became aware of the plight of blind students in several African countries, those which had formerly been British colonies. These young people were writing asking to be provided with basic equipment essential to their education, namely cassette recorders and blank tapes, with which to record lessons and take notes. Sight Savers International are not mandated to help in this way. Rosalie asked for, and received permission to intervene. She started by sending three tape recorders which had been lying unused in her house since her own family had upgraded to compact disk players. When letters of thanks and further requests arrived from the Republic of Cameroon, and Zimbabwe, friends and neighbours also donated their used machines and the operation now known as Blindaid Africa was established and became well recognised in the local community.

As more requests arrived, it became possible to identify some of the schools where the recorders were in use, and deal directly with the head teachers. For the first few years help was sent mainly to a school and hospital in Kumbo, in the Republic of Cameroon, and also to the Margaretha Hugo School for the blind in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Special projects were organised for each, funded by jumbleMargaretha Hugo School, Zimbabwe sales and weekly bake sales at St. Hugh’s Catholic Church in Radstock.

Before long, the value of small portable typewriters which were being discarded in England in favour of word processors, became evident, and they were sent as well as audio equipment. Typewritten exercises and examination papers can be read alongside those of sighted students. This avoids the problems caused not only by lack of braille paper but also the extra time needed to write braille laboriously with a hand frame and stylus, and then for examiners to transcribe and mark it.

Communication with Africa is often slow and inefficient - a brailled letter sent by an African student using Free Post for the Blind, may take as long as two months to reach England. When contact was made with teachers who send air-mail letters, communication improved and more specific needs were made known. The main need was to make school texts and prescribed books available in forms accessible to blind pupils. Braille books are much too bulky and expensive and it rapidly became apparent that recorded books on cassette tapes were the best alternative, even at the cost of supplying cassette recorders. Literature is widely studied and includes English classics such as Shakespeare and Dickens as well as African authors. The works of English authors are readily available here on tape, and African literature written in English is now being recorded in England, Malawi and Zimbabwe by volunteer readers. Several different history texts as well as biology and English language courses have been recorded and added to the extensive Blindaid Africa library of recorded books. All tapes sent are labelled in braille as well as print.
Strong ties developed with the increasing volume of letters arriving from the blind students, telling of their academic successes, their lifestyle and their hopes for the future. Teachers wrote to tell us that the audio books were as useful for the sighted children in the class and helped to create a unified and enjoyable teaching environment. Blind students wrote from Zimbabwe telling of how the simple gift of a radio-cassette player had gained friends for them and changed their lives.

In addition to listening to Dickens and Shakespeare,their classmates also gathered around them in their spare time. With the availability of increasing funds, more leisure activities are now possible. Adapted games, Salima school students with a football. audible footballs, and musical instruments are in all of the schools.

With the passing of time, increasing numbers of students supported by Blindaid Africa have successfully completed their schooling and some have qualified for vocational or tertiary education, and new schools have applied for assistance. There is an ever increasing need for such basic equipment, at the same time as the essential tape recorders, tapes and small manual typewriters are rapidly becoming superceded in England by more sophisticated technology. The time may soon be coming when these things cannot easily be replaced. It has also become apparent that the distribution and use of material sent to Africa must be strictly controlled, especially as such items as radio-cassette recorders have a ready market in African countries and are a temptation to teachers and others on inadequate salaries.