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Sightsavers Reports

Simon Peter: from child soldier to role model

January 2017
Simon Peter Otoyo smiles as he holds his son, 10-month-old Komagum Joshua, inside his home in Bweyale, Uganda.

Simon Peter Otoyo had just got back from school when the rebels of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army arrived in his village in northern Uganda.

They tied his hands behind his back and marched him, along with three of his brothers, to a rebel camp deep in the bush.

As a child soldier for the LRA, 11-year-old Simon Peter was given a gun and sent out to fight the government army. During a fierce battle in 1996, a bullet pierced his temple, shattering his skull and lodging behind his left eye, leaving him permanently blind. A decade later, he has turned his life around, and is now fighting to overturn attitudes towards the blind in Uganda.

“People see the blind as a burden,” said Simon Peter, sitting on a blue plastic chair outside his hut in the town of Bweyale. “They look at us like we are dirty, and they think we can’t work properly. But I wanted to show that disabled people can also be productive.”

Smashing stereotypes about blindness

After he was shot, Simon Peter spent the next 10 days in a coma. The rebels took him to various hospitals, but none of them would attempt to remove the bullet from behind his eye, so for the next nine years he endured intense pain as he moved with them from camp to camp in the borderlands between Uganda and Sudan, staying behind with the women and children when the men went off to fight.

Eventually, an ambush by the army offered him a way out. As missiles rained down on the rebels’ jungle base, Simon Peter made a run for it, sprinting blindly through the trees. A bullet smashed through his shin bone, but he kept going until the noise of the fighting died down. For three days he wandered through the wilderness using only his senses of hearing and touch, before he was found and taken to hospital.

Today, the 31-year-old has a full time job teaching knitting classes to students at the Amor Foundation Vocational Training Institute, enabling him to support his wife and 10-month-old son, and smashing stereotypes about visual impairments.

 

Simon Peter Otoyo teaching knitting to his students at Amor Foundation Vocational Training School in Bweyale, Uganda.
14%
of people in Uganda have a disability

According to 2014 census results, of its 34.6m population, 14 per cent of Ugandans over five years of age have a disability, with higher figures in rural areas. Despite more inclusive disability policies, a lack of data and statistics on the disabled makes the monitoring of and accountability for these policies very difficult. As a result insufficient attention and resources have been provided for people with disabilities, further limiting the services offered to them and the investments made in changing societal perceptions on disability.

Edith Kagoya, the coordinator of a Sightsavers project that aims to get young people with disabilities into employment, says the biggest challenge is changing community attitudes towards people with disabilities.

“Often, the community thinks that disabled people have been cursed,” she explains, adding that as a result, many find themselves either neglected by their families, or over-protected, denying them the opportunity to gain independence and learn how to navigate the world on their own. Many never finish school, and in a country with high unemployment across the board, the disabled find it especially difficult to secure a job.

Sightsavers’ Connecting the Dots programme, which is funded by the European Union, has trained more than 300 young people with disabilities in vocational skills such as carpentry, knitting and IT, before placing them in internships. It was through this project that Simon Peter learned his trade.

A green wallet containing knitting tools used by by Simon Peter Otoyo's students

Celebrations on graduation day

On a Monday in late November, Simon Peter arrived at his workplace amid wild celebrations to mark graduation day. Dressed immaculately in a light grey three-piece suit and guided by the hand by his younger brother, he embraced his students and chatted with his fellow teachers.

“At first I did not think he would be able to teach us anything,” said Awello Younes, a 16-year-old student at the Institute who has spent a year in Simon Peter’s knitting class. “My family asked me if it was true that a blind man can teach, and my brother even came here to see for himself.”

Now, Awello is making money by selling scarves and sweaters to local residents, to ward off the chilly nights of this part of Northwestern Uganda, and plans to continue knitting full time as a career.

Changing minds and attitudes

“I have worked hard to open the eyes of the community, to show them that the blind should be supported,” said Simon Peter. “We will change their minds, but we haven’t reached that point yet.”

Learning a skill, and then helping to pass it on to others, has helped Simon Peter to overcome the trauma of a decade spent in the bush with one of the world’s most brutal rebel groups.

“They trained us to use guns, and to abduct other children. They made us do things,” said Simon Peter. “But friendship, a good home, living well, all these things help me to move forward.”

The European Union and National Lottery logos.

The European Commission has funded the economic empowerment programme since 2012, and additional funding was awarded in August 2017 by the Big Lottery Fund. This generous support has helped to transform the lives of hundreds of young people with disabilities in Uganda.

Simon Peter Otoyo with one of his graduating students at Amor Foundation Vocational Training School in Bweyale, Uganda.

“Teaching helps me to forget what happened and move forward. No condition is permanent, and for the first time, I am free.”

Simon Peter Otoyo with one of his graduating students at Amor Foundation Vocational Training School in Bweyale, Uganda.

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