About the Mekele Blind School
In the state of Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, there is a boarding school for blind children. It is situated in Mekele, an arid, bustling city of approximately 60,000 people. The Mekele Blind School, as it is known locally, is more of a way-station for blind children, ages 6-15. Currently, there are 97 children there. And although it is sorely lacking in every way possible, children that are brought there, or in some cases abandoned there, have a better chance of a future than those who don’t find their way there. Most blind children in Tigray, and in Ethiopia in general, never hear about this school, and live quite circumscribed lives within the confines of their homes. The vast majority of blind adults are forced to beg as a means to support themselves. For those children that do live at the boarding school, there is a glimmer of hope that someday they might live productive lives in Ethiopian society.
But the Mekele Blind School is struggling. We were introduced to the school by an Ethiopian friend while we were there in June, 2006, doing a cultural bridge-building project in a few public elementary schools. It was then and there that we saw for ourselves that the school and the children are languishing terribly. There is no reliable source of water, no resources for the most basic of needs (toilet paper, hygiene products of any kind), nor fruits or vegetables. Meat is never available to them. Each child receives one injera pancake each day. If they are lucky they will get a spoonful of sour milk on top of it. When we were there again in June, 2007, we bought bananas for the children. Most of them did not know how to open a banana, although bananas are hanging in all of the food kiosks throughout the city and are readily available. The children are visibly malnourished, weak, depressed and sickly. They often stumble and fall on the many rocks and stumps that pepper the 4 acre compound. Their wounds weep and ooze and do not heal, and at the time of our first visit, there was no nurse or medical assistance at all. Injured or wounded children were simply sent away, and another blind student waiting at the gate might be given their place instead. We have since built a library/clinic building. The clinic is filled with basic first aid supplies, which the hired nurse can administer when the children need medical help.
Due to a serious lack of security and adult supervision, thieves would come onto the compound and take what little the children had (sandals, a change of clothing), and we were told that it was suspected that some of the girls (there are currently 37) had been sexually assaulted. During the latter half of 2006, with funds raised in northwestern Connecticut, USA, a security fence was put up to solve this problem. There have been no security issues since the completion of the fence.
Before our library/clinic building was complete, there were no Braille books available to the children, even though they are supposed to be learning Braille in English. There are 3 teachers for the entire school, and only one of them is qualified. Often the teachers do not even show up. The school is given 1,000 sheets of Braille paper per year. That’s ten sheets per child. Needless to say, there was no Braille paper when we visited the school the first time in June, 2006. Our beautiful, completed library is acting as a learning center. We have shipped over plenty of Braille paper and over 200 books, there are 3 Braillers (donated by Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts), many toys and games designed for blind people, and tape recorders (donated by Project Troubador of Salisbury, CT). We hired a sighted librarian; a man named Kahsu who has been a teacher for several years We also hired a blind, older student named Gebre as our library assistant. He reads and writes Braille fluently, and can work closely with the students and serve as an inspiration to them all. In addition, we have begun a Braille literacy program for the older blind students, ages 16-20, which engages them in the teaching process and pays them for their tutorials with the younger blind children.
We have much more to do, but our time spent with the children, and the gesture of confidence we have made by providing them with a learning center which can be used each day, at least 40 hours per week, has given them great encouragement and something look forward to. We need to fill the library, and that is one of our main goals for the next year or more. We also have arranged for fruits and vegetables to be delivered three times per week, and will continue this indefinitely. This added nutrition should boost their immune systems and help them to heal and concentrate better. We filled the clinic with vitamin tablets, as well, and currently more than half of the students are taking them on a regular basis.
It’s grassroots. It’s a joy. It’s a small world. It’s a neighbor thing. Our friendships there have made us all much richer. We are loved, and prayed for, and thought about, our voices, what our touch feels like, what our laugh sounds like. And they wait for us to return with more gestures of the faith and confidence we have in them as valuable, intelligent human beings.
Ethiopia has the highest rate of blindness in Africa. Trachoma, River Blindness, and other causes are to blame.