A world in their fingers

The garage that Minah Maubane has turned into a classroom is cold and dark. Only one small window reluctantly allows the bright light of midday to filter in, settling on the rectangular table where Maubane and her five learners are working hard. The lack of light does not hinder them. Everyone in the room is blind.

Under Maubane’s supervision the members of a group have started to learn Braille, which will provide them re-entry into a world they all knew when they could see. For many, losing their eyesight brought with it an isolation from the written word that they miss.

Maubane’s classroom, at her house in Block A, Mabopane, northwest of Pretoria, is one of 101 sites that have been set up across South Africa to reach out to the estimated 200 000 illiterate blind and visually impaired people. This has been done as part of the government’s Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign, now in its second year of implementation.

As with all of the volunteer educators who are teaching Braille, Maubane is blind. She became blind when she was just five years old. But being part of the disabled community made it easier for her to recruit the learners around the table.

There is Thomas Mokwena, his silvery hair confirming his 76 years of age. Despite losing his sight after contracting glaucoma in 2000, he appears to have embraced the role of classroom joker. A quiet Joyce Zondamela (50) wears a white Orlando Pirates beanie as she focuses on the task at hand. She went blind in 2002, but does not know why. Dreamer Sophie Seopa (57) lost her sight after a brain tumour was removed. She hopes that conquering Braille will mark the the start of a long learning path. Elsie Mashigo (64) does not say a word. She is concentrating too earnestly on the task at hand. She has been blind since 1990. But she’s determined to master Braille. The last learner in the class is Alfred Maubane, Maubane’s husband, whose partial sight is the result of high blood pressure.

“I met them [the learners] a while back during an income-generating project that involved making a detergent,” says Maubane.

“When I heard about Kha Ri Gude I visited them and explained that they could come to school,” says the 46-year-old, who was educated up to matric level at a special school for blind learners in Limpopo.

The learners join Maubane on Mondays and Wednesdays for two lessons a week. Each lesson is about five hours. As a blind volunteer educator Maubane could appoint a sighted person to help her with administration tasks, such as keeping a register and mapping learners’ progress.

Her daughter, Herminah, stepped into this role, but her older daughter, Renilwe, also helps. Displaying the heart and soul that seems to drive so many of those involved in the Kha Ri Gude campaign, Maubane has given Renilwe the task of using the family’s Combi to pick up the learners from their doorsteps in nearby Soshanguve and return them after class.

Maubane prepares a meal for the learners to sustain their concentration levels for the lessons.

Mokwena and his classmates realise that without their teacher’s willingness to get them to class, they would not be able to participate.

“I said to myself one day I will go to university,” says Zondamela. It may take some time. A new medium for reading and writing has to be mastered first.

‘waking up’ the fingers
First you have to “wake up” the fingers to make sense of the six-dot configuration that defines Braille as a medium for reading and writing. If diabetes has eroded the feeling in the nerve endings of the fingerstips this can be difficult.

The first learning tools are unexpectedly familiar: the grey-green cardboard containers used to house a half a dozen eggs and six ping pong balls. By placing the balls in the different holes of the holder, learners can begin to create the ABC of Braille.

Once the first challenge is conquered, learners’ fingers have to navigate across a punctured landscape the size of an A4 sheet of paper. They take shiny pins from their plastic containers and stick them into the holes of the Braillette board to build the alphabet. The challenge is to be able to follow the line with a finger and feel the variation of the six holes that make up one letter.

“They battled in the first month,” says Maubane. “But now they are coping.”

Eventually, Maubane’s class will be able to read Braille and write in their mother tongue.

Each of the learning sites where the blind and visually impaired attend lessons were given five Perkins Braillers, which look like oversize typewriters. The Perkins Braillers allow learners to write in Braille. They also received talking calculators as well as literacy and numeracy books in Braille. Although their ability to read and write will be limited to Braille, it will provide them with the critical foundation to access other means of communication available to blind people, such as computers.

Overcoming cost hurdles
At present there are about 700 visually impaired learners enrolled in the Kha Ri Gude campaign. Though it’s a start, it is far off the estimated target of 200 000, who were left on the fringes of society because of inadequate schooling facilities for the blind and societal stigma that continues to keep the visually impaired from being given learning opportunities.

Dr Obert Maguvhe, Kha Ri Gude director for special needs, who has been seconded to the national department of education with the permission of the South African National Council for the Blind for the duration of the campaign, says mobilising blind learners is a challenge.

“The blind population is not concentrated in one area. They are scattered. To find and recruit them was difficult. In some instances the classes are too small,” he says.

Maguvhe is calling on communities to contact the department of education if they know of disabled learners who may want to enrol for the Kha Ri Gude campaign.

Despite this challenge, the inclusion of blind and other disabled learners into the Kha Ri Gude campaign has secured vital resources. A Braille embosser (a machine that prints in braille) — one of only two in South Africa to print Braille materials in large volumes — has been acquired. The ability of the campaign to produce its own in-house Braille materials has meant a significant cost-saving.

Similarly, the Perkins Braillers, which cost R4 200 each, provide blind learners with critically needed tools to further their education and enrich their lives. The cost of these resources and their subsequent scarcity might explain the dearth of learning opportunities for visually impaired people.

But despite the costliness of teaching blind learners, the campaign still runs on a per capita cost of only R680. And as part of the overall campaign budget the cost is negligible, but the impact enormous.

Maguvhe is positive that the campaign will make a difference in the lives of thousands of disabled people.

“I hope that we will make as many blind people as possible literate. The other outcome I am hoping for is that those who are literate will be able to continue their studies and even create their own jobs. Finally, perhaps as the cherry on top, I would like to see one of these people who started out on this campaign go up to matric, even university,” he says.

One only has to spend a few minutes in Maubane’s garage in Mabopane to realise that what Maguvhe is hoping for is already happening.

For more information about enrolling disabled learners, contact the department on fax 086 576 9377

Meaningful strides in literacy

The government’s mass literacy campaign, Kha Ri Gude, was launched in April last year and has reached 357 195 people.
Taught by 30 761 volunteer teachers, two-thirds of them younger than 35, the learners have been taught to read, write and do basic maths up to a level equivalent to grade three.

An assessment of learners’ competencies, verified by the national department of education and the South African Qualifications Authority, found that 87% of the learners passed the literacy component and 86% passed numeracy. Women scored better in both areas than men. But apart from the educational gains of the campaign this far — and evidence that with proper systems, delivery is possible — Kha Ri Gude has contributed to poverty alleviation.

The second year of the campaign, which aims to reach 4,7-million South Africans by 2012, started last month with 620 000 learners.

Numbers increased despite a budgetary cut from R480-million to R436-million. Steps that were taken to ensure that the campaign still enrolled adequate numbers to reach the 2012 target included:

  • A reduction in the per capita cost from R1 362 to R680;
  • Increasing the class sizes from one educator for every 15 learners to 1:18;
  • Changes to the materials, which include a slight reduction in size, a different bind and cheaper printing processes; and
  • The in-house embossing of Braille materials for blind learners.

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