Courtersy Photo @ HIVE Uganda
Before he lost his sight, Patrick Owiyo’s visual memory is hazy. It begins with a refugee camp in the north of Uganda, and it ends with an illness – measles – that stole his ability to see.
“By the time NGOs came to the refugee camp, it was too late,” said Owiyo, now 34 years of age. “I couldn’t be treated, and of the nine other children who contracted measles, I was the only one who survived.”
At the age of 12, Owiyo joined the ranks of nearly 1 million other blind Ugandans, the majority of whom lost their sight after a preventable illness or injury. Untreated cataracts, river blindness, soiled water, and war have stolen sight from thousands – not only forcing them to live a life in darkness, but subjugating them to the discrimination of their sighted peers.
“People tend to think those with visual impairments are totally helpless,” Owiyo said. “They think that because of our disability, we cannot perform.”
Such a perception is not unique to Uganda. Around the world, misconceptions about blindness abound, along with the belief that blind individuals cannot live full, normal lives. Such low expectations foster low achievement, leading to a cyclical pattern of dependency and poverty. Mindsets like these are even present among organizations that care for the blind, as often, they limit their beneficiaries’ levels of independence by doing everything for them.
“No one thought we could manage anything,” Owiyo said. “Until we showed them.”
The Launch of HIVE Uganda
Four years ago, Owiyo become one of the first to be trained through an organization called HIVE Uganda, a nonprofit in Gulu. By equipping visually impaired participants with the skills, education and self-confidence to become beekeepers, HIVE Uganda has proved that the country’s rural blind are far from helpless.
Every day, HIVE Uganda’s trained beekeepers tend hundreds of thousands of bees – navigating swarms of buzzing insects and more than 100 colonized hives.
In its short lifespan, the organization has produced nearly 40 beekeepers, one of whom was selected to teach the trade to non-disabled individuals by the Government of Uganda.
“This project… attempts to show that people with visual impairments… have the potential to contribute to the socioeconomic development of their communities,” HIVE Uganda’s website states.
Simon Ojok, the founder of HIVE Uganda, grew up with the social stigma surrounding visual impairment. As a child, he suffered a severe
head injury after being attacked by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Unlike most, however, Ojok was able to continue his education, take up hobbies, and graduate from university in 2010. One of those hobbies was beekeeping.
“I studied development and became interested in advocacy,” Ojok said. “But then I looked around my community. The blind had nothing but unemployment. They needed to be trained to do something… only then could they change their lives.”
After each beneficiary is trained, they are given five beehives and taught how to create their own with hollowed-out tree logs. HIVE Uganda staff also give one-on-one training to participants at each of their bee farms, which helps individuals learn to navigate the hives, harvest honey and wax, and turn those resources into sellable products.
“HIVE Uganda has changed my life,” Owiyo said. “I can earn a living and maintain my life with my family. And I enjoy it.”
An Upward Climb
A vast array of research has illustrated a correlation between blindness and unemployment, and as a result, high levels of poverty, hunger and low standards of living. Simon Ojok, the partially blind founder of HIVE Uganda, argues that this relationship does not exist because the visually impaired cannot do things. It exists because they are not given the opportunity to try.
By reframing the expectations around capabilities of the blind, HIVE Uganda is working to erase the general perception that a lack of vision means a lack of capability.
Regardless of such progress, however, the playing field between visually impaired and sighted individuals remains vastly uneven. Negative attitudes around the blind persist in Gulu, sometimes resulting in devastating outcomes for the beekeepers. Though some have accepted and integrated the blind into their community, other sighted individuals have stolen honey from the beekeepers’ hives.
Such circumstances illustrate a need for continued livelihood efforts for the blind, not only in Gulu and Uganda, but around the world.
 According to statistics from HIVE Uganda.
 Khanna, Rohit. “Blindness and Poverty in India: The Way Forward.” Clinical and Experimental Optometry, vol. 90, no. 6, 2007, pp. 406 – 414.