TRAINING BLIND WORKERS IN THE COLONIES W I L F R E D A L T M A N ...
TRAINING BLIND WORKERS IN THE COLONIES
W I L F R E D A L T M A N
Blindness is at once a social menace and an economic challenge and the cost of
supporting blind people in colonial territories runs into millions. But schemes for industrial
training in Africa are now setting a pattern for other territories.
Six years ago, the British Empire Society adults were blind. In East Africa, their
for the Blind was incorporated as the first report stated, at least 15 per cent of the
organisation of its kind to operate in the population was affected by trachoma. In
Colonial Empire. Its task could be summed some areas, the infection was as high as 80
up in the fact that there were a million blind
per cent. School examinations in different
men, women and children in British colonial provinces of Tanganyika showed that up to
territories—three times the blind population 66 per cent of the children suffered from
of Britain and the U.S.A. p u t together—and this eye disease.
that nine-tenths of this blindness was esti-
In Central Africa, investigations pointed
mated to be preventible.
to the fact that, in Nyasaland alone, there
In 1945, five years prior to the incorpo-
was a blind population of between 20,000
ration of the British Empire Society for the and 25,000, including 3,000 young people,
Blind, the Colonial Office and the National or twice the number of blind school children
Institute for the Blind set up a joint-
in England and Wales. T r a c h o m a and con-
committee to investigate blindness in the junctivitis, endemic throughout most of the
colonies. This Committee soon realised that Middle East, were major causes of blind-
it was confronting a major social problem. ness and disability in Gibraltar, Malta,
After studying all available facts in the Cyprus and Aden.
United Kingdom, it sent a delegation to
Human Suffering and Economic Loss.
Africa and the Middle East. Twelve colonies Behind these grim facts, as the B.E.S.B.'s
were visited during a ten-month tour first annual report in 1950 explained, is a
covering 35,000 miles.
tragic story of h u m a n suffering and economic
—The resultant report pointed loss. Most blind people in the colonies live
to the fact that the four West African colonies
as family dependants, or as beggars wander-
alone had a blind population of at least ing from town to town in search of alms.
300,000; that in Northern Nigeria, one Blind children were often exploited by
person in 70 suffered from blindness, and beggars' guilds, and there was evidence that
one in seven had eye disease. In an extensive a few African tribes still practised infanti-
area of the Northern Gold Coast, onchocer-
cide of blind children.
ciasis, a blinding disease carried by the
Quite apart from the h u m a n suffering,
Simulium fly, attacks half the population.
food, clothing and shelter for t h e million
In some villages of this area—known people who were producing nothing repre-
locally as the "Country of the Blind"— sented a loss to the colonies of at least £ 1 0
investigators found that a fifth of all male million per a n n u m . To teach a blind m a n
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W I L F R E D A L T M A N
a trade costs less than to support him in a member of the small delegation touring
idleness for five years. Basketry, weaving, Africa and the Middle East.
mat-making, pottery and leatherwork Towards the end of last year, Mr. Wilson
were all suitable occupations—trades in returned from a three-month tour of
fact on which the European blind h a d Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Kenya,
built up their tradition of skill and Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Southern
Rhodesia and the Bechuanaland Protecto-
But to give the impression that no action rate. Earlier in 1955, he visited British
h a d been taken up to 1950 to deal—how-
Guiana, Trinidad, Barbados, the Leeward
ever inadequately—with this great social Islands, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
problem would be unjust. In a number of
" O u r job in these, and indeed in all
colonies, resolute action to prevent blindness colonial territories," Mr. Wilson told me in
and to care for the blind had been taken by an interview at the Society's offices in
governments, missions, voluntary societies London "is to mobilise all forces which can
and individual workers.
be brought to bear on the problem of blind-
—This, then, was ness, and working in co-operation with in-
the background against which the British ternational agencies, governments, missions
Empire Society for the Blind was incor-
and social welfare agencies in the colonies.
porated in 1950 to act under the direction of
First Five Years.
—To indicate the achieve-
an executive committee whose first six ments of the Society during the first five
members were appointed by the Secretary years to 1955, Mr. Wilson quoted from its
of State for the Colonies and the National last annual report.
Institute for the Blind. This committee was
" I n a score of territories, which together
empowered to take action in every territory contain more than two-thirds of the popula-
of the British Colonial Empire to prevent tion of the British Colonial Empire, the
blindness and to advance the education, foundations have been laid of a permanent
training, employment and welfare of the system of blind welfare. The number of
blind children at school has doubled; the
number of blind adults in training has in-
T h e day-to-day direction of the work of creased ten-fold. Thirty new schools and
the Society was entrusted to Mr. John training centres have been established, six
Wilson, O. B. E., who, although blind him-
more are being built and an additional
self through an accident at school, won a eighteen have been planned. Braille
scholarship to Oxford, having learnt Braille alphabets have been devised for practically
a n d studied at the Worcester College for the every written language in the colonies.
