They speak confidently and show independence in their learning. These girls are certainly not what many people would associate with the word ‘disability’.
I am at the Mukisa Foundation – a member of CRANE, Viva’s partner network in Kampala – to see the difference it is making to the lives of girls with special needs.
As father to a nine-year-old daughter with Down’s syndrome, I’m acutely aware of not only the complex, ongoing challenges that come with bringing up a child with a disability but also of their boundless potential if people are willing to invest time and effort in them over many years.
Whilst it is difficult for us at times in the UK, life is even harder for families in parts of Africa where great stigma is attached to disability. According to statistics from UNICEF, only about nine per cent of children with disabilities in Uganda attend primary school.
From its beginning ten years ago, Mukisa has always been about challenging and changing attitudes to disability, and providing hope through physiotherapy and occupational therapy, support and counselling for parents and home-based care outreach programmes.
With an increasing number of children with learning disabilities coming to Mukisa, the centre started an on-site vocational class in 2011. Then in 2013, it started up one of 20 Creative Learning Centres (CLCs) as part of Viva and CRANE’s catch-up education programme for girls, with only Mukisa and one other centre in Kampala dedicated to girls with disabilities.
Ugandan girls in general are at a disadvantage educationally, with boys the priority for schooling whilst girls often work at home or get married. Girls with disabilities are marginalised in society even further.
David Bwangu, CRANE’s Community Mobilisation Co-ordinator, says, “Given that people in this country consider children with learning disabilities as not deserving an opportunity for education, the Creative Learning Centres offer a platform of awareness that these children are potentially as able as any other child.”
Mukisa teaches the girls not only to read and write, but also helps them to learn self-care skills, such as, bathing, brushing and washing, as well as, social skills, sports, dance and drama.
Florence Namaganda, Director of the Mukisa Foundation (right), says, “When the girls come to our CLC what we try to do is use the basic things to ensure their story is different – that they become girls with potential who can make a contribution to society. Most of our girls may never really achieve a lot academically but they achieve a lot in gaining their full potential.”
For many of the girls at Mukisa, gaining vocational skills that will help them earn money in the future is more important than the ability to read and write to a required standard.
More than half of the girls at Mukisa regularly achieve their varied learning targets, and between July and September more than 90 per cent of them did so in vocational skills.
Through attending the CLC, Diana has learnt to effectively take care of herself, and has been introduced to different skills, such as making envelopes, scarves and table mats.
For some, mainstream school is an option, with a little help, and in the three years since the programme has been running in Kampala, 91 girls with learning disabilities have ‘graduated’ from CLCs.
Fifteen year-old Maria lives with her father and was previously in a mainstream school, but they made her repeat the same class for so many years because she ‘failed to learn.’
This destroyed her confidence and she became increasingly anti-social. When she joined the Centre, she would not initially talk to others and was not willing to follow any instructions. With Mukisa’s help Maria became more social, was willing to help others, but accepted help when she needed it.
Florence Namaganda says, “Maria is very good academically and we feel that she has the potential to do the national examinations given the right support. She has been recommended to join a special school close to the centre to further her academic studies.”
Parents are delighted with the difference they see in their daughters. One said, “When we were at home she used to fear people. She was very unhappy. But when she came here, she’s happy, she can speak some words and can understand most of the things.”
Another said, “She used to not understand what she was doing and used to disrespect us a lot but now she has joined Mukisa this has improved.”
Spending a few hours with the girls at Mukisa has been great fun. They clearly now have hope and freedom to become the young women God intended them to be.
Watch the video below to get a glimpse of life at the centre.
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