Not Necessarily an Obituary: On Sr. Catherine Jackson's Life and Works

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 interesting read.

Yet 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.

The Beginnings

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 attitudes.

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 BlindenMission1, 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 level.2
  • 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 Blindaba.3
  • 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 surface.

Rehabilitation

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 your own.

Failures?

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.

Closing Thoughts

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 lives on.


  1. otherwise known as Christian Blind Mission, or CBM ↩︎

  2. A school, college or university had to transcribe its own textbooks for its own students. ↩︎

  3. Ironically, the term “Chiedza” was derived from the founding Braille library slogan, “Chiedza Kumapofu” (Light to the Blind). ↩︎