Francis Okumu never saw his campus

By Jimmy Siyasa
Francis Okumu could be a modern-day Mordecai, a biblical exile who saw God’s hand draw him from a pit of peril and hopelessness.  For Okumu, age 36, his challenge and lack of hope were two-fold:  visual impairment and lack of funds. 

He overcame these obstacles and graduated from Uganda Christian University (UCU) on December 18, 2020, with a Bachelor in Social Work and Social Administration (BSWSA) – even though his lack of transportation from Mudodo, a hamlet of Tororo district in eastern Uganda, meant he couldn’t be there in person. He had no funds to travel from his home to the UCU main campus 120 miles away. 

He never scored below 4.00 GPA throughout his three years at UCU. He was one of the best students in his class of 82.  

Okumu enrolled at UCU in September 2017 with hopes for a scholarship that didn’t initially materialize and an understanding that his sight problems would be a challenge. 

“No other university or course of study was more ideal for me apart from (the social work program) at UCU,” he says. “I knew in UCU they would serve other students and me with that Christian heart. I also knew I would get more knowledge about God at UCU, as opposed to studying in a public university.”

Okumu says he wanted to avoid non-Christian institutions where lecturers seeking bribes for marks, sexual harassment, and other vices would be more prevalent. 

Keeping his focus on UCU, Okumu prayed. One morning in 2018 while he was in Tororo, he received a call from Kasule Kibirige, the head of department of Social Works and Social Administration.  The purpose of the call was to tell Okumu that he could study at UCU for free.

“I knew it was God who had given me the chance,” he says. “I was surprised that my lecturers had been discussing how to help me and how they could bring me back to my dream campus.” 

Kasule had lobbied the UCU Directorate of Teaching and Learning into absolving Okumu of paying fees. They would later grant him the green light for free meals, accommodation and education. 

“I also knew the requirements of the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) regarding people with disabilities,” Kasule said. ” I can confidently say that Okumu was among the top 10 students in his program who deserved all the help he needed.”

Okumu and his fiancée, Abbo, pose with friends at UCU. Jimmy Siyasa for The Standard.

Okumu is a Jopadhola from Tororo. His mother, Alowo Angelina, died in 1991. He was survived by his father, Ochieng David, who later died in 1994. He was then left to the care of a paternal aunt. He lived in Bunya, one of the six traditional chiefdoms of Busoga kingdom in eastern Uganda. This was until 2001, when his grandmother succumbed to an unknown illness, while he was in primary five. He was then moved back to Tororo where he would live until adulthood, in the custody of a paternal aunt.

By infancy, Okumu already had optical complications that only worsened as time passed. As a child, he could make out colors, shapes, and his environment. 

He often suffered severe eye ache that later escalated into monocular vision. Growing up from an impoverished family, Okumu’s father could only afford trivial treatment such as eye drops and only occasionally could he take the boy to a hospital in Busolwe, a town in Butaleja district. Mr. Ochieng’s shoestring budget could not warrant a proper oculist-appointment. 

In 2003, Okumu completely lost sight. 

“I remember, I woke up one morning and my eyes were paining. I could not see anything,” he said, with no emotion. “I felt very bad. Like my life had ended. But as I kept on moving, I realized that only God can help m–even if I had killed myself, it would not help.” 

Okumu was introduced to Perkins Brailler while at Agururu Primary school in Tororo Municipality, Western Division. Thereafter, he joined St. Francis Madera secondary school of the blind in Soroti district. While in secondary school, senior six, his hope to ever see light again was shuttered when he was referred for a checkup to Benedictine Tororo Eye hospital. There, he was urged to stick to Braille because his eyes were beyond repair. 

With UCU tuition fees, meals and accommodation sorted, Okumu still had other challenges. He needed a laptop with Braille and, at the end of his undergraduate studies, an aide to help him do research. 

For his research, he could not single-handedly execute the mundane task. He needed a seeing pair of eyes to support him. Blessedly his faculty permitted him a research assistant with whom he analyzed data and typed the work. But Okumu had to pay him UGX 150,000 for the job. This was a fortune, considering the former’s financial inhibitions. 

To help disabled students who will in future seek to study from UCU and other Universities, his research topic was: Visual Impairment and Learning Capabilities of Students at the University.

Okumu hopes his undergraduate research will reveal some of the hurdles which learners with visual impairments face in higher institutions of learning. Most importantly, to him, the findings of the study will guide lecturers on how to not only best-handle students with the kind of impairment Okumu suffers, but also to assess the latter based on their learning capabilities. 

Okumu says his desire after school is to serve the community and participate in charity works. While in Tororo, Okumu has always volunteered as a counselor for his home church. 

Okumu and his fiancée, Abbo, when she visited him at UCU. Jimmy Siyasa for The Standard

Okumu is now aiming to achieve two things: forging himself a career but also walking down the aisle with his fiancée, sometime in 2021. 

Immaculate Abbo, said “Yes” to Okumu’s proposal in 2020. They have known each other since 2013, as church-mates, but only started dating in 2017. Abbo is a teacher of English and Religious education at Apex Junior School in Kireka, a suburb of Kampala. They plan to live together in Kireka. Abbo has no disabilities.

Okumu says he would be glad if he got an opportunity to do a master’s in theology. 

“There are many poor people with disabilities who feel discouraged and think it’s over,” he said. “I want to motivate them.”