OVERCOMING ADVERSITY

Crystal-clear ambition even after losing sight

Even the blind have a vision that a little help can enable, Senator Asige says

In Summary

• Nominated senator was born seeing but glaucoma robbed her of sight along the way

• After making a mark in music, she now advocates inclusion in the halls of power

Nominated Senator Crystal Asige grew up with the adversity of losing her sight but triumphed over it to become a beacon of hope in society.

Nominated Senator Crystal Asige during the interview
Nominated Senator Crystal Asige during the interview
Image: EZEKIEL AMINGA

Nominated Senator Crystal Asige grew up with the adversity of losing her sight but triumphed over it to become a beacon of hope in society.

The talented artiste-turned-politician was born and raised in Bombolulu, Mombasa county before going abroad to study.

The soft-spoken singer discovered her eye problem when she started having problems seeing the board, reading and doing other things that required looking carefully.

"I was not born like this. I had full sight when I was born," the ODM-nominated senator told the Star.

"But I got to a point in high school when I was about 14 to 15 years old, that's when I started to see that there was a problem with my eyes, I couldn't see well."

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After Asige underwent eye tests over the years, the eye doctors finally determined that she had a disease called glaucoma.

Dr Daniel Kiage from Innovation Eye Centre in Kisii explains that glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that harm the optic nerve, usually due to increased intraocular pressure (pressure within the eye).

As the nerve is damaged, vision loss can occur.

The typical range for eye pressure is 10 to 20 millimeters of mercury, but Dr Kiage says glaucoma can still develop within this range.

The singer’s condition continued to worsen when she was between 15 and 21 years old until finally, she became completely blind.

She had a hard time accepting her new situation and accepting her new life after losing her sight.

"It was difficult. Many nights I cried; I was praying. I asked God, why me?" she said.

"Especially because he gave me the ability to make music, on stage, to be an actor. I loved those things.

"I was always fighting with God but there came a time when God told me to calm down. Since that day, I have been assured that God is protecting me."

Now she has already accepted her condition and has learned to chase her dreams despite not being able to see.

I was always fighting with God but there came a time when God told me to calm down. Since that day, I have been assured that God is protecting me
Crystal Asige

RESETTLING INTO SOCIETY

Johannah Mweu, the academic registrar at the Kenya Institute of Special Education, says individuals who lose their sight, particularly those who experience vision loss in adulthood, need rehabilitation.

Those who acquire the disability of not seeing in adulthood face a lot of challenges since they were used to going about their day without any help.

But individuals can be reintegrated into a sense of sight through rehabilitation utilising their other senses.

One crucial aspect of this rehabilitation involves adapting to alternative modes of reading, as they can no longer rely on their vision.

“They have to read using other senses, and the sense they use mostly is the tac tie, using the touch,” Mweu said.

"And when we talk of the touch, at the beginning, it's not very well developed but after stimulation in terms of touching the braille dots, touching different textures, and identifying things through different textures, then they can access information."

Even while serving in the Senate, Asige is still making waves in the music scene.

Her latest project, an EP titled 'Blinding Allure', pays homage to hip hop and R&B enthusiasts, showcasing a seamless blend of genres.

“When I write music, I start with an idea or a melody in my mind, or maybe I have dreamt it,” she said.

"A lot of times it comes to me when I am sleeping. The process starts there then I take my guitar and try to create some codes to that melody I have in my head, and after that is when I start putting lyrics down."

All her life, she had never imagined being in politics, let alone being a senator.

She however says on several instances, people close to her had asked her to be in more forums and speak out since she knew how to articulate her thoughts.

“Once the new Constitution came place in 2010 and there was a Woman Representative position, several people came to me and asked me to try run for Mombasa Woman Rep sea,t but I didn’t know what that even meant at that time, because everything was so new,” she said.

"So no, it [politics] was not something that I planned for or dreamt of since I was a child, but I am grateful that I am here."

Even though she had applied to be nominated to Parliament, when she learnt that she was actually nominated, she was scared.

“I applied for this opportunity, it has actually come, like for real, like the chips have fallen, and so I was scared,” she said.

"But my dad calmed me down. He was like so sure that I would do a good job, with no doubts at all."

With Asige being the first-ever Member of Parliament with a sensory disability, the House has stretched its ways of working and thinking and been supportive to make sure she does her legislative duties well.

“They were used to making rams but now they have had to stretch their ways of working. But there are still gaps and things that can be done better,” she said.

"Though I am in a better place than I was in 2022, when I first started."

MAKING A CHANGE

Since her nomination to the Senate, Asige has championed the passage of three Bills aimed at advancing the interests of Persons with Disabilities. These Bills include the Persons with Disabilities Bill 2023, the Kenyan Sign Language Bill 2023 and the Startup Bill 2022.

