It is a Thursday evening, roughly about 5pm. The weather is cold as the rain just stopped. I am at the boda boda stage of Nsambya, Kevina, a suburb located in the outskirts of Kampala, waiting for Sumin Nanyonjo.
She calls me asking what I am wearing so as to easily idenfify me. “A blue blouse with a black and white coloured knee length skirt,” is my response.
Moments later, a lady who is smiling walks up to me and asks, “Esther”? I nod in approval. “Hoping I did not make you stand for long?” she inquires. Calmly, I respond, “No, you did not,” Nanyonjo then leads me to her salon which is a very short distance away from the stage. It is about a five minutes’ walk.
I am specifically going to see her younger sister, Aisha Bahati, who works with her.
Bahati is not your ordinary hairdresser, she is blind. As soon as we arrive, my attention immediately focuses onto the smartly dressed woman in a colourful kitenge standing behind the counter at the entrance whose hair is neatly tied in a bun.
She is sewing a hair weave onto a woman’s head using the needle. Nanyonjo right away lets her know that we have arrived. The woman in return conveys her greetings and introduces herself as Bahati.
She tells Nanyonjo to take over the hairdressing before carefully walking to the end of the room and pulling out two white coloured plastic chairs.
The room, or rather salon, is like a cubicle of sorts. It is very tiny.
Just as our conversation kicks off, I notice that Bahati’s eyes only bear the brown pigment.
I can hardly see the pupils. My inquisitiveness draws me to my first question, do you see anything?
“I can only see white light. But if you extended an object near my eyes, I may be able to identify what it is by the colour,” she says.
She asks that I extend any particular object of my choice near her eyes so that she can identify it for me.
I draw my phone and headsets closer and she manages to disclose not only their identity but colours as well. Both are black. It is just amazing how she does it. Just one glimpse and bang! She has the answer.
How she lost her eyesight
Bahati was only seven years old when she lost her eyesight.
Her encounter with an expired drug administered at a clinic in Jinja when she suffered fever dealt her this blow.
Her body started to develop small swellings. She was admitted at the same health care centre for about two months before being discharged.
“Life went on normally until one month later, my eyes started itching uncontrollably. The pain was too much as well,” she says, adding, “And during the days that followed, I slowly began to lose my sight.”
She was then taken to Father John’s HealthCare Centre in Tororo for examination.
Despite the fact that several tests were done, the doctors there failed to diagnose the problem with her eyes.
“At this point in time, I think I had already gone blind,” she says.
For a moment, Bahati pauses and takes in a deep breath. It is as if she is letting the bad memory sink in. On what she remembers feeling right after the discovery that she would not be able to see again, the 20-year-old says she was too young to understand anything at the time.
“I was only a child and it was very difficult for me to know that I had lost my vision. I went on with life normally as if nothing had happened,” she says.
In order to ensure that she received the best care and attention, Fatuma Kikuno, her mother, decided to take her out of school. Bahati was in Primary Three at Top Care Primary School located in Jinja. Kikuno decided to enrol her for homeschooling instead.
The teaching was done by different family members including Bahati’s mother, siblings and friends. They themselves taught her how to read and write. Bahati who is the last born has nine other siblings. Her father is Asad Kikuno.
“I guess the reason why I learnt how to do most of the things on my own was because of their supportive and caring nature. They often reminded me that there was nothing impossible that I could not do on this earth,” she says with a smile.
My sister’s keeper
Her sister Nanyonjo, 23 years old, is the second last born. The two sisters who both left Jinja District and moved to the city in 2010 to start up the salon business have had a very close relationship right from a very tender age.
“We are very close to one another. Wherever I go, I make sure that I take Bahati with me,” Nanyonjo says.
As much as Bahati has learnt to do most of the things by herself, Nanyonjo says she only comes in when needed. In terms of character, Nanyonjo describes her sister as very stubborn.
“She is such a lively person who likes making fun,” she states.
Right about at this point, Robinah Nantongo, the customer whose weave has just been completed by Nanyonjo, breaks her silence by stating that Bahati is not only a very interesting person, but also a skilled hair dresser.
“I always come to her to work on my hair because I know what she’s doing. She is an expert at doing all sorts of hairstyles,” Nantongo discloses.
In addition to her hair dressing trade, she can weave sitting mats, make sisal baskets and sing. Some of the songs she has recorded include Akwagala and Gwenaloda.
“I am doing all this as a way of showing an example to the rest of the visually impaired persons out that everything is possible. You just need to change your mentality by having a positive mindset,” she says.
On what ticks her off, Bahati says it is when people pity her after discovering that she is blind. “I do not like it when they feel sorry for me. I want to be taken like everyone else,” she says.
In fact, Bahati says that is why she never tells people about her condition. They discover about her blindness on their own.
A bright future
Her desire is to see again. And she says it is only possible if she comes up with about Shs200 million that is needed for an eye surgery in India.
“The doctors I have previously visited say that my eyes need to be cleaned and that the operation is only possible in India. I have not been able to come up with such money because it is a lot,” she says, adding “However, if there is any person out there willing to help, I will be most grateful.”
In the meantime, Bahati is looking for associates whom she can partner with to construct a school for the physically handicapped.
“I really want to motivate other individuals who are in a similar state or even worse. The best way of achieving this objective is by reaching out to them through putting up an educational institutional specifically intended for catering for their needs,” she says.
Bahati also longs for love, she hopes that God blesses her with a very decent man for a husband in the near future.
“Most of the men are womanisers who love deceiving women. They come and tell you that they love you today and tomorrow, they disappear. Some have a tendency of not wanting to show you off because they are ashamed of you. It is not a fair thing to do to women,” she says.
She believes a man who is interested in her must make it official by marrying her first.
“That way, I will know that he loves and treasures me and is simply not taking me for granted,” she concludes.
Nothing is impossible
Bahati gives some tips on how a disabled person can attain success
Learn to do things for yourself.
Over depending on others for help is doing a disservice to yourself because those people will not always be there to assist you.
Have this mentality that you can do all things. Everything is possible. You just have to change the mentality.
It is something my mother and sisters used to tell me and that it’s what has pushed me on to date.
Find something small you can do rather than begging from people.
Finally, to the people who look after the physically disabled persons, do not hide or isolate them. Let them explore the world. Teach them the ways of the world.
The magical hands of a blind hairdresser
Besides weaves, Bahati can plait braids, corn rows, dreadlocks among others. It is something she learnt even before becoming blind.
“I used to have a doll with long hair that I would practice on. And even when I lost my vision, I did not lose my spirit. I continued training myself until when I learnt very well,” she says, “Mummy and Nanyonjo also helped with the hair dressing lessons.”
As time went on, some of the locals including school going children and mothers who were staying around Jinja started letting her to plait their hair.
“Most loved the work I did and that is why they would recommend other people to me as well,” she says.
Lately, Bahati has also learnt how to relax hair.
Miss Tourism Independent
Bahati proudly states that so far, she has at least one notable acknowledgement to her name. At the finale of Miss Tourism that transpired on August 28, at the Kampala Serena Hotel, she was crowned Miss Tourism Independent.
“I was y scouted, recognised and awarded by Tourism minister, Maria Mutagamba, for showcasing exceptional talent and skills in hairdressing and singing despite my disability,” she says.
At the end of the night, Mutagamba also awarded her with a cash prize of Shs200,000.