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Hungry to learn across the world



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Will Ross visits a school for visually impaired students in Tanzania

Around the world millions of children are not getting a proper education because illness or disability prevent them going to school. In the third report in the BBC's Hunger to Learn series, Will Ross meets children in Tanzania who are overcoming visual impairment to learn.

Standing in a classroom in Makang'wa primary school I tried to count the number of students. I reached 85 and then gave up.

The teacher helped out by asking each child to shout out a consecutive number as she pointed at them with a stick. "One hundred and three," said the last student.

In this arid part of central Tanzania, about 50km (31 miles) south of the capital Dodoma, the poverty is deep and education offers the slim possibility of an escape route.

HUNGER TO LEARN
Hunger to Learn looks at the lengths children go to get an education.
On Thursday we report from Pakistan's Swat valley, where girls schools have been closed down and pupils threatened.
On Friday, we hear from pupils in L'Aquila, Italy, who are attending schools that have been rebuilt or repaired after the massive earthquake.

With such a staggering student to teacher ratio, when a child has special needs their chances of making it are even slimmer.

Sospeter, 16, walked slowly towards his family home - a tiny doorless hut made of wooden poles and mud in drought stricken Nagulo village.

Stepping cautiously he bent down to pick up his three-year-old sister, Jane.

Totally blind since the age of five, Sospeter is determined not to let his disability prevent him from giving his family a much needed lift.

Due to a lack of medical facilities in the village he had been taken to a local healer, he said, and the healing had been unsuccessful.

"When I lost my sight I was very fearful I would lose the opportunity to learn and I had never heard of a school for blind people," he said.

Sospeter
Sospeter is determined his disability will not stop him helping his family

The fear was intensified by the fact that any disability can lead to a person being sidelined, even shut away.

But against the odds, Sospeter has managed to drive his education along and he is now the one hankering for development in the village.

"When I was young I didn't know there was anything wrong with this home but when I went to school I realised this is not a place which is fit for habitation, so that saddens me," he said.

"I would like to change the buildings in the village. Also people elsewhere have access to mobile phones but here people have to climb trees to get a good reception."

In Buigiri, just outside Dodoma, two rows of children faced each other across a small playground.

They hurled a basketball from one side to the other attempting to get it past the opposition line. With a bell inside the ball the visually impaired students used their hearing to locate the ball.

I enjoy helping Sospeter because he is unable to do everything and I'd like to help him do as much as possible
Faraji

Catering mostly for visually impaired students, this was where Sospeter headed for his primary education.

"You find most of the blind students do better than the sighted ones or those with low vision," said mathematics teacher Julius Chisaluni.

"Using only their ears they pay attention very carefully. But the others, they look at you and around at other things so their concentration is lower."

He drew a graph on the blackboard which he had also replicated in Braille form, so the visually impaired students could feel the lines on the graph.

"How many eggs were laid on Friday, Ann?" asked Mr Chisaluni. Tiny fingers traced for the answer.

"Five eggs," she replied and the whole class tapped on their desks three times as sign of approval.

Real friendship

Sospeter left Buigiri at the end of last year after doing well in his exams, and moved an hour down the dusty road to Mvumi High School as one of their sponsored students.

Edward Mbilu
Society is learning that people are free to send their children to school
Ernest Mbilu

There are eight other visually impaired students - the other 441 are sighted.

"Cold, colder, the coldest," the English teacher wrote on the board as the class went through the rules for comparatives and superlatives and made notes.

But for Sospeter and the other visually impaired students at Mvumi, note taking is a laborious process.

In the evening they team up in pairs with sighted students who read out all the notes from the day's lessons which are then typed into a Braille machine.

While a friend whispered into his ear, Sospeter speedily bashed away on his machine - a show of real friendship.

"My friend helps me. We discuss issues he struggles with and I help him with issues he has struggled with in class," he told me over the clattering of Braille machines.

"I enjoy helping Sospeter because he is unable to do everything and I'd like to help him do as much as possible," added his friend, 14-year-old Faraji.

A couple of desks away, Shamilla was being helped by Sophia who was whispering the notes - spelling out the tricky words.

"She helps me here and also she reads stories to me. She is a good friend," said Shamilla.

Hard work

Although it will take a long time before deeply entrenched views are changed, there are signs that barriers are slowly being broken down towards disability.

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"Nowadays, at least society is better informed and knows these students who are visually impaired can be educated and they can be helpful to their families," said Ernest Mbilu, a special needs teacher at Mvumi.

"There are now visually impaired people working on TV and radio and as lawyers here.

"So society is learning that people are free to send their children to school."

Mr Mbilu laments the fact that the school does not have a single Braille text book.

I left him busily making maps of Tanzania with different textures glued on to represent lakes and other landmarks.

When students have homework to do, Mr Mbilu has to transcribe it back from Braille into handwriting.

It seems teachers as well as students need to be dedicated to ensure the visually impaired students keep up.

School friends studying
The blind and sighted students help each other

As for the future, Sospeter said he was determined to become a lawyer and university was his next hurdle.

His wit keeps his classmates entertained. When he asked me which football team I supported and I replied, "Liverpool," his reply was swift and armed with a knowing smile.

"Myself, I am for Everton."

I still do not know whether he was serious or was just having a little fun winding me up by naming Liverpool's arch rivals.


Your comments:

A heart-touching story. If the world helped such troubled people instead of going into wars and creating other problems, our Earth would be a nice place to live. Can we please stop conflicts among ourselves and tackle challenges like this one together?
African, Mekelle, Ethiopia

I have been reading all these stories about these students getting educated in such circumstances and it breaks my heart at how eager they are to learn. It makes me feel regret at how much I hated my own school days and moaned when I grew up with the best facilities. These children are inspirational and I will definitely be donating money in the future to causes like this.
Serena, Dublin, Ireland

It shows that with determination we can go far in Africa, but the state has to prioritise in order to move our people forward.
Gabriel, Lagos, Nigeria

I so happy to see my fellow Tanzania live with hope despite the set back and disappointments of the government. I believe the government has an obligations to do more and it can do it. But because those how are in power are not direct affected by this problem they don't take much care.
Raymond, London



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