Trust Mutekwa plays mbira with students with visual impairment (Courtesy - Trust Mutekwa)
article comment count is: 0

Computer skills desegregate schools for learners with visual impairments

In Zimbabwe, learners with visual impairments were traditionally limited to special schools. Global Teacher Prize nominee Trust Mutekwa and students in Harare share their experiences of a slowly desegregating education sector.

Trust Mutekwa had cause to be downsome as he plucked mournful mbira notes down a dirt road in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. His dream to be Special Needs major at the United College of Education had been deferred by a year while he waited for his admission letter at the wrong address. The deflated applicant was headed home from the principal’s office when a stranger in a field substituted a braille machine for the mbira in his hands, chalking up the eureka moment for his now globally recognised teaching career.

“A man called me from the field and asked what I was playing,” the Global Teacher Prize finalist said in an interview with This Is Africa. “He asked me to describe the mbira instrument as he was visually impaired,” Mutekwa went back to the beginning of the journey that has passionately contributed to inclusive education, landing him a top 50 spot out of 12 000 Global Teacher Prize contestants from 140 countries in 2020.

The Special Needs hopeful tried to teach his new acquaintance the mbira but the latter insistently spread his fingers over the keys rather than using them to hold the thumb-driven instrument. He attributed this to being more familiar with the braille machine which he said was similar to mbira and turned the tables to give Mutekwa, also known as Ticha Muzavazi, his first braille lesson. 

“I borrowed his braille machine and practised it on thick exercise-book covers at home. Whenever I met someone with visual impairment, I would ask for their address and write them a letter. Having missed registration, I spent 2005 at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ)’s visual impairment resource centre, transcribing assignments and recording audiobooks for visually impaired students,” recalled Mutekwa, who shared his braille version of Zimbabwe’s constitution at Braille Day commemorations in 2020.

Mutekwa monitors his students’ progress during a computer class (Courtesy – Trust Mutekwa)

By the time Ticha Muzavazi (translated “Teacher Orator”) joined St. Giles Special School, located in Harare, as a teacher for learners with visual impairments in 2008, he was keenly aware of the relationship between braille, mbira and computers. The last two were among skills-oriented classes and clubs he has consistently run at his school and beyond.

In 2020, Mutekwa was up for the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. Ranjit Disale, from India, emerged as the winner of the prestigious award partnered by UNESCO and annually facilitated by the Varkey Foundation. Mutekwa was one of the five African finalists and the first Zimbabwean to ever make the shortlist. The panel’s citation specially noted Ticha Muzavazi’s application of mbira skills to computer training.

Mutekwa’s touchtyping method utilises the elevated borderlines of central keys H and J. The learner spreads fingers on either side and masters characters through speech response. According to Ticha Muzavazi, it takes just a few days for the learner to write simple lines and then branch off to their own interests. 

Mutekwa hosts students at St Giles, Harare (Courtesy – Trust Mutekwa)

Some of the students who sign up for Mutekwa’s Computer Skills for Every Blind Child programme are his mbira graduates, although this background is neither required nor emphasised. “The mbira has four keys on the left and four keys on the right so the left thumb deals with what’s on the left side and the right one likewise. As in touchtyping, the learner familiarizes with the keys by their position and corresponding sounds,” explained Mutekwa, who published a Nyunga Mbira Handbook in 2017.

In September 2013, Zimbabwe ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24. 2b (b) of the convention holds that: “Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive and free primary and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.” 

Students who graduate from St Giles with computer skills now enter any regular schools where they not only type their own assignments but are already wowing fellow students with advanced ICT skills, including recording music and messing around the back-end of software. A number of Mutekwa’s students have since left university with law, social work, banking and development studies degrees.

“Computer skills come with independence that has enabled my students to enrol in regular secondary schools of their choice without specialist teachers. My former students with computer skills are currently accommodated in Marlborough 3, Mount Pleasant 1, Avenues High 1 and Northwood,” Mutekwa told This Is Africa.

Mutekwa (center) with St Giles teachers and students on the way to World Children’s Art Festival (Courtesy – Trust Mutekwa)

“In the past, students would travel out of Harare to learn in schools more that 300 km away from their families. St Giles graduates that I am in touch with this (COVID-19) lockdown are studying, accessing online content, reading audio-supported e-books and enjoying themselves with music production, thanks to computer skills. Technological independence helps to shatter old stereotypes where visually impaired youngsters are caught up in journeys to nowhere, singing along highways for pity.”

