Domingos Gusmão, a 34-year-old blind man, strives to improve life for thousands of blind people in Timor Leste through the education center he founded eight years ago. Coming from an influential family, he is the third of 10 siblings, four of whom were born blind like him. Gusmão is convinced that proper education is the facilitator for blind people to better themselves and grow in dignity. “But it must start from myself,” he says. “Formal and non-formal education has shaped me and enabled me to serve others.” Gusmão spent seven years studying at a school for the blind in Jakarta, where he learnt a wide range of subjects including music, computer skills, mathematics, counseling and health massage. In 2002 he returned to Timor Leste, eager to share his knowledge with others. The following year, at an international summit of the blind in Singapore, he met two delegates with similar ideas and aspirations. Together, they founded the East Timor Blind Union in 2004. “This institution aims to help the blind in Timor Leste, with priority given to education that will enable them stand on their own,” he says. Students can learn how to read Braille and study English, music and computer skills. Some of the training is provided by teachers from his old school in Jakarta, the Mitra Netra Foundation. But although Gusmão and his co-founders describe the center as their dream, it must be said that it faces numerous challenges and progress has not been dramatic. As with many other ventures of this kind, the main problem is always one of finance. Shortage of funding has already caused the shutdown of a second center in Maliana, near the border with West Timor. For food, the center receives regular consignments of rice from the government and for daily expenses it gets some help from the Disabled Peoples Organization. It supplements this with theatre performances and live music at weddings and other events. “From the performances we usually earn less than $500 a month, but with that we can buy vegetables, meat or fish, soap and other daily needs,” says Gusmão. The building they use in Dili is owned by the government, and the computers and musical instruments are donations from benefactors including United Nations Mission Integrated in East Timor, the Disabled Peoples Organization and Handicap International. But there are success stories too. Alberto Aleixo, who went blind in one eye as a child, has been training at the center for four years. He says it has greatly improved his skills in scriptwriting, poetry and working as a master of ceremonies. Gusmão sticks by his statement that education must start with himself; currently he is enrolled at two universities in Dili. He is taking English at Universitas Oriental Timor Lorosae and sociology at the Instituto Superior Cristal. “As founder and educator, I need to boost my capacity,” he says. He also presses on with developing the center, despite all the obstacles, as he says “I believe God has planned something for me.”
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