Blind, and then obtained an Honours Teachers and blind welfare workers have
degree in Jurisprudence and a diploma in come to the U.K. for special training from
Social Sciences and Administration. At 21, 16 different colonial territories.
Mr. Wilson had been appointed Assistant
Secretary of the National Institute for the
"Surveys to reveal the extent and causes
Blind. It was in this capacity t h a t he of blindness have been conducted in areas
became secretary of the Committee of the containing twenty-four million inhabitants.
Institute which the Colonial Office set up to New eye clinics have been established by
investigate blindness in the colonies. He was governments in many territories and the
T R A I N I N G B L I N D W O R K E R S I N T H E C O L O N I E S
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number of eye treatments has increased and the huts can be built by the local
dramatically. International interest has been authorities for not more than £ 6 0 0 . African
focused on some of the main causes of teachers and instructors, recruited in the
tropical blindness and important research and villages and trained either by a supervisor or
control measures are now being successfully at a centre such as Bwana Mkubwa or
Salama, are readily available. At the end of
"As a result of my last tour," said Mr. the demonstration period, the centre, from
Wilson, "the Society decided for the next which the African supervisor on a bicycle
three years to concentrate its attention and could maintain contact with up to 100 blind
m u c h of its accumulated reserves on the workers within a 50 mile radius, can be
problem of finding realistic employment for absorbed into the normal administration and
the blind in rural areas."
life of the village.
" W e have already established that this sort
"These schemes collectively," Mr. Wilson
of thing is possible. Blind Africans are being added, "might well set a new pattern of work
trained as farmers in Kenya, as village crafts-
for the blind, not only in Africa, b u t also for
men in Central Africa, and for variety of other 'under-developed' territories. Nothing
rural occupations. During the next three like them has been attempted before in
years, the Society will collaborate in five
experimental schemes which together will
—What was the reaction to
train 1,200 blind Africans for rural occu-
them by the local authorities?
pations, and, at the same time will build up
a nucleus of trained instructors."
"I can tell you about my experience in
—Mr. Wilson des-
the Bechuanaland Protectorate, which is by
cribed a basic village unit already in existence
no means unique. There the Government is
on the shores of Lake Mweru. It consisted extremely keen to introduce some realistic
of a group of huts, crude, mudbrick cons-
scheme of welfare for the blind. They regard
tructions with grass roofs, erected by the it as one of their major social problems and
local people for a few pounds and staffed by have for some years been urged by the chiefs
two trained village instructors. There were to do something about it.
thirty blind students being taught not Braille,
" W h e n I was there, the Divisional Com-
artithmetic and polite manners, but the trades missioner at Lobatsi convened a meeting of
of their village. This was a fishing com-
the paramount chiefs, some of whom had
munity where life is m a d e up of nets, canoes, come from as far as 700 miles, and we spent
fish-curing and simple agriculture. No attempt
a whole day beneath a large gum tree on the
was being m a d e to "improve" these blind lawn discussing my village training centre
people; they were simply learning, success-
scheme. There was a m u r m u r of incredulity
fully, to become average members of their as the Commissioner said that in Britain
blind people read with their fingers, they
"Geoffrey Salisbury, the modest author of work big machines in factories, earn their
the scheme, warned me t h a t it wasn't m u c h living and support their families. T h e n I
to look at," said Mr. Wilson, " b u t it fitted read at random from the Braille Mail, and
into the village and that was what mattered."
this, together with an attempt at writing
T h e point about these schemes is that they Braille phonetically in the C h u a n a language,
are inexpensive to establish and maintain, caused something of a sensation.
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W I L F R E D A L T M A N
"By the end of the day a detailed scheme African women in food-growing, family
had been worked out. T h e only difficulty was rearing and home-management.
to decide in which village to start, as all
T h e work of the British Empire Society
the chiefs wanted to get on with it. T h e for the blind and its affiliated orga-
five principal villages were selected and in nisations in 28 territories from the
each case the chief undertook to father the West Indies round the world a n d t h e
Pacific has already been acknowledged as
scheme. At other areas, we were to provide one of the most outstanding developments of
an expert to supervise it."
voluntary social service in recent years. T h e
United Nations has estimated that there are
—Further schemes of this at least 10 million blind people in the world
kind have also been planned in Kenya and and that most of them live in areas removed
U g a n d a ; in Tanganyika, there is to be a from specialised medical and welfare services.
demonstration centre for village craftsmen; Thus the leadership which the British Empire
in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, it will Society for the Blind is giving in this field—
be designed to take into account that the and its obvious success in terms of h u m a n
economy is based largely on the fishing a n d economic betterment—clearly has an
industry; in Southern Rhodesia and Uganda, importance beyond the immediate objective.
an attempt is to be made to train blind (New Commonwealth, London).