Tanyaradzwa Francis Gondo (17) participated in Mutekwa’s Computer Skills for Every Blind Child programme at its 2016 inception. Upon graduation, he was able to enrol at Marlborough High, a regular school in Harare. He was the pioneering and only student with visual impairment at the school beginning in 2018 till he was joined by fellow St Giles graduates last year.

Tanyaradzwa experimented with his cautious father’s laptop from the time he was in Grade 3. “When Sir Mutekwa started his computer programme and taught me touchtyping, I would practise at home everyday, mostly for fun, and my speed was up in no time,” he shared his computer story with This Is Africa. 

“The teachers there did not learn braille. Now, I just type out my assignments and submit them in print so you can see how computer skills have helped me integrate,” he explained.

Mutekwa runs a mbira workshop for fellow teachers in Harare(Courtesy – Trust Mutekwa)

The skills have also fed into his music interests. Having owned a keyboard since the age of five and learned mbira and drums at St Giles, he is now able to record music digitally using software such as Fruitloops, Qbase and Mixcraft. The self-confessed music addict took the interview opportunity to shoot some specific shots: “With the right equipment, I can challenge the producers who are trending right now. Not that I am the best but I need that challenge.”

“My high school experience is fun. I was honestly intimidated the first time but in time I made lots of friendly and supportive contacts. I am also able to make money on the side through IT engineering. Anything software-related, I am about that,” said Tanyaradzwa.

Takudzwa Rusike (19) graduated from St Giles to Northwood. “When Sir Mutekwa introduced his Computer Skills for Every Blind Child, he requested our parents to buy all of us laptops. I was the last to get a machine and had some catching up to do. 

“I had already learned bits of touchtyping off my friend’s laptop but I maximised with a lot of interest when I acquired my own laptop. My uncle was tongue-tied when I soon outsped him,” he told This Is Africa. 

According to Mutekwa, people who never learned touchtyping were “bewitched by the dead” as visually assisted typing is needlessly slower. He teaches his own children touchtyping and obscures keys for learners with partial sight so that they entirely rely on touch.

Takudzwa shares his former schoolmate Tanyaradzwa’s immersion in music. He learned mbira while I was in Grade 2 and trained himself over make-do instruments at home. “My parents would complain that I was making noise but it was all about the hidden talent that had to shine. I went around music shops in South Africa with them and mastered more instruments thanks to new acquisitions at St Giles.” He has also utilised computer skills to get into dee-jaying and music production.

St Giles students have recorded and participated in international festivals. Their mentor, Ticha Muzavazi, has established mbira clubs in eight other special schools. In 2012, he introduced the Special Schools Arts Festival which led to the inception of the National Disability Expo in 2013. 

Mutekwa holds a mbira workshop in France (Courtesy – Trust Mutekwa)

Mutekwa said his students utilise tours to studios and other strategic places to familiarise with software. Renowned presenters for national radio and Mutekwa himself get absurdly detailed technological assistance from the youngsters, as attested by private audios shared with This Is Africa.

“Not being confined to special schools is an option I was happy to explore,” Takudzwa said. This is good for the exposure and encouragement. Sometimes, my friends at St Giles would make self-aware jokes in bad taste.”

Some students who spoke to This Is Africa in confidence, however, complained about being turned away from one Harare school on the basis that “the one student we took is giving us problems.”

“If a student looks for a place at a regular school, the administration should desist from telling us that we have our own special schools and so do not fit there. What is painful is that you would already be having the skills for you to adapt,” a Harare-based learner said.

“I cannot divulge names but at my school there are members of the admin opposed to mixing up. I am one of the persons who were turned down at a school I initially applied to. It is a sign a of discrimination,” said another learner.

However, students at inclusive schools report on endearing collaborations among students themselves. “My friends go all out for me, reading for me, scanning and so on. Sometimes I have to restrain them but they will be just doing it out of helpfulness,” Tanyaradzwa said.

Ticha Muzavazi is also an able poet and has been published in three Shona anthologies that were used in Zimsec Advanced and Ordinary Level examinations from 2011 to 2016, Jakwara Renhetembo, Mudengu Munei? and Shoko Harivhikwi. 

Although he is no longer all that enthusiastic about braille, seeing as it limits students to special schools, he has no choice but to continue with it as students with visual impairment are still nationally examined in braille and not allowed a computer-based option.

Tell us what you think