“IT’s getting late, isn’t it, Patrick?” chirrups Florence Mokwena, the deputy chair of Zimbabwe National Disability Board, recently at the 2nd Disability Continental Conference in Harare. “It has been a long day. We need to have our dinner now and to retire.” She is tired, hardly surprising, given that it is almost 7.30pm and she had been on the road since leaving Bulawayo that morning — more than 400 km away. But that doesn’t prevent her from talking at length about her 20-year career, and the events that shaped it.
She’s not one to hold back as we have our snacks during the cocktail on the eve of the 2nd Disability Continental Roundtable Meeting at a city hotel in Harare recently. Before long, she is vividly remembering the war years, the glaucoma that cost her eye-sight way back in the late 1970s and withdrawal from school at the tender age of 18. Does the loss of sight remain the defining moment of her life? “It is significant,” she replies, and it’s a typical Mokwena response, “but I was blessed to come out of it. God gave me life to continue to do things that I probably would never have done.”
She had to leave boarding school after losing her sight “when in my second year of high school at Zezani” in the country’s Matabeleland South province. “There was no alternative because those days there was no access to rehabilitation for those who lost their sight — like physiotherapy for those involved in car accidents or similar mishaps,” she says, “so I had to go and stay home in the rural areas as there was no integrated school that had facilities for the blind in the vicinity.”
A tremendous influence on her life was her former head teacher at Zezani ― Mr Moyo — who helped her back into the system after he “found me” in the rural areas of Beitbridge. She was referred to a mobility class at a mission school in Masvingo before proceeding to Chegato High School for her Ordinary and Advanced levels — the same one as attended by the famed late blind musician Paul Matavire.
Being an intelligent student, she proceeded to university in 1990, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree and headed back to the classroom eager to demostrate what those with disabilities like herself could do — if given opportunities. She is so likeable. Is there anybody who doesn’t like her, I ask. “Heh,” she chuckles, then pauses. “Well, No, disability-haters are few. But there are those . . . some but we don’t like to think about that.”
After graduation, on being offered a teaching post, she remembers one principal doubting and worried why the school appointed a teacher with a disability among their staff. “She’s going to give us problems” ― I heard him say to other teachers before giving in to the pressure to engage me,” she confided. However, she found a teaching post at Manama high in her province and proudly recalls teaching history to her class and achieving an unprecedented pass rate winning several merit awards although some fellow teachers still remained unimpressed.
“I felt: “I don’t give a “uh” what you think, or what anyone thinks!’ That was my growing-up mantra in the disability world!” she declares, adding that she taught Advanced and Ordinary level history from 1993 to 2007 July at Mtshabezi High school before taking a break and joining a non-governmental organisation for a three-year contact. Mokwena is adamant that despite her disability or handicap, there’s no mountain too high or river too deep to cross.
The teaching bug bit her and she returned to the classroom and she has been at Mtshabezi High School ever since. Mokwena confesses she feels a pressing need to achieve in non-teaching spheres, and, after chairing the morning session of the conference the next day, we pick it up and she digresses to discuss gender, girl-child and sexual abuse, a story she feels has not been fully told. “I’m talking about gender issues in our communities,” she says, explaining: “That is very sad. This is an occurrence almost every week in various communities but most people don’t want to confront it.”
In fact, poverty has a tendency of establishing itself firmly amongst people with disabilities through restricting their prospects for advancement. Does she worry much about stigma on blind people or disabled in general? “Of course,” she exclaims. “I’ve had comments, but I don’t put that energy out there because that’s just craziness.”
She believes mainstreaming disability involves the promotion of self-esteem, self-sufficiency and maximum participation by persons with disabilities in the community towards social, political and economic development. – Patrick Musira
What’s it like when she enters a new class and comes to the front and is introduced as the new teacher?
“I just focus on what I’m doing,” he says. “If students comment I give them that freedom … Every time I think about getting annoyed I remember how blessed I’ve been to have people who have followed my career.”
Is she in touch with the teacher who introduced her to Braille and got her school life back on the rail?
“Oh yeah,” she replies, breezily. “He brought me back from the outside and back on the road again. It was a lesson for me. And I make sure I also do what ever I can to help others.”
Does she never allow herself an egotistical moment to survey her career?
“Nah,” she says. “I work hard to improve myself as I have acquired a master’s in education.”
Is she a genius?
“No,” she says, “I was just blessed to have ideas. And I intend to bring the voice of all people with disabilities – to be a kind of role model and empower ourselves out of dependence by capacitating ourselves to become self-sufficient.”
Zimbabwe has a comprehensive legislative framework that offers social protection to persons living with disabilities grounded within the context of rights-based approaches. (more)
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According to the ministry of public service, labour and social services, government should provide vocational, medical and educational rehabilitation aimed at equipping disabled people with skills necessary for as it has taken the needs of people with disabilities into its development programme.
“We acknowledge that disability should be understood within the perspective of the disadvantages and exclusion people with impairments face in their interaction with social and environmental barriers,” said Nicholas Goche, the minister during the conference attended by delegates from over 15 countries across the continent.
“This is a result of the failure of society to take into account the rights and entitlements of persons with disabilities,” concurred the minister, encouraging all stakeholders to initialize and propose programmes aimed at empowering disabled persons out of dependence by capacitating them to become self-sufficient.
And, with her appointment to the Disability Board, Mokwena has heeded the call and she has become increasingly affirmative and pro-active. Has government done enough or is it doing enough? Is she more optimistic now? But how do the current times compare to way back when?
“I’m always optimistic, but the world isn’t. People need to make a jump to a place of positivity but they put it all on one person to make it happen,” she says. “It takes everybody. And the mindset has to be different. I mean, how do we have, in 2014, discrimination and stigma in the world against people with disabilities?”
Did she assume that stigma against people with disabilities would be obliterated?
“It can’t be obliterated until people confront the demon in the spirit,” he says, explaining: “A change of attitude.”
No wonder one of her current roles is a place in the Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council board where she was appointed by the minister of primary and secondary education this April.
The legal framework provides for direct parliamentary allocation of resources into the Disabled Persons Fund, which is a statutory fund administered by the ministry.
“You need to put your heart into making a difference,” she says, proposing “an end to poverty, discrimination, and illiteracy and employment for people living with disabilities” as just some of the responsibilities that need doing.
“Do you know, it’s funny,” she starts, “but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being a woman as a disadvantage either. I am what I am. And I don’t mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it.”
Mokwena has never gone off the rails, although when I ask if she ever regrets or if she ever considers that it’s “disadvantages” – being born a woman and then going blind – that have made her what she is?
“The discrimination I face on the job market,” she says, explaining: “After completing my Master in Education degree I desired a lectureship post at teacher training colleges. On the merit of my CV and certificates I am promptly invited
to attend interviews, but when I pitch up at the interview, that is the end of the story. This has happened at various institutions – Joshua Mqabuko Zintec, United College of Education, Hillside, hence I still remain a classroom teacher up to date.”
Bitter? Pity for yourself?
“No,” she says patiently, as though to a child who has said something particularly dumb. “When you feel pity for yourself, you have lost it. Anyone can be disabled anytime – even just getting out of this room you can be involved in an accident and become disabled! Even our elders realized this well back – seka urema wafa!”
“First of all,” she says. “I’m no better than the next person but we have got to try and overcome our barriers.”
“There’s always a point,” she stresses, adding: “If you punch somebody it means you have let your ability to communicate out the gate.”