A blind lawyer defending human rights

Sunday August 6 2017

Florence Ndagiri glad to have become the lawyer

Florence Ndagiri glad to have become the lawyer she dreamed about in her childhood. Photo by Alex Esagala. 

By Amos Ngwomoya

Her deep sharp voice coupled with a good command of English could compel passersby to stop and turn their heads. At just 29 years of age, she is one of the Ugandan female blind lawyers who have cut their niche in defending human rights. I met Florence Ndagire at a restaurant having lunch. Her bright smile could not go unnoticed. She exchanged pleasantries, reminding my colleague and I that she is also a good story teller. “I like engaging people so that I can know more about them,” she says.

An alumna of Makerere University and University of Leeds UK where she studied bachelor of laws and a master of laws respectively, Ndagire currently works at the United Nations as a Legal researcher on special rapporteurs on disability in Geneva.

The third born in the family of six, Ndagire is also the Chairperson of the United Nations Women regional group of East and Southern Africa where she heads 12 countries.
“I am a full woman because I have a happy marriage with lovely children, a sweet man and a reputable career. Despite being blind, I have made a difference,” she says proudly.

Nursing the dream
In Primary Four, Ndagire used to enjoy listening to a TV show where Francis Bbale hosted Francis Ayume, former Attorney General and Speaker of Parliament.
Although she cannot recall the name of the programme, Ndagire says the programme tackled issues crippling the country.
“Ayume made me realise that law was the best profession. He spoke with a lot of confidence and brilliance. Hence, I focused on becoming a lawyer and thank God, here I am.”
It was not a rosy road for Ndagire. Despite her being admitted to Makerere University to study law on government bursary, her father, Francis Kayizi insisted that she studies a bachelor of education.
“My father argued that because of my visual disability, people would not accord me respect despite the repute that lawyers have. I managed to convince him and I went to pursue my dream course,” she says.

Growing up
Born blind in the village of Nkonkonjeru, Buikwe District, Ndagire’s mother, Joyce Nabinaka, taught her to do domestic chores, saying it would shield her from being dependent.
She dreamt of a better future because her family was always in a financial dilemma.
When Ndagire started school at Bishop Wills Primary School, Iganga, life was never the same.
“Life at school was hard but I wanted to prove to the world that even blind people can make it in life. Due to my humble character and love for the others, I was loved in turn and I became a darling to many,” she says.
Then came a nightmare of learning how to use a Perkins-brailler, a typewriter which writes dots which are read using one’s fingers.

One of her teachers, Sr Anne Mary, dedicated more time to Ndagire. She says that she managed to do her class examinations and PLE in braille. She scored aggregate 8.
“When I joined secondary school, subjects like mathematics required drawing graphs and it was difficult. At A’ level, economics has some topics that have graphs but I could not draw them. It was quite a challenge,” she recalls.
Throughout our interview, she often demonstrates how she usually types and sends mail while at work. She would do it fast, with a mastery of the keyboard, by properly punctuating the sentences.
During her studies at campus, she got many friends who would discuss for her and get her recordings of lecturers and she would listen to them to comprehend a particular topic. She singles out Jane Nanteza and Priscilla Akello.
She was lucky that in her first year, she later got a Laptop and installed a Job access with screen reader software (Jaw) which reads the letters as she types.

“During exams, the lecturer would read me the questions and after, I would start typing answers on my computer while wearing headsets. My work would then be printed for marking. At times, I would even finish just before others.”
Once in a while, Ndagaire hired someone to read to her the Constitution especially if her friends were busy. She says her friends would also wash and cook for her. She believes in the notion that a good lawyer is the one who knows where the law is or how to find the law.
However, studying law did not deprive her of the right to entertainment as she would go to night clubs and have fun.
With the intellect she exhibited, her fellow course mates elected her as their Guild Representative Council (GRC) and while there, she confronted the President Museveni during one of the strikes and asked him to scarp the retake fee which the University had increased to Shs 240,000.
“I told his guards that they were at liberty to shoot me as long as I had a genuine reason to meet the president. He listened to me and he ordered the then Vice-chancellor, Prof.Livingstone Luboobi to scrap the fee,” she recalls.
Ndagire attributes her managerial skills to the experience she gained in leadership while at campus.

First Job
Her first job was at the Uganda Society for the Disabled Children in 2009 as a researcher. “Despite being blind, my bosses were impressed by my competence. I was good at writing proposals and my research work was always impressive. When I resigned for another job, they were disappointed,” she says. Her next job was as a researcher, at Light for the World, an organisation that is based in Netherlands but also has branches in Uganda.
“It’s from here that I met my husband John Mary Nsimbi in 2009. He used to tell me that he admired my brilliance and hard work.” Ndagire was Nsimbi’s supervisor. Although she thought it was unbelievable for a blind person to get married to a man with normal vision, she later realised that the man was serious. They first became friends until he proposed to her on an outing.

“My husband is sweet and I love him some much because he loves me too. We trust each other and that is how we have managed to keep moving on. Although we are separated by our places of work, he always flies to Netherlands to check on me”

Achievements and challenges
Ndagire criticises employers for ignoring the rights of the disabled, saying that it leaves them isolated. When she had just completed university, she reveals that many employers refused to give her a job because of her impairment even when she had passed the interviews.
While at work in Geneva, she relates with different people. Ndagire says that being a woman comes with challenges as some men at work make sexual advances.

In five years from now, she says she will be an advocate of human rights. If an opportunity knocks, she would work at the International Disability Alliance.

Free time
While in Uganda at her home in Buwambo, Mpererwe, she does some farming. She says that she can cook if she wishes or if the maid is not around. She reads different Law books, sings in church or skips to keep physically fit. She also enjoys sitting with her son and daughter when they are watching cartoons to show them love.
“When my husband returns, we go out and have fun. We love our children so much and we want to give them the best in life”