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Copota School for the Blind - forerunner of disability empowerment
National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH)
June 21, 2007

While Copota School for the Blind remains relatively unknown, tucked away in the Zimuto communal area some 20 kilometres south of the town of Masvingo, the institution has, since its inception in 1915, churned out thousands of graduates, most of them blind but some with physical, hearing and other impairments, equipped with skills that have enabled them to earn a living in today's harsh and demanding world.

Today, eighty two years later, the school, which was borne out of a passion to alleviate the plight of people with disabilities, especially the blind, has evidently lived up to its motto ; 'We will try.' Despite the absence of Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) funding, which the school relies on to cater for the costs of educating its pupils, the school continues to forge ahead with its mandate undaunted.

The school, which comprises a primary and a secondary institution, is home to 290 people with disabilities, most of them with visual impairments. Some have multiple disabilities. Of this number, 180 are primary school children, and the numbers keep rising. Students are drawn from the whole country while some have been known to come from regional countries like Botswana, Mozambique, and Malawi. These are mostly referred to the school by voluntary organisations.

A true model of self reliance, the school runs a number of income generating projects which provides sustenance for the children, salaries for the workers, most of whom are skilled graduates from the school, and administrative expenses. Although the proceeds from the projects are not enough to meet the school's requirements, the school, true to its motto, is doing the best it can with these scarce resources, and hoping that BEAM funds will be availed soon to salvage the situation.

Income generating projects undertaken at the school include agriculture, which comprises animal husbandry, piggery, poultry and market gardening, and art and craft, which comprises weaving and basketry. About 35 graduates of the college are now employed in the school's workshops, producing a wide array of art and crafts objects for resale. Although, initially, the school started with sheltered workshops, the workers are now getting salaries and the school currently has 6 pensioners.

The headmaster of Copota Primary School, Mr Simbarashe Manjere, said that all the students get involved in agriculture right from the beginning of primary education. Crops grown at the farm include a variety of vegetables such as peas, onions, tomatoes, carrots, butternuts, sunflowers, sugar and maize. A substantial portion of this agricultural land is under drip irrigation although this is mainly tended by the secondary school pupils with the help of the workers. The school has 45 cattle under the animal husbandry project, including two jersey cows for milk purposes, while the piggery project presently caters for 18 sows, one bull, 60 piglets and two weaners. 3 000 chickens for meat and 300 layers were being tended under the poultry project although the figure could go up to over 5 000 chickens. The arts and crafts centre is always a hive of activity, with the mostly blind workers busy weaving an assortment of baskets, mats and other craft objects for sale. Students at the school, after receiving tuition in arts and crafts, are subsequently attached to the workshops so that they can gain valuable experience.

Running a conventional boarding school is a far cry from running a boarding institution for people with disabilities, and demands greater involvement and commitment from both the staff and the students. In addition to all the core subjects which are taught at regular schools, students at disability boarding institutions are also taught adjustment skills, orientation and mobility, personal grooming, Braille and life long skills. Orientation and mobility is a continuous process because of new structures, new arrangements and developments at the school premises, requiring those pupils who are not sighted to adjust continuously. Adjustment skills cannot be taken for granted, for the nature of some disabilities, especially the physical aspect, which can affect reflexes and bowel movements, might pose difficulties for the affected children to engage in activities that other people take for granted like toiletry, eating, chewing, and bathing. Schools often have a variety of ablution facilities like the flush toilet, the Blair toilet and the pit and pot system and because of their various impairments, children with disabilities need thorough training in the use of these facilities. Because some of them have fragile conditions, they also need constant monitoring. Life long skills prepare the students to engage in meaningful self help programmes when they grow up.

But, how did this school, which has done so much to uplift the welfare of people with disabilities, come into being? The school, which presently boasts a staff complement of 35 primary and 14 secondary school teachers, was founded by a German sister, Margareta Hugo. It all started in Chivi, about 50 kilometres south of Masvingo, when a man, unable to cater for his family and come to terms with his son's blindness, instructed his wife to drown the child, Dzingisai. The wife, who had been told of a certain missionary, Reverend Hugo, who was in the area, approached the reverend for help. The reverend asked his wife if she was able to take in Dzingisai and look after him. Her reply was: "I will try". From this famous saying was born the motto of Margareta Hugo Mission "We will try". Soon , Margareta Hugo had 8 children under her wing at Chivi and she went to South Africa and Zambia to learn how to teach Braille. Margareta Hugo Primary School for the Blind was born! Established in 1915, it was registered as a school in 1927. But, because Chivi was hilly and inaccessible, the school was moved to Copota in 1938.

The man whose plight led to the founding of the school, Dzingisai, was baptized 1915, taking on the name of Samson. He became an evangelist and, after his death, he had a hostel at the school named after him.

It is evident that, from an initial enrolment of 8 to the present enrolment levels of almost 300, Copota School for the Blind has indeed come a long way and has grown from strength to strength. A beacon of self reliance and forerunner of disability empowerment, it has made tremendous impact on the welfare of people with disabilities in the country and it would be a pity if the institution were allowed to collapse because of lack of funding.

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