In Swahili, the national language of Tanzania, “huruma” means compassion. For many disabled students in this country, compassion is a rare experience.
Maryknoll lay missioner Bertha Haas is changing this injustice for the young students at a school she founded Mwanza. Every child has rights and responsibilities at the Huruma School.
In one of the poorest countries in the world, educational opportunities can be limited. For disabled children, the prospects are almost non-existent for all except those from very wealthy families.
Since the Huruma School opened in 2004, Haas — an educator in Oregon for 40 years — has helped fill that area of great need.
“There are very few schools for handicapped children,” Haas, 68, said. “In our area, for a population of over a million, there are four classrooms for mentally handicapped children, but if they need a wheelchair, they can’t come. There is one school that provides education for the blind and two classrooms for the deaf, but they will not accept a child who is also mentally retarded.”
Only one percent of children with disabilities are in school.
Haas and her team of five local teachers and parent volunteers work with students who have a range of physical or learning problems that require special attention. These students are living with deafness, autism, ADHD, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other problems in a country where social stigma treats disabilities as a disgrace or curse.
Some children in the school technically have no disability at all, but were denied admittance to local schools due to health problems like epilepsy or sickle cell anemia.
Lack of health care, poor nutrition, inadequate sanitation and lack of access to clean water all contribute to the high number of children with disabilities in Tanzania.
Haas, who has four adult children of her own, left her home parish of Our Lady of Angels in Hermiston to join Maryknoll in 2002.
“I’d retired, but I wasn’t quite ready to retire yet,” she said.
After being around young people for so many years as a guidance counselor, Haas thought she was ready to work with adults for a change. But when she arrived in Tanzania, her missioner guides stopped to visit a home school where a teacher worked with her daughter with Down syndrome and a few other orphaned and disabled children from the community.
Haas recognized the huge need for a school.
She began her work, and word soon spread of her free educational program. Neighboring parishes began referring children to her school.
At first, she could fit the few students and their wheelchairs into her car to transport them to school. But the kids kept coming. Once enrollment reached 10, it became obvious that they would need a more permanent classroom site and transportation for the children.
Through grants, Haas’ mission account and some funds from the department of education, Haas was able to have a more permanent school built, which opened in 2008.
Today, there are 40 children enrolled, ranging from elementary school age to late teens. Half the students walk to and from school; half use transportation provided by staff members.
Students arrive at 8:30 a.m. to study language arts, health, science, mathematics and reading. Some students work to develop fine motor skills through arts and crafts and outdoor play. A snack of porridge is provided daily, and each student receives a uniform and pair of shoes. Everyone leaves at 1 p.m., when temperatures in the equatorial area get too hot for study.
On staff are four teachers, eight teaching assistants and two aides who help with cleaning and hygiene issues.
One staff member studied physical therapy, and is currently attending the local Jesuit university to get certified in health administration. He plans to take over school operations for Haas.
It costs between $1,400 and $1,500 a month to pay the entire staff.
“A little bit of money goes a long way here,” Haas said.
The goal, Haas said, is to help students develop life and work skills that will help them become independent to the greatest extent possible within the limits of their disabilities.
Despite the inroads the staff has made in preparing these nontraditional students for mainstream education, it’s still a struggle to convince local public school teachers to open their doors.
Haas gets frustrated with situations like this: One bright young man came to Huruma at 13, and like most of the students, had never been to school. Recently the 18-year-old with cerebral palsy passed a standardized test that would allow him to enroll in elementary school, but the head teacher still wouldn’t allow him to join their classes just one hour a day to study English.
On the other hand, she feels like they have successfully affected change in religious education programs.
“Now, having worked with the bishops and pastors, if I recommend that a child is ready for first Communion and confirmation, they will accept him or her into the program,” she said. “So that’s a good sign.”
Though, she countered, “when a mentally normal young man who has a problem with one foot and wears a special shoe, who walks by himself and has gone on to advanced studies, but the catechists won’t let him be a lector,” that shows there is much work to be done on this human rights issue.