How Wambuga lost sight but gained hope

Wambuga walks with aid. Photos | Promise Twinamukye

What you need to know:

  • Dream come true. As we celebrated the International Day of People with Disabilities yesterday, Joshua Wambuga’s story cannot go untold. Wambuga lost his vision, but is on the road to optimism after losing sight, writes Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi.

Every morning, Joshua Wambuga would imagine driving to Jinja, Mayuge, Malaba and Busia. But everything had been messed up since August 2011, when he suddenly lost his sight.

Wambuga, 44, spent his first 33 years without any disability. Before then, he worked for Leaf Tobacco and Commodities for about four years. As a salesman driver, he distributed Supermatch Cigarettes from their plant in Kireka, Namugongo Road to several parts of Central and Eastern Uganda.

He had started as a motorcycle rider then upgraded to a van. Shs720,000 per month, plus allowances, was good.

Losing sight

Around August 2011, Wambuga’s left eye slowly became dysfunctional. He thought it was temporary. But about a week later, his right eye followed.

 “I could only see shadows in both eyes.”

He got concerned.

Weeks later, when Wambuga found an eye specialist at Jinja Main Hospital but skipped the examination and went to Mengo Hospital, Kampala.

Four weeks had passed since Wambuga had mysteriously lost his sight but he and his little sister Rita Aliyinza, who guided him to Mengo, hoped against hope.

“The doctors opened my eyes, flashed torches into them, did all sorts of things but eventually told me the defect is irreversible. They said I did not seek help in time.”

They recommended eye drops to address the wounds that sometimes caused pus in his eyes. 

Desperation

The assurance that he would never regain his sight instantly dipped Wambuga in a boundless ditch of darkness.

“As we approached Namirembe Road, I tried to pull myself from my sister’s hand and throw myself infront of speeding cars. I just wanted to die,” Wambuga remembers, his voice trembling. 

“My sister tried to console me but it made little sense to me.”

His aunt, who worked at Mulago Hospital, recommended him to another specialist in Wandegeya.

The specialist, who charged Shs50,000 as consultation fee per visit, reassured Wambuga that cases like his could be reversed. He recommended supplements, lots of carrots, and tomatoes every day.

Wambuga bought drugs from pharmacies. But nothing changed. He quit the prescription.

“I could only tell that this is day or night. Or if an object was close, I saw it as shadow - something dark. But I could not tell what it was...”

Living with his sister, Wambuga wondered how he would bounce back. To be the self-sufficient man who took on life when he was still a  young  boy.

His employers continued paying him for the first 12 months he did not work, which  enabled him pay his medical bills. Almost every day went with a chunk of hope.

“I told my friends to sell my household items and give me the money. I was just tired of life,” Wambuga narrated his suicidal thoughts, shedding tears.

“My sister ordered her maid never to let me send her to buy me anything. I tried several times to tempt her to buy poison. Then I thought of a rope to strangle myself…but she refused.”

 In 2013, the Rotary Club of Kampala organised a free medical camp at Bethesda Medical Centre, in Makerere. Wambuga tried his luck once more.

He hired a bodaboda to and fro his sister’s home in Gayaza. But the Korean doctors told him only an eye transplant could bring back his sight, which looked next to impossible according to the cost and complexities.

“They told me to stop wasting my money on treatment that would change nothing,”he recollects.

Most eye transplants do not involve the entire eye. The most common eye part that is transplanted is the cornea—the transparent front part of the eye that covers the iris, pupil, and anterior chamber—which contributes most of the eye’s focusing power.

According to a 2016 study by The Journal of the American Medical Association, more than 185,000 corneas are transplanted worldwide every year but due to a considerable shortage of corneal graft tissue, only one cornea is available for 70 needed.

Often, the future looked bleak.

“My sister took me to Pentecostal churches and I became born-again,” says the ex-Anglican.

To console himself, he frequented lunch hour fellowships and night prayers in many Pentecostal churches around Kampala. Still, little promised to return his happiness.

Dropping out

Wambuga is the first child of his parents who already had children from their previous relationships.

Fate pitted him against the world when he was still a child. His mother, who had already separated from his father, died in 1989. A year later, his father followed, during Wambuga’s first term in Primary Seven.

“We had just finished registration, but the disruptions affected my grades,” he says.

After the loss of their parents, Wambuga and his five siblings were split among the relatives who would foster them.

The uncle who took in Wambuga lived in Mayuge, where he studied second and third term and only returned to Jinja Main Street Primary School, where he had registered for his final exams.

He did not perform impressively but another of his uncles influenced his admission to Kiira College Butiki, Jinja. But by 1993, his uncle, who also had his own children to cater for, transferred Wambuga to Iganga High School, a cheaper option. Demoralised by the relegation, Wambuga dropped out in Senior Three.


He turned the school fees into capital, partnering with an older businessman to buy dried cassava from Mayuge, took it to mills in Soroti and sold it at a good profit.

“We made good money because there was a food shortage in Soroti. Meanwhile, my uncle thought I was at school, kumbe I was doing business.”

Wambuga connived with a teacher to forge the end-of-term report but it was too good to be true. And when his uncle found out the truth, he gave up on paying fees for Wambuga and made him a shamba boy at his home.

