Growing up blind in a society where visually impaired persons do not get the deserved attention and care
was tough, yet he made it his assignment to give hope to people of his kind. He swears by the phrase ‘disability is not inability’ and encourages others to believe it. Here is Peter’s Struggle.
The first time I set eyes on Ngong Peter Tohnain was in the Amphitheatre 250 of the University of Buea, nine years ago in Cameroon. He was staring blankly into the blackboard while his fingers made their way through some sheets of paper. It only took a minute for me to realize that he was visually impaired.
I, so badly, wanted to feel sorry but his bravery and academic excellence nursed the opposite feeling in me. Despite his physical condition, Peter was no different from other sighted students. He emerged first in most academic exercises and could often be seen explaining key sociological concepts to mates and friends. In fact, he took part in most activities and with full efficiency.
The Day Peter’s Life Changed Forever
Back in Uni, I thought of Peter simply as ‘the brave blind boy’ whose smile radiated hope. My admiration for his brilliance and tenacity grew greater when I learned that he originated from Belo (my beloved hometown). What I did not know was that he was not born blind. In fact, he was a normal kid until the age of nine.
The pain in his eyes surfaced for the first time at the age of six. His parents consulted an ophthalmologist at the Achah-Tugi Eye-Care Hospital in Momo, where no major complication was found. He was given medication that improved the situation greatly and his parents were cautioned against any further use of traditional concoctions.
Peter’s pain only resurfaced two years later while he was away visiting a relative in a faraway village. Not aware of the hospital’s warnings, he was rushed to a herbalist, who quickly treated him to the very concoctions his parents had been warned to avoid. It was not long before the pain grew unbearable.
He was rushed back to the ophthalmologist but this time, it was too late. His corneas and pupils had already given way. Peter had lost his sight and for good.
Another sad reality is that he may never get to know the exact disease had caused his eye condition in the first place. His situation had degenerated so badly while he was away from home and at a time when communication was not as fluid as it is nowadays. He has now been blind for more than fifteen years.
Nothing Good Comes Easy
In Cameroon, where Peter met his predicament, visually impaired persons are generally not expected to amount to much. Many of them do not attend school are often abandoned to beg along the streets. More often than not, they become objects of mockery and chastisement. Ignorant people go as far as blaming witchcraft and generational courses for the fate of the blind. Peter, like many of his blind compatriots, has had to live through these huddles.
He recalls, with great pain, the early days of his blindness and the many difficulties he encountered. Nine-year-old Peter got mocked at by his peers, and some ignorant parents made it worse by dissuading their kids from further contact with him. His condition was even dubbed ‘contagious’.
There are so many humiliating stories to be told, but the most vivid one for Peter was his encounter with a Director of one of Cameroon’s Higher Teachers’ Training colleges. He had registered for an entrance exam and felt the need to notify the school’s authorities about his being a student with special need. Upon arrival at the Director’s secretariat, he wasn’t given a chance to present his case. At first sight, the Director mistook him for a beggar and sent him away, claiming he had no money for charity. After persisting, Peter laid his case yet got kicked out. The said administrator claimed not to have the powers to permit a blind candidate to sit for any exam.
Peter felt ostracized but thanks to his God-fearing family, he found the strength to move on. His determination got him moving, “as a matter of fact, I have become resolute and determined to accomplish whatsoever I set out to do. I have always avoided these challenges by forcefully integrating myself in to community activities and doing them perfectly”, he says.
A Struggle for Inclusion
The plight of visually impaired persons in many low income countries stretches far beyond the inability to see. The scarcity of specialists to enhance the transcription of braille and the unavailability of braille material in schools make it difficult for many blind students to find places in formal schools. Besides, regular classroom teachers are hardly taught how to manage students with special need. Coupled with the scarcity of specialized schools, many blind people stay uneducated and often end up helpless and needy.
Despite being in possession of a National Disability Card, Peter himself went through many of these barriers. He oftentimes got denied admission into formal schools, yet pressed on. It therefore is no surprise that he now holds a Masters of Science degree (with distinction) in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology/Anthropology. He also got honoured by Junior Chambers International (JCI) as the most outstanding physically challenged student in Buea for the year 2012.
Peter dreams of eliminating discrimination against visually impaired people in Cameroon and restore hope to those who lost it with their sight. “In my little and modest way,” he told me, “I strive to be motivational and useful in the lives of young persons in and around my community; be they blind or not.”
Besides offering his services as teacher in a school for the blind, Peter is co-founder and current president of a not-for-profit organization, Hope Social Union for the Visually Impaired (HSUVI), aimed at ensuring the full inclusion of persons with visual impairments into all socio-political and economic domains of society. His vision is for people of his kind to be given a chance to contribute actively to nation building in Cameroon.
Another one of Peter’s dreams is to empower young blind Cameroonians with computer skills. That is why he spends most of his time teaching them how to make use of computers and other forms of technology. This engagement has resulted to his being voted Vice President of the National Association of Visually Impaired Computer Users in Cameroon. And, of course Peter leads by example. His presence is heavily felt on social media and his Facebook page is updated on a daily basis. Feel free to drop a line of encouragement to the Facebook name Petrus Tonus Ngongnus. It might also interest you to know, that despite being an exceptionally brilliant student throughout school, Peter is yet to get any formal job. Most doors are closed to him because of his visual impairment and even when he sees hope, corrupt officials do not let him go through for his want of means.
The wider Picture
Peter is only one of the 5.88 million visually impaired persons in Africa. WHO statistics show that 80% of blindness cases in Africa resulted from preventable/curable causes. Cataract is leading cause for blindness in all areas of the world except for developed countries. The disease accounts for 47.9% of visual impairments, followed by Glaucoma (12.3%), corneal opacities (5.1%) and diabetic retinopathy (0.8%) all of which are preventable and curable.
The incidence of poverty and the scarcity of ophthalmologists on the continent have enhanced the degeneration of the situation. On Average, there is only one ophthalmologist per 400 thousand patients in Africa, and there are no signs of it improving soon.
Peter wants all physically challenged people to bear in mind that disability is not inability. “They should strive to put in their maximum in whatever they set out to accomplish,” he says. “They should borrow from the words of Stephen Covey and believe that they are not products of their circumstances but rather, products of their very own decisions”.