Mbathio walks through the sandy schoolyard, arm in arm with her best friend Khady.
Around them, the yard is noisy, bustling and lively, with children playing in the glare of the midday sun. A typical school scene, except that Mbathio and Khady are two of 18 blind children that attend the school. A further 41 are visually impaired.
Four years ago this school in Dakar started educating blind and visually impaired children alongside other children in their community – it’s just one of three schools in Dakar involved in this pilot project run by Sightsavers and the Senegalese government. Crucially, the project is also working towards changing perceptions within the local community that blind children are unable to learn.
“Sometimes people at school can be mean, but the other children are usually very kind to us,” says Mbathio. A shy, quiet girl, she is fiercely bright and excels at maths. She is neat, tidy and methodical, and uses a Braille board and box of pins to help with her lessons. Before she was able to attend the school she would spend most of her time at home, but now she has career aspirations and would one day like to work in an office.
Aliouné Ba is a teacher at the school. On top of his busy day job, he also volunteers as an itinerant teacher four evenings a week, helping the blind students by visiting them in their homes to give additional support. He’s a quiet, softly spoken man, but when we start talking about Mbathio it’s easy to see just how important his work is to him.
“People who think blind children don’t deserve education are ignorant,” he says. “The behaviour change in these pupils since starting school is extraordinary. Mbathio used to have to be accompanied to school but now she walks there independently every day. She has integrated into the school fully, she plays the same games as the others and participates in activities such as school gardening. You simply cannot tell by looking which children are blind.”
Aliouné recalls one incident. “A few years ago, somebody put rocks on the road so Mbathio would trip over them as she walked to school,” he says. He stops and looks away; it’s pretty obvious that the memory still makes him angry. “It made us realise there was a sector of the population that did not accept blind children being in education.
“We have worked hard to educate the community as a whole and to remove the stigma and taboo attached to blind children being in school, and I believe that attitudes have changed a lot. Now, a community centre provides food for the blind children at lunchtime, and many other children, parents and teachers are advocates for educating children with disabilities.”
Back at the family home, Mbathio’s uncle Omar – an imam who is head of the large household – tells us that his niece is also partially deaf, suffers frequently with headaches and sometimes finds conversation difficult. “Mbathio always said she wanted to go to school and learn, but she never thought it was possible. She has changed a lot since going to the inclusive school. She is more intelligent and self sufficient. She goes outside and does things on her own and she is more confident. She can do all the things that other people can.”
“I have seen many changes in recent years,” he continues. “Before, everyone thought that all blind people just begged. But now they know it is possible for blind people to learn, and see that they have potential. The school has really made a difference. It is time for more people to change their views.”
The change in the community has been remarkable. This isn’t just about how a few students’ lives improved because they were given access to education – although that alone would have made the project worthwhile – it’s about how a change in a few students’ lives can have incredible knock-on effects on families and communities, combating prejudice and reducing discrimination and injustice.
We caught up with Mbathio in 2019 – she’s still going strong at school, has gained confidence and passed her exams. She’s now attending college, and we asked her a few questions to see how she’s been getting on.
How have you found the last few years of school?
“I am enjoying my new school. I am also very pleased to be here with many of my former classmates from primary. I also have new ones who accepted me right away, and helped me through everything. My favourite subjects are French and English.”
How do you feel about the future?
“I am very confident. I want to be a teacher because it is very rare to find a blind teacher. I can help people.”
Do you have any words of advice for other young people with visual impairments or other disabilities?
“My young brothers and sisters, I urge you to believe in your studies.”