Around 1996, he lived with his aunt in Kabuusu, Kampala, minding her poultry farm during the day and serving at her bar at night. But Wambuga spent his first salary on waragi and forgot to feed the chicks. His aunt fired him. But she allowed him to stay at her rentals in Salaama, Makindye. Trying his aunt’s car, he also learnt how to drive. Then, friends taught him how to be a taxi conductor along Nateete-Nalukolongo route. Soon, he forged a driving permit and started driving taxis.

Occasionally, he could serve at his aunt’s bar and she allowed him a drink or two. Soon drinking and clubbing became routine.

Reaping from war

In 2003, while living with his elder half-brother who worked for Coca-Cola, Wambuga sold white beans to the World Food Programme in Lira, one of the places which was hit by the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgence.

Then, most people fled villages with all their belongings including livestock to the urban centres at night for safety. They only returned the following morning.

But for Wambuga, business was booming.

“I borrowed money from my friends who worked in Centenary Bank. We sold a kilo at Shs1,500 earning a good profit. I enjoyed Lira.”

But somehow, he ran out of capital. He tried selling cool-cool bar, a popular iced coloured bar delicacy then, but without a freezer, he was constrained.

When he went to Jinja for his brother’s burial, he did not return to Lira.

Aliyinza, his sister, persuaded him to return to school. He was hesitant. Had he not he dropped out he would have graduated by then. He had lost 10 years. But he tried anyway, rebounding Senior Three, and sat his Senior Four exams in 2006.

“I did not perform well because it had been long without studying…”

It was not long before a former classmate connected him to Leaf Tobacco and Commodities.

“We earned good money but I did not do much except drinking,” Wambuga regrets his happy-go-lucky ways. 

“I was generous with money and I know my former friends miss me for that.”

The most constructive thing he is proud of was paying fees for his niece.

Paranoia

Wambuga admits becoming paranoid after losing his sight.

“I hated people and felt marginalised. I felt people don’t and will never understand what I am going through. It was as though I was living in one world then suddenly fell into a completely different world.”

For a man who used to give selflessly, it hurts when he asks for money and someone asks him ‘what for?’

“Some dodge my calls because they think I want money. Sometimes they are right but sometimes I just need company.”

Believe again

Six years after he lost his sight, Wambuga went to a vocational institute for braille computer lessons.

But the institute lacked computers and instead persuaded him into making sweaters and baskets, like the other visually impaired students.

“I tried but I was not impressed.”

He quit after one year and returned to his sister’s place in Gayaza.

Earlier in 2015, he had invested his Shs2.15m savings from NSSF in mobile money business, tried tomato farming, poultry and piggery. But all failed, due to insufficient capital.

But earlier  this year, the friend who had connected him to the cigarette company, told him about Resty Nanteza, aka Nakapachu, a popular radio presenter whose charity foundation offers skills to the underprivileged, including the blind.

“My friend convinced me to return to Jinja, expressing too much confidence in me, given my experience at the tobacco company. I gave it a shot.”

In late April, Wambuga went to Nakapachu Foundation. For the 15 years Nanteza has been presenter of Ensi N’ebyayo,  she has made a name through reconciling warring spouses; reuniting estranged children with their parents; organising health clinics and raising funds for the needy. Wambuga is one of the needy.

Nakapachu is staging concert on December 10 at Kakindu Stadium to raise funds for the Nakapachu Foundation Home, to be able to grow their own food, and get dormitories for males and females, and reduce on the costs of commuting to and fro work.

The first day he went to the foundation on Gabula Road in Jinja, he did not meet Nakapachu because it was a Tuesday.

But he returned the next day, as he had been told and met Nakapachu and Anthon Wekesa, a general physician and the foundation’s consultant.

Wambuga says despite his sight defects, he knows the map of Jinja and Kampala better than many boda-boda riders.

“I went to five primary schools around Jinja and I drove through Kampala almost daily. When I direct the bodabodas they cannot believe I am blind but I tell them it’s you who are new to these places,” Wambuga says, his loud voice rich with humour.

“After listening to my story, Doctor [Wekesa] said I would make a good marketer.”

To Wambuga, that was asking fish to swim. He thought: “If I sold cigarettes which had a warning ‘that cigarette smoking can be harmful to your health, how do I fail to sell jelly that is harmless?” another dose of humour that cracked our ribs.

Besides, he says, he knows the geography of the East and the neighbouring Kalagi, Katosi, etc.

Just becoming staff was a big deal.

“I no longer wait in the tent,” Wambuga said, laughing, his eyeballs sinking in the lids. 

For now he traverses the field distributing brochures, flyers, aprons, to advertise the foundation’s beauty products, books, sweaters, among others. Wambuga and a colleague use a motorbike but he wishes to be added to the team that operates in a van.

“I can do what they do. But I don’t want to be an intruder. I shall wait for my turn. Otherwise I fear losing a leg yet I am already blind.”

Your child, your eye

If Wambuga had considered having a family in his heyday, he would have about four children and the oldest would have completed university by now. But that is only in his imagination. And he takes the blame.

“I had the capacity to make a family, because I was earning some good money; but I thought I had all the time and girlfriends. I thought I was still young and enjoying life,” Wambuga regrets.

He wants to turn back the clock.

“I need a wife and a child, because my fellow blind people always advise me that ‘if you are blind, your child is your eye,” he says. “That your brother will get fed up of you, your uncle will get fed up  of you, but your child cannot.”

But Wambuga lost contact with his ex-spouses. Even then, he wonders, what chances they are that they would accept him, blind and broke.

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