Teacher determined to help special needs kids

Sisana Mabuza is paying it forward despite having been born without the use of her arms

In Summary

• It teaches life skills to disabled youths with special needs

Sisana Mabuza... Items knitted by Sisana Mabuza on display
Sisana Mabuza... Items knitted by Sisana Mabuza on display

Every morning when the cock crows in Ngculwini village in the Kingdom of Eswatini, Sisana Mabuza wakes in the pre-dawn darkness to prepare for a long day ahead. It's a routine that repeats like clockwork through the week for the 40-year-old special needs teacher.

Mabuza completes the household chores in her home in rural eSwatini before catching a bus to the school, where she teaches life skills to disabled youths with special needs.

After her teaching lessons, she boards another bus that takes her to a large shopping complex in Manzini, some 20km from her home, where she will spend the rest of the afternoon knitting, sewing and selling miscellaneous products, which range from traditional skirts to bathroom sets.

Mabuza does all of this without the use of her hands. Born with a disability, she is determined to help others do what she has done - build a living for herself, raise a family and even build a three-bedroomed house.

"In a good month, I am able to make 900 lilangeni (around $48) from my sales and 500 lilangeni (around US$26) from the teaching stipend I receive from the school," said the special needs teacher.

Mabuza uses her toes to sew and knit in order to keep the lights on and put food on the table for her children. A former student of Saint Joseph's School in Mzimpofu, Mabuza now teaches at the boarding school, the only public boarding school in Eswatini that integrates students with disabilities and able-bodied students.

She does her teaching at the school's Ekululameni Vocational Rehabilitation Centre, which provides training for disabled adults, offering building, carpentry and sewing courses.

Having acquired a Certificate in Dressmaking in 2002, Mabuza provides classes to 12 pupils aged 18 years and older. She teaches them how to sew and knit pillows, mats, gloves and other items.

As active as other able-bodied people, she doesn’t regard her disability as a disadvantage and has a positive outlook on life.

While none of her children (she has four, including the adopted child of her deceased sister, ranging in age from 19 to 25), are employed, she has used her knitting and sewing skills since she was 20 to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. The three-bedroom house in Ngculwini was built from her earnings and assistance from a local pastor.

In Eswatini, people with disabilities make up 13 per cent of the population, with the vast majority coming from rural areas. National statistics show that 85 per cent are unemployed.

While disabilities remain a challenge in the tiny nation, disabled people like Mabuza have shown that a normal life can be possible, said Bongani Makama, president of the Federation Organisation of the Disabled People in Swaziland.

“We also commend her for the terrific work she is also doing in equipping the youth with the necessary skills they need to put food on the table,” he said.

Makama said education is an opportunity to improve the livelihoods of disabled people in the kingdom, He cited a study done by UNFPA and Unicef, looking at policy briefs in education and labour for persons with disabilities.

“What we have discovered through the study is that there are not enough opportunities that exist for them to further education and gain employment," he said.

“Persons with disabilities are mostly associated with arts and crafts because that’s what they are mostly taught in school.”

He called for financing to be made available to ensure equal opportunities.

“No funding is available for persons with disabilities, and most financial institutions need surety for a loan, which most if not all persons with disabilities cannot provide," Makama said.

For one of Mabuza's students, 21-year-old Sebentile Shongwe, born with a disability and who has the use of only one arm, the skills training provided by Mabuza and other teachers at the school has at least given her a fighting chance.

"Right now, I am still learning and taking it one day at a time," Shongwe said.

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