Lunchtime starts at noon at the Jordan Foundation. Nine or ten children are seated in colourful plastic chairs around two tables, happily digging into a full plate of rice and vegetables. Joyce (6), gets up from her chair and walks to the other table to help a smaller boy with his food. She gently wipes his mouth with a napkin. Joyce is partially blind. The other children eat in complete darkness. Twenty-two visually impaired children live here, at the residential centre of the Jordan Foundation in Gasabo, Kigali. A true place of hope for them.
In 2015 Mrs Vanessa Bahati and her husband Jean Bosco Hakiza received the devastating news that their third child, Jordan, was born blind and he would never be able to see. Determined to find the best possible care for her son, Mrs Bahati researched organisations and institutions in Rwanda and abroad and she was unhappy with what she found. She realized that for blind children from poor families, the future looked particularly grim and she decided to act. Bahati reached out to other parents with blind children, to counsellors, teachers and authorities, to friends and sponsors. And this is how the Jordan Foundation, named after her son, saw the light
Changing the mindset
The Jordan Foundation takes care of visually impaired children between the ages of 3-9, who come from poor families in Rwanda. The children are offered a safe place to live and have access to medical care and eye treatment, but also to other health services such as counselling, physiotherapy, and nutrition.
Eulade Manzi, one of the coordinators of the Foundation, explains that blind children from villages in remote and poor rural areas are often hidden from the public eye and rejected by their families. The child will not go to school and does not receive proper healthcare. When it is known such a child is there, the specialists from the Jordan Foundation talk to the local authorities and the parents in the hope of raising awareness of the rights of blind children and persuading them to give the child in their care “There is a lot of stigma on blindness”, says Manzi. “Some parents consider these children “useless”. They don’t know how to care for them”. He points at one of the children, a boy of about six years old named Hadi. “Hadi was left behind by his parents on the street. A catholic organization picked him up and brought him to our door when they realised he was blind”, he says. “Parents can visit their children on Sundays, and are invited to regular parent meetings”, Manzi continues, “Our counsellors make every effort to change the parents’ mindset and give them social and economic support so they can accept the child’s disability”.
After lunch, Joyce and the other children go outside to play. They laugh and chat like any other kids their age. It is clear that Joyce feels a responsibility because she can see a little bit. She supports the others as they practice walking with a stick. One of the other boys, Jean-Claude (4) wasn’t born blind either but suffered a series of eye infections when he was two years old. The doctors took his eyes in order to save his life and he was brought into the care of the Jordan Foundation. He speaks a little bit of English now and when asked if he minds having his picture taken, he straightens up as if in military position and yells: Cheeeeeese! He is a happy, sociable young boy who likes English songs and music. It is heart-breaking to think what life would have been like for him, and his 21 friends, without the efforts of Vanessa Bahati.
A school for the blind
The children that are of the right age currently attend the local Gihogwe Primary School, where they receive additional lessons from a special-needs teacher, Mr August Habyarimane. The Jordan Foundation takes care of school fees and materials. During the holidays, most children return to their villages and the Jordan Foundation fights malnutrition by supporting their families with small livestock or training to set up kitchen gardens with seeds.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that of the 19 million children that are visually impaired globally, less than 10% of them have access to education, and they are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, abuse, sickness and infant mortality. Vanessa Bahati believes all visually impaired children should have the support, healthcare and education to become independent adults and active citizens. So, her ambition reaches further.
At the moment, the Foundation rents the residential centre where the children live, but the building has its limitations and only 22 children can be accommodated. Furthermore, the school is not attached to the centre and transport to and from the school can be a daily issue.
Some time ago the Foundation was able to purchase a plot of land in Rutunga, Gasabo district. Bahati’s dream is to build a special school there that can offer a better future to a hundred visually impaired children. The construction ground will be broken on October 19th this year and Bahati is busy raising the funds for its first classrooms, because this is how you realize a vision: step by step.
This article was written for the Jordan Foundation magazine, Oct 2018. Photos by author.
About the Jordan Foundation
Jordan Foundation Rwanda is a non-profit organization serving children with visual impairments (blind and partially sighted). Find out more on Facebook: @jordanfoundationrwanda
The East African (06 Jan 2018): A Mother’s blind love paid back in kindness
New Times Rwanda (16 Nov 2017): How one woman chose to be the eyes of visually impaired children