Blind PhD don with vision for better schools

Farisai Mlambo and her husband. Photo | Walter Marwizi

What you need to know:

  • Blinded at age five after contracting measles, Farisai Mlambo has overcome many obstacles to achieve the highest educational qualification. Now she wants to see change at educational institutions across the continent.

By Walter Marwizi, bird

The rapturous applause that rang out during the graduation ceremony at the University of South Africa on October 4, 2022, must have been particularly satisfying for 52-year-old Farisai Mlambo.

Moments before, the visually impaired Zimbabwean researcher took to the stage to receive her Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD), it was announced that she had contributed to new knowledge beneficial to the teaching of visually impaired students globally.

But despite the recognition, that moment was just one stage in Mlambo’s long and determined educational journey.

Born Farisai Masocha, she grew up in the Mazvhihwa communal area in Zvishavane, Zimbabwe, as the third-born in a polygamous family with 19 children. When she contracted measles at the age of five, however, the disease severely affected her sight, causing vision loss.

This disability forced her to delay going to school, and she only managed to start Grade One at Gundekunde Primary School at age 10.

Realising the rural school was unprepared to handle his child, her father secured a place for her at Copota School of the Blind, in Masvingo province.

The young girl felt at home in the company of other children facing similar visual challenges, despite being affected by shortages of braille books, as well as food at school.

“The school had funding challenges. I had to listen attentively when other children who had mastered braille started reading the scarce books. I also vividly remember being served sadza (thick porridge) with powdered milk,” she said.

Despite these constraints, she completed her primary and secondary education at the institution before proceeding to Gutu High School in 1994 for her Advanced Level studies.

While Copota had been a haven for blind pupils, Gutu High was the opposite. Surrounded by students with normal eyesight, her visual disability stuck out like a sore thumb, and she experienced untold discrimination and loneliness.

“I could walk alone following the others,” she said, her face betraying emotion. “It was very tough.”

This unkind treatment, however, did not distract her from focusing on her goal of getting a good education.

“Because of my low vision, I could not write like other students but was proficient in braille. The challenge was that none of my teachers could understand it. It was an untenable situation.”

The Zimbabwe Council of the Blind came to her rescue with a typewriter - at that time, a coveted machine. This allowed her to carry out assignments successfully.

But the solution bred the seeds of another crisis as she had to walk around with a huge load - a typewriter, a braille writer, heavy braille books and typed documents.

School authorities realised her dilemma and intervened.

“They gave me an office where I would operate from, but then, some students, who were avoiding the noisy classrooms, noticed it was a perfect place to study and came there,” she explained.

“That is how my integration with other students started. That’s how I met my best friend, Faith Mufanebadza.”

She passed her Advanced Levels and got a temporary teaching post at Mavhiringidze High School in 1997.

Once again, a hostile reception awaited her, however, as teachers weren’t used to a visually impaired colleague in the staffroom.

“They had attitudes,” she recalled. “They could hardly associate with me.”

That same year, Hillside Teachers’ College posted adverts for teacher training vacancies.

The college, however, needed a guarantee that a visually challenged person could carry out their studies successfully. Again, the Council of the Blind came to her rescue, this time supporting her application.

 “I was given a room to operate from but there were no braille materials, so someone would read the books for me while I listened.”

This agonisingly slow way of studying was the order of the day as she pursued her studies.

“When l got a job as a teacher, my sister, Vongai, was my assistant,” she noted.

After brief stints at Mutero and Cheninga schools, she went to teach at Copota in 1999, where she married Tawanda Mlambo, who is totally blind.

The couple is blessed with four children.

“Despite being a mother, I was determined to study and in 2003, l enrolled for a block release programme at the Great Zimbabwe University, where l obtained my first degree, a Bachelor of Education in English.”

In 2012, she joined Morgenster Teachers Training College as a lecturer and, a year later, resumed her studying journey by enrolling for a Masters’s in Education Languages, specialising in English.

When she completed the programme, she decided to aim for the big one –a doctorate.

“I started with UNISA online in 2016. I relied on an assistant to gather information. We would go on the Internet and I would instruct her. She would Google sources and read and I would listen and absorb the information. I needed a lot of money for data, the network was often poor. We would arrive at 9am and leave at 4pm,” she said.

Commenting on how she achieved the feat, Dr Mlambo, now a lecturer in the Department of Teacher Development at the Great Zimbabwe University (GZU), attributed her success to internal and external motivation.

“I always had this drive in me. A drive to overcome obstacles in my way. I also got support from my assistants, without them, I could also not have done it.”

She is, however, quick to caution that life is tough for people with visual impairments, even when one holds a PhD like herself.

“Society discriminates. If you don’t see and worse, you are a woman, that can be a double tragedy. I know that because I am a woman and I have a disability.

“Sometimes when you have meetings, you are looked down upon. They think you are not capable. This is the case in many sectors where disabled people are sidelined. Society is not allowing them to lead and progress.”

She believes attitudes can change if the government and private institutions promote people with disabilities - including teachers. She also wants teachers and lecturers to embrace braille.

“I experienced the agony of having teachers who did not understand braille. I wish to change that by training braille to both lecturers and students at GZU and carrying out outreaches to encourage children living with disabilities to take their studies seriously.

“I believe this can go a long way to ensure inclusion for visually impaired people and many children who have a component of special needs, like hearing impairments.”

Mlambo is not only passionate about studying but also has an interest in sports.

“I participate in paralympic games and was a coach for athletic games in which I am certified for training visually-impaired students,” she said.

Mlambo, who has a collection of paralympic medals accrued at Morgenster Teacher Training College, also hopes one day she can have a chance to train paralympics at GZU and help bring sporting glory to students with disabilities.