Assisting the Blind in Tanzania

Tanzania has a population of about 38 million people. About 1.5 million of them are blind and another 1 million are only partially sighted.  In the summer of 2008, Sameer Hirji (’11 Course 15) arrived in Tanzania hoping to make a difference in the lives of the blind students at Uhuru Blind School in Dar es Salaam.  He worked with the Aga Khan Development Network to recruit volunteers from the Aga Khan community to assist in bringing new audio technologies to the blind students.  Audio technology was to be used as an interactive medium in order to enhance memory and knowledge in blind students at the school.

At the outset of Sameer’s Public Service Fellowship, it was difficult to convince stakeholders about the importance of this innovative system of learning.  With the support of his supervisor, Aslam Kanji, he was given the opportunity to prove that audio technology for the blind was a practical and sustainable option for students at Uhuru Blind School.  “My intuition tells me that these kids, despite being disabled, have great potential. We need to focus on their capabilities and harness them,”  says Sameer. Sameer’s overarching goal for his project was to reduce the cost of using the Braille system, while simultaneously helping students find better and more effective ways to learn academic concepts and basic computer skills.

At the same time, Sameer could not forget that a large population at the school was blind as well as deaf, thus audio technology could not benefit all students. This made it more difficult to implement his project ideas.  Sameer came up with a five-year budget that would bring the cost of the program to about $1,200 per year, a lot of money in Tanzania.  However, Sameer intends to return to the School to check on progress and to try to develop more efficient ways to apply his ideas.

Sameer taught the teachers basic computer skills and how to solve software glitches. He also performed regular maintenance and progress evaluations to assess how students were learning.  He wanted to accelerate the learning program to get quick results but realized it was quite unsuccessful and had to slow things down; “I learned the value of patience and optimism as a result.”

With so much to do and so little time during his Fellowship, Sameer plans to return to the Uhuru Blind School and possibly expand his program to other schools, give more trainings on basic computer skills, and spend time teaching oral English to some of the teachers.  Reflecting on his experiences with the Uhuru Blind School in Tanzania, “I feel very humble today that I have at least tried to make a difference in someone’s life directly or indirectly.”

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