YANDE SYAMPEYO, Lusaka
THOMAS Timothy Mtonga was born in 1971, with ‘perfect eye sight’ but a measles attack in 1980, left him blind.
Thomas was in grade two and was visiting his older brother in Mukonchi area of Kabwe during a school break when the deadly disease ‘pounced’ on him.
Unfortunately for Thomas, he was not taken to hospital but was prescribed a traditional concoction in the hope of treating him.
“What was serious at the time was a combination of lack of education and poverty levels. The only thing my brother did to try and heal the disease was to prepare okra and pour it into my eyes.
“However, after two weeks, I became unconscious and my brother sent word to my father and when he arrived, I remember very little light passing through my eyes. They rushed me to Kabwe General Hospital but it was too late. They managed to save my life but they could not save my sight,” he recalls.
Thomas, who is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zambia (UNZA), recalls how his father, who was a general worker, was devastated by the turn of events in his son’s life.
He inquired from different individuals and organisations on the possibility of restoring his son’s sight until he was advised to enrol him at Ndola Lions School for the blind.
He was enrolled at the school on January 14, 1982, much to the devastation of his mother.
“I remember my mother crying because she didn’t believe there was any school for the blind. She thought my father was taking me away for ‘slaughter’,” he recollects.
Ndola Lions School opened a new chapter in Thomas’ life although this new journey was rough at the beginning, with motivation and hard work, he became a genius.
“I call it the good evil because my performance before losing eye sight was bad compared to the period after the misfortune. I recall a blind teacher, a Mr Mulenga, threatening to discipline me if I did not improve my grades. By 1983, the school couldn’t resist but upgrade me,” he says.
In 1985, Thomas’ family relocated to Lundazi and he was enrolled at Magwero.
Thomas, fourth born in a family of seven performed exceptional well at grade seven and was selected to Munali Secondary school in Lusaka.
However, the head teacher at Magwero was against the decision and proposed a unit for the blind be created in Eastern Province.
A unit was secured at Katete Secondary school where he was enrolled in grade eight.
Yet again at grade nine, Thomas’ performance was exceptional, emerging the best pupil in the province and was selected to Hillcrest Secondary School in Livingstone.
However, due to lack of a blind unit at the school, he could not proceed.
And at this point, despite his brilliance, his parents were unable to continue sponsoring his education due to limited finances.
Thomas faced another dark cloud in his life when his family resolved to discontinue his education.
“On March 16, 1990, my older brother called for a meeting and they resolved I stop school, remain with them in the village and that they would support me in every way possible, including if I needed to get married, they would help me and my wife,” he recalls.
Tired and frustrated about being bundled in the village, he constantly pestered his mother about returning to school.
Thomas had made up his mind to return to school even if it meant walking from Lundazi to Katete.
Luckily, some choir members at Kazumba outstation, who were friends of one of his brothers, heard about Thomas’ predicament and resolved to assist him by raising his transport fare amounting to K2.20.
Thomas returned to Katete school in grade 10, despite missing the first term.
Luckily for Thomas, when he arrived at school, an expatriate teacher from Ghana named Bafo Kudwa, heard about his situation and offered to shelter him and support his education.
While in grade 11, Thomas lost the support of the expatriate teacher when he returned to his home country.
But a number of people had heard about his situation hence Brighton Chela and Agness Nyirenda offered to assist him complete his education.
He passed Grade 12 with 18 points and was accepted to study at the University of Zambia (UNZA).
Unfortunately, when Mr Chela went to UNZA to collect Thomas acceptance letter, the letter was withdrawn after the registrar learnt that he was blind.
“The registrar indicated that blind people had been a problem at the institution hence they could not take me on,” he recalls.
Thomas’ former teacher advised him to soldier on and enrol for untrained teaching at Magwero and he later applied for a teaching course at Nkrumah Teachers College.
However, trouble came knocking one month into the course as lecturers could not read braille.
“I had already fallen in love with Nkrumah; I did not want to leave. I remember when I was in grade six; a teacher at Magwero taught us how to use manual type-writer.
“So, I requested the college to find me a type-writer and the Rotary Club donated one to me,” he says
That was a turning point and within two weeks, Thomas had mastered the type-writer.
Upon completion of the course, he was honoured as the best student.
“The principal actually asked me to write a recommendation that every year, the college would admit blind students,” he says.
Thomas was recruited and posted to Katete Secondary School for a year, and later moved to Chizongwe Technical High School.
However, at Chizongwe he had a tough time fitting in as the teaching staff doubted his ability to perform as a blind teacher.
For two months, he had no class but he resolved not to allow the situation frustrate him.
Eventually, he was allocated a Grade 10 class and it turned out to be the best performing class during the Grade 12 examinations.
In 2003, he resolved to further his education and applied to study special education at UNZA but for the second time, was denied entry.
“They said I did not have what they were looking for. I travelled to challenge the dean and his team. Their argument was that I had not passed through the Zambia Institute for Special Education,” he recalls.
Luckily, the dean and his team had a change of heart and allowed Thomas to enroll at the highest learning institution.
Thomas’ stay at UNZA was easy going until his manual type-writer dropped during an exam.
“In 2005, I was supposed to write an examination and because my type-writer was heavy, about 20 Kg, my lecturer offered to carry it but it dropped on the ground and that was the end of it. And that was about 15 minutes before the exam.
“As the lecturer was contemplating on plan b, I asked to be given a computer because the keyboard is similar. I was given a computer and that is how I started typing my exam. That created another turning point in my life,” he recalls.
Thomas shared his experience with then chaplain at the University Christian Community, Emmanuel Chikoya, who assisted him to acquire a laptop and speech navigation software to ease his work.
Upon completion of the course, yet again he performed exceptionally well that the university recruited him as a staff development fellow in January 2009.
He also enrolled for his masters and the former Minister of Education John Phiri was his supervisor and lecturer until he graduated in 2011.
Thomas returned to UNZA as a lecturer and in 2004, he had an opportunity to study Human Rights law in the United Kingdom.
Thomas, who is the brains behind the Patriotic Front (PF) manifesto on education, was in 2014, appointed to sit on the Teaching Council of Zambia.
Currently, he is head of section special education at UNZA.
Thomas, who is married to Faith with three children, says ‘life is how you make it’.
He advises persons with disabilities to be positive about life and show determination.
“When you develop a positive mind-set and approach towards issues, you will begin to look at life differently,” he says.