Mogadishu – Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdullahi was born in the rural area of the Mudug region, Puntland, in Somalia, in 1992, to a family of pastoralists.
At birth, he had normal vision.
He was brought to the city of Galkayo at the age of five to study at religious and secular schools but, after completing grade four at a local school in 2001, his life changed.
“I suffered an eye ailment, and I was immediately taken to an ophthalmologist for treatment – the doctor carried out eye surgery on me, but I lost my sight,” Mr. Abdullahi recalls.
Quest for education
The loss of his sight plunged Mr. Abdullahi into depression. He thought that he could no longer continue with his education as, at that time in Somalia, there was no system to educate the visually impaired.
For the next few years, he remained at home with his family.
Then, in 2008, his life changed yet again. He enrolled at the newly-established Basar Institute for the Blind in Garowe in Somalia’s north-eastern Federal Member State of Puntland. The establishment offers primary education with qualified teachers who have graduated from different blind institutions, as well as other activities for children and adults with limited vision.
According to its social media accounts, the institute’s programmes are designed to restore “self-confidence and enable people who are blind and visually impaired to do familiar tasks in a new way and understand their rights in the community.”
“I shed tears of joy when I returned to middle school three years later at Basar Institute, wearing a student uniform. It was a special day for me, and I shared my joy with my peers,” Mr. Abdullahi recalls.
However, when he began his studies at the Omar Samatar High School in Galkayo in 2009, Mr. Abdullahi once again came up against obstacles.
He studied there with students who were not visually impaired and, as a result, he felt his studies suffered as there were no facilities that catered for visually impaired students, such as braille teaching equipment and teachers trained in guiding students with limited vision.
“Since I could not see in the classroom, I used to ask my classmates to help me and write down the lessons for me. But, unfortunately, as they did this the board was often erased, so I had to go home with my fellow students to catch up on what was in the lessons,” he says.
“I had a lot of problems when it came to exams. I was tested orally and I didn’t have time to think or answer the questions as I would have liked to, and my exams used to take place in offices that were always noisy. Also, some teachers did not think to ask me questions in class because they assumed that I did not understand the lessons well.”
However, he applied himself and was able to overcome these obstacles with the support of his fellow students – he completed high school with excellent results. The next step was tertiary education.
His quest for higher education led him to Mogadishu.
“I was enrolled in Somaville University in Mogadishu in 2014 to study for an undergraduate degree in international relations. However, during my university studies I faced the same challenges as I did in high school,” Mr. Abdullahi says.
“My biggest one was finding teachers who could understand my special needs, as they were not trained to teach students like me,” he adds. “But, with the help of some of my colleagues and technology, I persevered – I would upload the teachers’ presentations and lessons in an audio format on my phone, have some of my classmates revise them again and again after each lesson, comparing them to what was on the board, and would then listen to them at home, so I was able to overcome the challenges. Fortunately, I graduated and celebrated it with my friends and family in 2018.”
Becoming a teacher
Early on, Mr. Abdullahi’s experiences as a student prompted him to take action. Wanting to help others in a similar situation, he had already started tutoring at the Centre for Disability in Galkayo, in Puntland, before he even finished his high school.
“In 2010, I started working at the Centre that taught people with special needs, such as the visually impaired and the deaf. I was hired to be a special education teacher for the Somali language and mathematics. I worked there for a year; it was my first time working as a teacher,” he says.
Parallel to his own education, Mr. Abdullahi’s teaching career continued to progress. In 2014, while enrolled at university, he began working at one of the country’s most prominent schools for the visually impaired – the Al-Nur School for the Blind – in the country’s capital, Mogadishu.
By the time the 31-year-old had finished his formal education, his experiences as a student – and a teacher – crystallized to the extent that he decided upon a career in education with the aim of helping those in a similar situation.
“I now teach subjects such as mathematics and Somali language as a full-time teacher, and I enjoy teaching these subjects and teaching Somali boys and girls as I know the hardships that can arise and I do not want them to go through the same ordeal,” he says, adding, “I have always understood the needs of these students, as I have studied under similar circumstances.”
But while Mr. Abdullahi is busy as an educator, his time as a student is far from over. He plans to undertake postgraduate studies for people with special needs, with the longer-term of goal of helping build a system where a full education is easily available to any visually-impaired Somali – for their benefit and that of Somalia as a whole.
“I am convinced that educating people with disabilities can contribute to the development of this country. Recognizing that many people with disabilities like me need the country to do more for us, I am confident that educating and supporting people with disabilities will not be in vain,” Mr. Abdullahi says.
Mr. Abdullahi believes that Somalia still has a long way to go in terms of realizing the educational needs and human rights of people with special needs.
“Many believe that people with special needs cannot do everything like the rest of society. That is wrong, and it is not based on reality,” he says. “That kind of thinking leads to parents believing that their kids with special needs cannot learn and that is not true. The time has come for us to face reality: communities must put more effort into educating the youth with special needs who need schooling, now more than ever.”
Alongside his teaching, Mr. Abdullahi also works part-time as a journalist, a role in which he tries to change misperceptions as well as advocate for the rights of people with special needs.
“I have worked for several local media outlets, including Goobjoog FM, Mandeeq FM, Star FM and Rugsan from 2014 to the beginning of 2021 — this includes producing reports and programmes that talk about people with special needs — and I have reached the level of programme editor,” he says.
“I enjoy working with the media and as a teacher: teaching and journalism can go a long way as they are similar and compatible,” he adds, while noting that his fight for recognition of the needs of people with special needs goes even further.
Mr. Abdiullahi also uses his artistic talent in service to his goals. He has composed songs and poems, which have been widely used in some of the country’s media outlets, such as Somali National Television and Goobjoog Radio.
“I have always loved literature. I am aware of its importance, and I have written many poems and awareness-raising songs — mostly about people with special needs. I want to make their voices heard, as well as promote the important role of arts in the community,” he says.
Number of visually impaired people
Although there are no official statistics on the number of people living with blindness, Dr. Mustafa Kalaycı, an ophthalmologist at the Mogadishu-Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan Training and Research Hospital, in an article for the Turkish Journal of Ophthalmology published on 30 October 2020, stated that “the overall blindness rate was found to be 9.8 per cent in the adult Somali population.”
The physician’s findings stem from a hospital-based study aimed at evaluating the causes and frequency of blindness among the adult Somali population, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO) criteria. Of 2,605 patients – 1,251 female and 1,354 male – 256 patients were determined to have blindness in one or both eyes and were included in the study. According to the study, trauma is the leading cause of blindness due to the security conditions in the country.
The United Nations marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities annually on 3 December. The observance aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.