Home Society Meet Dr. Donatilla Kanimba, the Voice of the Blind in Rwanda

Meet Dr. Donatilla Kanimba, the Voice of the Blind in Rwanda

by Jean de la Croix Tabaro
2:29 pm

Dr. Donatilla Kanimba

Rwanda’s history, including ethnic segregation keeps revolving in all stories of the citizens at family, community level or individually.

Dr. Donatille Kanimba, the founding Executive Director of Rwanda National Union of the Blind(RNUB) who was born from Gisagara district, Southern Province late 1950s makes no exception.

Kanimba, went through education from Primary to Master’s Level and became a successful leader whose courage was admired by many. The Commonwealth University of London offered her Honorary doctorate to recognise her efforts ten years ago.

However, she fought unreservedly to get there with her vision impairment. Yet, when you watch closely, her blindness has a link with persecution which was uncalled for.

All started in 1961 when Kanimba was five years old. Her parents woke up one morning to tell all the children that they had no option, but to flee to Burundi, because death threats against the Tutsi from the extremist Hutu had become beyond bearing.

“I cannot tell what happened along this exodus, all I know is that upon arrival in Burundi, my eyes started causing me much pain and progressively I started losing my capacity to see,” Kanimba said at her office in Muhima along Nyabugogo road.

Parents spared no effort to have Kanimba recover her sight, but every other day, her case worsened. Anglican Church missionaries from Buye in the countryside knew about the case and contributed to her medication in vain.

Amid the struggle to treat Kanimba, the parents happened to know that there was just one specialist in the great lakes region, serving the then Congo Belge-now Democratic Republic of Congo; Burundi and Rwanda.

“By misfortune, we learnt that the eye specialist was in Kinshasa at that time. Efforts to fly to Kinshasa failed because I was a refugee without required documents; the only way was to drive through Rwanda and cross to Goma to board for Kinshasa. We learnt that as refugees, we could not cross to Rwanda, the country which did not wish us well,” Kanimba recalled.

Confused with the kind of the sickness and the pain it carried, the medical personnel who was following up Kanimba thought it was a cancer and decided to remove the eyes.

Meanwhile, younger siblings started enrolling to school in Burundi. Since the host country did not have infrastructure for inclusive education, parents rested the case of Kanimba, until the Buye missionaries worked with their regional counterparts, a consultation which yielded fruits.

Kanimba was taken to Nairobi-Kenya with one classmate for the school of the blind and two more classmates with the same condition followed the following year.

A difficult Education Journey

The arrival in Nairobi for the young Kanimba and the first years of her stay in the country were quiet difficult, given the communication barriers since the only language she could speak was Kinyarwanda.

At Primary, up to O level, Kanimba enrolled in the school of the blind, and here, she was well received despite some challenges in communication, which however, did not take long.

At university, Kanimba was looking forward to study Social Sciences, but she met a big problem of nationality, where it was a requirement to be a Kenyan national to be admitted at university, even if by performance she was among the best.

“To be able to secure an admission, I needed to have an official document from my country, but I did not have one because I was a refugee,” Kanimba said.

With this, she tried another option to study for a diploma in Physiotherapy and there also, she failed. She returned to the university, begged the school and was very difficultly accepted at Nairobi University.

“I had to first beg the UN High Commission for refugees to give me scholarship and then the vice chancellor to admit me. I succeeded after so much struggle,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Primary and O’level, Kanimba was in the school of the blind, but since A level, there were no facilities for the blind.

Kanimba had to find classmates to read the books for her. She would record them and revise the audio to prepare for the school exams and tests.

“I had bought a tape and a recording radio for that effect. It helped me a lot and inspired the school to buy more recording facilities for other students who joined the school with a case like mine,” she said.

For assignments, Kanimba had learnt to use the typewriter which she had learnt at O level where the school for the blind prepared them for secretariat services.

“I would write the answer in braille first, and convert it into the normal writing using my typewriter to be able to communicate with my teachers. This is what I used from A level through university,” Kanimba said.

Despite all the struggles, Kanimba was the best student in Primary, O level and A level national exams.

“In most cases, students came to me seeking explanation in courses they did not understand. They would read and then I would explain. This was even helpful to me,” he said.

At school, some students were so much helpful, but some others would decline to help her, saying that “they did not come to school to read for the blind.”

The holidays for Kanimba were tricky.

Dr. Donatilla Kanimba with the writer

“Initially, we were flown aboard the jets that used to distribute medicines across the Anglican church hospitals-the Church Missionaries Society. We would wait for the missionaries from Burundi to pick us. Sometime they would pick us when the holiday is almost over,” Kanimba recalls.

Ten years of career in service of Kenya

After university education, Kanimba applied for a job at the Ministry of Culture and Social Affairs and served as an officer in social services, until they understood that, as a foreigner, she was did  not qualify for the job. They terminated her contract after two years.

She joined education where she taught for six years and thereafter, found a job of Women’s program coordinator at the Union of the Blind in Kenya.

“It was after two years that I understood that it was important to return to Rwanda to lead the union of the blind which I had co-founded with four colleagues who are also blind,” she said adding that she left for Rwanda in 1996.

Ever since, she led the organisation and has seen it grow in advocacy for the blind.

For example, since 1995 when they started, they were able to convince the government to prepare national exams for the blind, and they succeeded, but they failed to have a secondary school that would receive them.

In 1997, Kanimba went to Gahini high school to advocate and the director accepted to admit the blind.

“Currently, the blind people go to secondary school, then to university. We have them in Gahini, Rwamagana and in Nyaruguru,” she said.

The organisation is working hard to rehabilitate the blind, all those who have been living in homes as the sick people, yet they can serve. They convince them that they are the children of the country, ad they need to be self sustainable.

Kanimba has a Master’s degree in Education Leadership and Management from College of Education in Rwanda.

But, a part from some research on personal level, she has dedicated her full life to the cause of the blind since 1996.

Kanimba is an active member of the Anglican church, serving on the advisory body.

As of family, she calls the four children of her deceased younger sister her own. All of them all married now.

Among ther best memories feature the visit of Mombasa port, but the worst story ever, is the Genocide which killed many of her family members.

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