Imagine studying entirely through sign language, especially when you are doing a course that requires a lot of attention. This is the kind of life Harunah Damba lives.
As I approach Damba’s hall of residence, Lumumba, at Makerere University, he smiles and waves at me to easily identify him. Since he is able to speak, he greets me, though he is very low and calls for attention to understand what he is trying to communicate.
Not sure how to reply in sign language, I raise my thumb up to tell him I am okay. And as we chat using text messages, I realise his passion for helping people with special needs.
While growing up, Damba, a third-year student of Medical Laboratory Technology at Makerere University, had big dreams, but misfortune befell him sometime in his Senior One. It is from this long illness that he ended up becoming deaf and disabled.
He had to drop out of school for five years, but after encouragement from his parents and charitable organisations, he felt there was need to go back to school.
Damba says at 15, he fell sick and got bedridden for three years. It all started with a pain in his knee which he thought was an injury he sustained as he played football. But this was not the case. He first spent two years in hospital, but with no sign of improvement, his parents decided to take him back home.
“My parents were perturbed, but they had no choice but to take me back home. I spent three years being treated using local herbs by a medicine woman who said that my parents blundered by referring me to hospital for management since my illness did not require injection,” he says as we communicate through text messages.
Following the illness, Damba started getting complications. He says it all started with his left ear. He started getting difficulty hearing, then the problem shifted to right ear, and soon he became deaf.
While in his O-Level at Mukono (Muslim) Comprehensive Senior Secondary School, Damba served as a prefect, but in A-Level books became more demanding and he could not balance books and leadership. He chose academics.
Since interpreters are expensive, while in secondary school his fellow students would interpret for him.
“I offered BCM/ICT while in secondary school. I was the overall best student with 15 points and I am currently government-sponsored. This comes along with an interpreter,” he says.
But he says this comes with challenges as lecturers do not give them extra time since they are taught like the other students.
Passion for leadership
And it was while at university that he rediscovered his passion for leadership.
“I refused my disability from stopping me from realising my dreams. Being disabled, knowing my abilities, I had to utilise my abilities to achieve my dreams and also impact change on other people like me who had lost confidence in themselves,” he says.
In his second year at Makerere University, he was elected guild representative for persons with disability (PWD). He is currently minister for PWDs at the Makerere University guild cabinet.
“Leadership is full of criticism and intrigue, though I pushed hard. The challenges have been my stepping stone for better horizons. In life you have to be strong, to gain what you need despite criticism,” Damba says.
Damba adds that when he joined Makerere he found disunity between the various disability groups which he says blocked them from collectively fighting for their rights.
“I found that, for example, the blind never used to be in good terms with the deaf. So there was no unity,” Damba says.
After joining university politics, he focused on introducing inclusive activities that would bridge the gap between PWDs and other students.
Damba says they engaged the PWDs in community outreaches and preached to them the need for unity.
With unity, he says, they have been able to make some gains such as improvement of sanitation in halls of residence and adopting friendly environments for PWDs like building of ramps.
Damba also says most times people with special needs such as the disabled, albinos and deaf, among others, tend not to engage themselves in social activities because of some perceptions people have about them.
He says he has encouraged them to engage in inclusive activities such as sports and drama which has resulted in a number of students with disabilities actively participating in university programmes.
Damba says he has also engaged different stakeholders such as the American Embassy, Russian-based organisations and government in fighting for PWDs rights.