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International Corner: a Blind Activist in Cameroon

There are about 600,000 blind people In Cameroon. The country's sight-impaired complain of a lack of government support, but one man, himself blind, is fighting for change.

As a young boy in Yaounde, Bertin Coco Moussa spent hours every day playing football. But in 1979, when he was just four years old, his life changed forever.

His mother noticed he had a hard time finding the ball, and doctors confirmed his sight was deteriorating. By age 15, it was gone--as was his dream of becoming a professional athlete. His first reaction, he says, was disbelief and anger. He tells about the day he woke up and found his sight was much worse than the day before.

"I felt pain for three days and when I woke up on the fourth day, I could not see again. I did not know it was blindness. I tried to wash my face, tried to open the eyes, but I could not see. It was a terrible situation for me. I wanted to commit suicide, but I did not know how to go about it."

Moussa, now 40 years old, says he's glad he did not kill himself. Over the years, religion and rehabilitation training restored his self-confidence. Today, he heads his own group of centres for those who have lost their sight, The Club for Young Rehabilitated Blind People (Club des Jeunes Aveugles Rehabilites du Cameroun).

Moussa and another blind friend, Martin Luther, co-founded the group shortly after graduating from a rehabilitation school for the blind in 1986. At the end of their training, the government gave each of them a one-time stipend of 135 dollars. They decided to go into business. Using Coco's bedroom as a workshop, the two began weaving rope chairs, which they sold to tourists. They invited other schoolmates from the rehabilitation centre and soon they were into everything from music to drama, with the twin goals of making money and educating the public about the plight of the blind.

As the activities grew, they sought support from the Department of Social Affairs, which offered them the corridors of their offices in Yaounde to use as a handicraft workshop. Friends advised them to form an association, which would help them unite and attract support. In 1988, they founded the Club of Young Rehabilitated Blind People, which runs 10 rehabilitation centres across the country.

Moussa says, "The aim of the association is to sensitize the public about the problems of people with blindness. It is also to bring together blind people, train them and insert them in the economic circuit of the nation."

Traditionally, in Cameroon, the blind have usually been left to beg on the streets. But the centre sees things differently: It runs a poultry farm, where the sight-impaired learn to raise chickens and market their eggs.

At the club's headquarters, students learn how to move about by themselves with the help of a cane and how to read and write in braille.

Last year, 150 students graduated from 10 centres across the country, under a nationwide literacy program that started in 2005. The program was run by Moussa and sponsored by the government. One hundred fifty more students are now in training. In all, about 1,000 blind people have benefited from the centres' activities.

And Coco believes their lives have been changed for good, "It is [as if their] eyes are now open. They cannot physically see, but they are able to take control of their lives. Many are working, others developing income-generating activities; they can get married and live like any other person. They are really happy. Some are students in high schools, universities. We are happy about what we have been able to do."

Moussa's success has inspired many people and organizations.

In December 2003, Cameroon's first lady, Chantal Biya, chaired the inauguration of the club's headquarters in Yaounde. In 1994, Moussa was named the first Cameroonian fellow of the U.S.-based group, Ashoka, which recognizes men and women leading social change around the world. A year later, a government committee agreed to fund a literacy project by the centre with money saved from debt cancellation. The project is in its second phase.

Moussa says a lot has been done but it is far from enough.

Most Cameroonians who have lost their sight had a preventable illness or condition, such as river blindness and untreated cataracts. Moussa believes it is the collective responsibility of blind and sighted people to deal with the problem.

There is a government centre for the blind in Buea at the foot of Mt. Cameroon, but it has few openings. And Moussa says once the trainees complete the program, they are left on their own. His own centres were born out of the need to make the training received from the government-run centre useful in practical terms.

Today, he is also training blind people who've not been able to get into the government-run center.

A husband and father of five, Moussa declines to see his blindness as a handicap or a disability, and hopes many other blind people will respond to their condition in the same way.

But he has no political ambitions. All he wants is more empowerment for the blind and more respect from the public. He says if given opportunities, sight-impaired people can make a great contribution to society and even rise to lead nations.

As part of his work, he is also pushing for the rights of the sight-impaired. A law sets employment quotas for people with disabilities, but it is largely unknown and often ignored.

Last year, the centres began teaching blind people how to use the legal rights they've gained. There's also a program to tell employers about their obligations about hiring the blind.

Moussa also uses music as a tool to raise awareness about the plight of the blind and other disabled people. In 1999, his first album, Cecite (Blindness), was a hit in Cameroon.

Moussa says his biggest challenge was getting the centres operational. Many people tried to talk him out of it--they thought because he was blind, he stood no chance of succeeding. But that did not stop him. He says he hopes others will follow his example in the effort to reach the many other blind people who still need help.

Reprinted from Voice of America, January 14, 2008.

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