The Persons with Disabilities Bill 2023 sought to enact legislation that aligns with Article 54 of the Constitution. It aimed to restructure the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, defining its functions and powers.

Additionally, the Bill established an institutional framework for safeguarding, promoting and monitoring the rights of persons with disabilities, along with providing incentives and reliefs for them. The Senate passed this Bill on February 21.

The Kenyan Sign Language Bill 2023 aimed to implement Article 7(3)(b) of the Constitution, focusing on promoting and developing the use of Kenyan sign language.

It emphasised the inclusion of sign language in the education curriculum and its utilisation in legal proceedings. This Bill was also passed on February 21.

Lastly, the Startup Bill 2022 aimed to establish a framework for technological development, innovation and entrepreneurship. It, too, received Senate approval on February 21.

Asige's advocacy efforts have garnered various honours, including being named a Top 40 Under 40 finalist in 2023, receiving the Kotex She Can Awards in 2020 and earning a nomination for the Extravaganza Award in 2019.

She has also delivered impactful addresses at esteemed gatherings, such as UN Habitat, Yali, One Young World Summit and Women in Transport Africa.

Asige says just as with the outside world, at first, people in Parliament did not know how to interact with her because they probably had not been in close proximity with PWDs before.

She thinks not enough has been done to support PWDS in the country, noting that Kenya has a lot of bright minds and examples of what they could do but the implementations have not been good.

Elmand Odero, assistant director of Special Needs Education at KICD, says Kenya has made progress in terms of personnel.

He cited the development of a curriculum for diploma teachers interested in special needs education, which is now being offered at the Kenya Institute of Special Education.

However, he says there is a gap in pre-primary education, where the county bears responsibility for infrastructure and administration.

Some counties lack specialised schools or institutions designated by the county as adequately equipped to accommodate these learners.

This results in some parents sending their children to schools far away, depriving them of parental care.

“County governments need to act. If establishing a special school isn't feasible, then the nearby ECDE (Early Childhood Development Education) centers should prioritise inclusivity in their physical environment and materials,” Odero says.

"We can assist them in obtaining these resources as the curriculum is under the jurisdiction of the national government."

People with disability have the same. We have goals, ambitions, dreams and hopes. Most of the time usually, the people around us are the ones who put barriers between us and what we want to achieve

PUSH FOR ACTION

Asige has been in talks with the clerk and the Speaker of the Senate regarding how she'll be informed when her speaking time is up during debates or proceedings as she cannot read the clock on the wall.

She explains the difficulty she faces in determining the remaining time and suggests that the House should devise a method to assist her in keeping track.

“Sometimes I might be contributing then all over sudden I am told, I have one minute remaining, and I am like, I have not even gone through any of the things I want to get through,” Asige says.

"So, it's small things like that that need to be looked into. In general, the country is moving towards inclusivity, but it’s a slow walk."

Odero says every county must guarantee the presence of trained special needs teachers to provide support for these learners locally.

He urges the government or the Ministry of Education to ring-fence funds designated for special needs schools.

This method ensures transparency as it clearly indicates to Parliament the allocated budget for special needs education, he says.

This budget can then be allocated and directed to various areas within the school as needed.

The nominated senator firmly believes that having a disability should never obstruct one's pursuit of dreams.

Limitations exist only in the mind, she says. If one can envision it, they can achieve it.

She urges everyone to extend the same level of compassion and understanding to people with disabilities as they would to themselves.

“People don’t walk around saying they cannot do this. You wake up and say that I have this, i want to achieve this in my life, these are my goals, my ambitions," Asige says.

"And people with disability have the same. We have goals, ambitions, dreams and hopes. Most of the time usually, the people around us are the ones who put barriers between us and what we want to achieve. And not us people with disability."

She says limitations are often imposed on PWDs, yet no PWD is inherently born believing in their limitations; rather, it's the influence of those around them that instils such beliefs.

These statements, she says, can deeply impact their self-perception and hinder their ability to achieve their goals, which she considers unjust.

Asige reflects on her accomplishments, expressing pride not only in her Senate work but also in her contributions to music and advocacy.

In her leisure time, the ODM-nominated senator indulges in various activities.

She delights in immersing herself in TV series, enjoying the captivating narratives.

Cooking is another passion, where she finds joy in creating culinary delights.

Swimming offers her relaxation and rejuvenation, while basking in the warmth of the sun brings her serenity.

Travelling is an adventure she cherishes as it allows her to experience the sights and sounds of different places, aiding in her imagination of the world's diverse landscapes.

This story has been produced by the Star in partnership with WAN IFRA Women in News Social Impact Reporting Initiative

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