Mbira led me to my first Braille experience in April 2004.

I am posting my Braille stories today in commemoration of Braille Day, 4 January. It is the day Louis Braille was born in 1809 in Coupvray- a town about twenty miles east of Paris- France. He lost sight at the age of three due to an accident with one of his father’s tools. One eye was injured and went blind. The other eye “sympathised” with the injured one and Louis lost sight in both his eyes. At the age of 12, Louis was inspired by the military cryptography of Charles Barbier, and began developing a system of tactile code that could allow blind people to read and write quickly and efficiently.

“Mapundu”

Our elders at school would describe braille as “mapundu” because it resembled skin texture in conditions like chicken pox. When I was in Grade 3 at Chimedza Primary School, a boy in Grade 6 would receive letters in braille. The boy seemed to have cataracts. At some point, he had attended school at Copota School for the Blind. I never had much concern about how braille was read because the boy never seemed to have need for it.

During my first ticha year, I visited a young ticha aspirant in the village. His main subject was Mathematics and the rough papers for his calculations were braille textbooks. I failed to make sense out of braille text after looking and running my fingers on it.

The encounter that changed it all

One April afternoon in 2004, I was walking home with my mbira. I had missed an interview at United College of Education. They had asked me to apply in 2005 and it meant I would receive training in Special Needs Education in 2006. I consoled myself with my music on the way and, before I got home, a man called from his maize field by the roadside. When I told him my name, he asked what instrument I was playing. He did not know what an mbira looked like. I went to him and discovered that he was blind.

I instructed him to play the mbira with the thumbs when he worked on the keys with his fingers from above. He said he was tempted to play from above because the keys on the mbira resembled keys of a machine they used to write braille. I said “Sekuru, I know braille are those mapundu but I dont’t know how to write. Do you have the machine here?” He had a slate and stylus. His slate had three lines. That became my Day One with Braille. He is the one who told me banks like POSB and AgriBank had ATMs with braille. I went to Masvingo and discovered I could not read the braille on the ATMs. He said I had l had learnt only the alphabet and numbers. I had to learn Grade 2 Braille with contracted words in advanced symbols.

When schools opened in May 2004, I borrowed his writing tools and I carried them to Mwenezi. I wrote a letter to a young man who was blind. The following morning, he was at my door with the letter. “What did you write? I lost my reading skill because I left school more than ten years ago without books and writing tools.” In less than two weeks, I was transferred to Harare.

On the way to Harare, I met a young man who was a student at the University of Zimbabwe. I took his phone number. When I called a few days later, he said he was through with his exams he was working on packing his bags. I paid him a visit and he gave me his A4 size braille slate and a novel in braille. I taught myself Grade 2 Braille with the book- Matigari, asked for a Braille Primer from the Dorothy Duncan Library.

I stopped every blind person I saw in 2004 and we became friends. I met a man who worked at the National Braille Press and a lady from Chitungwiza who read her braille with speed I have never encountered with print text readers.

In 2005, I offered transcription services at the Disability Resource Centre at the University of Zimbabwe.

Using mbira tuning tools to fix Braille machines

When I went for Special Needs training in 2006, I was the last to collect the braille machine. The machine was out of order and I told the lecturer I would do with my slates. I was forced to work with Perkins Brailler and I borrowed one of my friends. I had carried my mbira tools and I used them to open the two machines. That is how I learnt to mend Perkins Braillers. At some point, I became so good that I would instruct you over the phone.

My first braille experiences with children at St. Giles gave first timers with braille in junior classes. On Friday 2 February 2007, a boy who had gone blind at the end of his Grade 6 was introduced to our school with plans to register him for Grade 7 examinations in 2008. After a week, he was good enough to work with braille in reading and writing and he was registered for 2007 Grade 7 examinations. In 2010, I entered two of my St. Giles pupils as braille news-readers at Allied Arts Competitions.

Give it a go

Braille is not difficult to read. I do not use fingers when reading braille. I use sight. Of course it can be a marvel to watch braille readers who work with fingers. We have a marvellous everyday braille reader in Harare Gardens near the Main Stage Gate. Have a braille experience and take a moment to think who Louis is to that form writing.