At a time when everything seems to conspire to destroy the foundation
of education for blind and visually impaired people in Zimbabwe, it seems that the loss of Sister
Catherine Jackson is perhaps ominous. She who had remained absolute in
her steadfast belief in a group marginalised by its own society, doing
everything in her capacity to restore hope where it was fast ebbing,
today it was with a heavy heart that I learnt of her untimely passing.
The title to this post is telling: this isn’t an obituary of someone I
know. Today I can’t honestly say that I am the right person to write
her life achievements.
An obituary is supposed to be a faithful record of someone’s past,
with both strengths and weaknesses shone in equal measure.
It lacks her biography, when was she born (or even died), where she
went to school, when she came to Zimbabwe—everything that makes an
this one fails to live to that standard: these are just notes. This is
a collection of what immediately came to my mind after receiving the
news of Sr. Catherine’s death: So what’s next for blind and visually
impaired students and professionals?
I tried to think of some weakness I could tell, but failed. Perhaps it
was because I was never close to her enough to notice them: what I am
recollecting is what anyone could see from the distance. And from
that, one would only see a tower of strength and wisdom—one who was
dedicated to her cause enough to be stubborn to never give it up even
without the necessary support from whichever authorities.
Some reasons for our powerlessness have nothing to do with the
economic health of the country. It is of course the economy that takes
blame for everything that fails to work from poor legislation to
policy implementation. A neglecting community finds comfort in
attributing its failure to a host of excuses other than its own
This is true of the education of blind and visually impaired people in
Zimbabwe. In the beginning, it was nonexistent.
From the onset, every government from the colonial administration
to post-Independence ones, people with disabilities had been
considered to be a charity case that merits the interference of
missionary societies. So it is not surprising that the first school
for the blind was founded by Dutch Reformed missionaries in 1915.
It is not surprising that attempts at mainstreaming children with
visual impairment was initiated by Christoffel BlindenMission, alongside United College of
Education in the 1980s.
The Dorothy Duncan Braille Library and Rehabilitation Services
But it is to Sr. Catherine that we see an attempt at raising the bar
higher than before:
- Whereas before, education was a patchwork of activities by different
organisations, she worked for it to be a national effort.
- Taking advantage of the Dorothy Duncan Rehabilitation Centre, she
set up the only Braille library in Zimbabwe with a national appeal.
Prior to her efforts, all Braille activities, including
transcription and library services, had been done at institutional
- She was fighting to raise the quality of literacy for blind and
visually impaired children such that in the early 1990s, she
introduced the first and only Braille periodical in the country,
Chiedza which was modelled on the South African
- However, the model she was trying to fashion for the Zimbabwean
professionals who were visually impaired was that of Australia. This
saw herworking along with the Australian blind associations and
Braille service providers to supply material for the Zimbabwean education.
- Together with her staff at Dorothy Duncan Braille Library, she
introduced computer literacy in the country in the late 1990s.
As part of rehabilitation service, the Braille Library started to
provide computer certificates in word-processing.
This by no means captures all what she did: it only scratches the
As I admit, I never worked with her closely to qualify to write a
faithful record of all her achievements. Rather, this is a pitiful
attempt at doing so, taking into consideration that all what is
documented here is in the public domain. This is what cannot be
ignored by any bystander if they had to be honest with themselves.
For people who lose sight in their adulthood, it requires not just a
teaching of Braille for them to start working again. Instead, a person
has to be imparted life skills and to be given a cause to soldier on.
This is what Sr. Catherine was able to accomplish by integrating
rehabilitation into education:
- Many people recovered a sense of purpose through the Dorothy Duncan
Braille Library and Rehabilitation Services.
- The idea was that it is not necessary that a person acquires only
literacy skills for them to lead an independent life: instead, he or
she has to be equipped with other basic skills.
- These skills included mobility, social skills and doing things on
I am not sure. What she failed to accomplish had to do with her clash with others who
did not share her vision of an empowered blind community.
Tell her that she was an activist, she would contradict you that she
was merely an educationist: her interest was in the provision of
quality education for blind people.
She tried to work towards establishing a Braille Authority in the
country. Realising that such an effort required coordination with
every institution where blind children, students and professionals
get their reading material, she attempted to work with others to make
this a reality around 2009.
The idea was that as Braille standards were being reformed throughout
the English-speaking world to adopt the Unified English Braille
(EUB), Zimbabwe was not to be left behind. In fact, as she put it
across at the time, having a Braille Authority could be the
opportunity for even setting Braille standards for local languages
such as Shona or Ndebele.
This was one of her dreams she never lived to see realised. What made
this to fail had nothing to do with her organisational abilities.
Instead, it required a shared vision which others at the time failed
to do. What was only required was for centres where Braille was
produced to commit themselves to a cause bigger than their
organisations and to the benefit of every blind patron.
Sadly, this proved not to be the case.
Is this the end of an Epoch?
The time when Sr. Catherine leaves this world to be with her creator
is perhaps one that is fraught with challenges for blind and visually
impaired professionals. It is a time when Braille itself is threatened
with extinction: when it is seen as a sign of backwardness.
Empowerment today has attained a new meaning that excludes Braille
from its vocabulary. With new technologies being championed as the
panacea to illiteracy of people with visual impairment, it is unfortunate
that this traditional reading format is considered a nuisance.
Perhaps, it can’t fit into new models of inclusive education? Could it
be that it is too expensive? We will never know the answers to this.
But then, even access technology, that is supposed to be part of the
mainstream technologies, is not yet dominant as we would have liked.
New technologies that are supposed to play a complementary role to
Braille seem to be the talk, but no action to train teachers, parents
and mainstream organisations on their use.
On a second thought, this is understandable: we are a product of a
culture that despises weakness. We pride ourselves in strength. Where
poverty and disability is a curse, it is not surprising that attempts
are made to eradicate tools that symbolise them.
If even the founder of Braille was unpopular during his day, we are
not surprised when it is the case today.
This is the world that Sister Catherine leaves hind: the one she
stubbornly refused to conform to. She worked to be a reformer and one
who gave hope even as she faced resistance not only from the
government, but from us with disabilities who were supposed to
benefit from her work.
So even what may appear as failures at first, we can hope and trust
that she planted seeds that are to sprout. Her role she played, it is
for the current generation to bring her dreams to fruition.
Finally, I think this is what it means to be a hero: to stand for
what you believe in regardless of how others view it.
She was a
gifted teacher in geography. She could have led a life of being an
academic: breaking into new fields, earning accolades and lifetime
awards as a professor in some research institute. Yet she considered
this to be a waste of opportunity. In her own words, the best thing
one can ever do is to live for others.
This was what she always emphasised: this society is too bad because
we have allowed selfishness to take root. As long as you have capacity
to help others, do it today and not wait for praise.
But I am sorry today Sister, today we have to be frank with the world
when it comes to what you did: your works can never be hidden under
the bushel. They are too bright to be ignored. For they represent the
dreams of a whole community.
The pride of
the millions in Zimbabwe and outside is a testament to that, so who
are we to sing a different tune than what you taught us? For the
tears of those who cry today will only be dried when your vision