Boniface Onundu, 44, was in nursery school when his teachers noticed that he could not copy what was written on the blackboard like his classmates.
“I was four years old at the time, with a relatively normal childhood and up to this point in life, nobody had noticed that anything was off about my sight,” says Boniface.
One teacher, however, was so concerned about his inability to write that he visited Boniface’s grandmother to share his concerns.
Boniface can’t recall the details of the visit, but he remembers the outcome clearly because it changed his life. The teacher suggested to his grandmother that Boniface might have an eye problem. And his family immediately swung into action.
“My mother gave birth to me when she was still in high school, so my grandmother became my primary caregiver, supported by my uncle, John Joseph Kiage. I remain indebted to him for the fatherly role he played in my life. When my uncle heard about the teacher’s visit and his suspicions, he came to pick me up from home and took me for a proper diagnosis in Kisumu,” explains Boniface.
His uncle worked as a civil servant at the time but has since retired. After the diagnosis, his uncle took him in and raised him as his own child, and Boniface’s mother visited them frequently. Boniface and his uncle still enjoy a close father-son relationship to date.
A world full of challenges
The doctors at Russia Hospital in Kisumu (which is today known as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga referral hospital) solved the mystery of his eyesight. They discovered that he had a congenital eye problem, which made it extremely difficult to perceive anything written on the chalkboard or to write.
One mystery had been solved, but a world of challenges he had not experienced before awaited him.
“Up until this point, I had no idea I was blind, as I had lived my life just fine. Neither my mother nor my grandmother noticed anything strange growing up, as I played with other children and did my chores, so I had nothing to compare to,” he explains.
After Boniface’s life-changing diagnosis, his uncle John took full charge of his schooling. The doctors in Kisumu had recommended that he should join a school for the visually impaired.
A teacher he met in nursery school at Kibos School for the Blind stirred a desire in his heart for teaching and contributed heavily to his passionate pursuit of a teaching career later in his adulthood.
“Her name was Mrs Rose Simiyu, and she was a no-nonsense teacher, but we knew she cared deeply for us. One memory I have is when we were asked to sing during Christian Religious Education lessons, and I belted out a popular song titled: Shauri Yako (It’s Your Problem) because it was the only song I had heard being played over and over again on the radio. She punished me for that,” he recalls, laughing at the memory.
He adds: “We were trained on how to move around when on the pavement, verandas, dormitories and dining areas by the teachers, and this was known as mobility training. These training sessions helped a lot because they minimised accidents.”
His uncle took care of his school fees and everything else he needed from nursery school until he completed his diploma in teaching.
“Interestingly, he paid school fees for both my mother and me. He was kind and generous and believed that educating us was the best gift he could ever give us. A lot of family members benefited from his generosity.”
Boniface met the love of his life while working as a volunteer teacher in 2007 awaiting placement by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).
“I had visited a friend who allowed me to teach some of his classes. He introduced me to one of the casual workers at the school, Risper Kemunto Kimaiga, commenting that he thought we would get along very well, and we did! During our courtship, I asked her if my blindness mattered to her. Was she just feeling sorry for me or did she really love me? She told me that it did not matter to her and I believed her.”
He married her in 2009, the same year that he was posted to a primary school in Kisii by the TSC, and they have two daughters together, Gloria Gesare Onundu, 13, and Purity Kerubo Onundu, 12.
He’s picked up some valuable lessons about marriage from his own experience.
“It is better to be loved than to be feared. If someone is impaired or disabled and the other one is okay they can lead a happy life as long as there is no fear of the disability,” he advises.
On finances, he says: “If money were to be found up in the monkey trees, most people would be married by money. This one is for those who aspire to marry. We should not look at the aspect of money, look at the aspect of love and not money.”
The wisdom of children
Boniface prides himself in the strong and close relationship he shares with his children, even though they have never openly discussed his disability.
“We have never told them about my condition. They are contented with me as their father, even if they are curious and very inquisitive. Perhaps they put two and two together as they grew older and were contented with that. What they normally ask is how I am able to do certain things like drawing. I am gifted with pencil drawing. And I have taught my daughters how to do it as well.”
Boniface’s mother, who passed away in the year 2000, was also a gifted artist.
“I must have inherited artistic talent from her. I love pencil work and I hope to learn to paint one day. Perhaps with the help of a mentor, I can do it.”
He now had a wife, children and a job as a primary school teacher at Nyangonge DEB Primary School but the desire to become an early childhood educator still burned deeply in his heart and he decided to do something about it.
“I enrolled for a diploma course on early childhood education and would attend classes during school holidays. After my diploma, I chose to do a degree on the same at Kenyatta University, as they have excellent facilities for students with disabilities, including on-campus transport,” he explains.
His university education was partly sponsored by the National Council for Persons with Disabilities based in Westlands, Nairobi. He graduated in December 2021 with Second Class Honours (Upper Division).
His ultimate career dream is to become a field education officer.
“I would like to be able to supervise and monitor learning especially in our PP1 and PP2 classes, as I am very concerned about child growth and development. It is during their formative years that children can easily get damaged so when these children continue learning as they keep on climbing the education ladder some of them don’t excel so well because their foundations already had been damaged at the early stages of education.”
He hopes to be able to empower teachers with the right skills, knowledge and attitude on how to handle young children.
“We really miss a lot, there is a lot that needs to be done to create a good foundation for our young children because you know children are always naïve people, they emulate what the adults do or what their teachers do so I am very concerned to get that opportunity to do some refresher courses or to move around our schools and ensure that these learners have the right foundation.”
The axe forgets but the tree remembers
Boniface lives his life by this saying “the axe forgets but the tree remembers”. “All of us were children at some point. Our upbringing matters a lot. This axe is the caregiver and whatever the caregiver does will leave indelible marks on the child. The child will remember the good and the bad, so it is up to the caregiver to make sure that the memories don’t harm the child.”
Boniface would like everyone to remember that disability is not inability, cliched as it may be.
“People with disabilities deserve to be given a chance to prove themselves. Given the opportunity, they can excel. The problem is that we are hardly given opportunities and are often bypassed for jobs and promotions. Affirmative action needs to be implemented in all government and non-governmental institutions.”