CoCo Bertin Mousa, who was born partially blind and lost all his sight by the age of fifteen, is building Cameroon's first association of blind people to provide mutual encouragement and support and to initiate an array of income generating and public education activities.
The New Idea
CoCo Mousa founded Cameroon's first society, as he puts it, "of blind people, for blind people"–The Club of the Blind for Rehabilitation in Cameroon.Noting that prevailing social attitudes discourage blind people from anything but the most humble ambitions, such as begging or the most repetitive work, the Club's first task is to encourage, motivate and train them to start and manage their own businesses, often collectively. The Club itself is the original business, owned and operated collectively by any blind person who pays dues and participates.The Club's second mission is to educate society about the potential of the blind community to contribute to society, as well as the specific ways in which the sighted community can interact with the blind more positively. The education mission of the society also includes blindness prevention, an important activity in Cameroon where a significant proportion of blindness is preventable. As a noted songwriter, musician and singer, CoCo is particularly effective at using his talents as an entertainer to raise public awareness.
According to the Statistics of the Ministry of Social Affairs, there are about 120,000 blind people in Cameroon. A large number of these are from the northern region where river blindness (a disease caused by a parasite) is prevalent. Many cases also result from untreated glaucoma and cataracts. Much blindness is preventable, the result of neglect and ignorance compounded by a lack of adequate facilities for early treatment.Many Cameroonians have little appreciation for the capabilities of people with disabilities. The prevailing view is that these individuals are burdens to their families and society. Often, disabled people are forced to earn their livelihood by begging, particularly in the Muslim north of the country, where Islamic traditions of alms-giving inadvertently trap those with disability in a life of begging. Because society regards disabled people as unproductive, many disabled people suffer from a sense of shame, defeat and despair.Starting in 1990, the Social Affairs Ministry has given each of Cameroon's regions an annual allotment for its blind population, to be administered by the National Association for the Blind. To date, most of this money cannot be accounted for, and there are no government projects to assist blind people to become productive. The Club, which receives no government funding, has stepped into the vacuum.The Government does operate one Vocational Training Center for the Blind in Bulu, but once a blind person graduates from the Bulu Center, there are no job placement or other follow up services. Although the Center has been in existence since 1967, the Center's officials cannot account for the welfare of a single one of its graduates. Most graduates never have the opportunity to use the skills they learned at the Center. Some are supported by their families, while others beg or live on the streets.
CoCo describes his basic strategy, with a wry sense of irony, as "the blind leading the blind" through their own association. Having established a national office and strong chapter in Douala, CoCo is now systematically seeding chapters around the country.To start a chapter he first visits a city or town, where he uses the media to broadcast messages designed to raise hope and self-esteem among blind people, and to inform the general public of the ability of blind people to become active citizens. He then follows up by using his contacts to organize a meeting or workshop for local blind community members. CoCo encourages them to establish a chapter of the Club, select leaders and choose initial income-generation projects to embark upon. Initial resources are generated by means of a membership fee, a small percentage of which goes to the organization's office.The chapters use the membership fees to develop their projects. The Club assists in researching individual projects, organizing additional (credit) finance, providing training relevant workshops and sharing information on other resources (such as government services). Participants who graduated from the Bulu Center are encouraged to take the lead with projects related to the skills learned at Bulu. Once these become productive, the Chapter focuses on the needs of other unskilled members, providing both financial support and skills training The chapters also seek to fulfill the Club's education mission by giving workshops for the friends and families of blind people to better understand and interact with their blind friends and colleagues. They also design and implement media strategies to reach a wider public.It is CoCo's vision to have an active chapter in each region of the country at the end of three years. Although CoCo knows that the biggest challenge will be in the north where the Muslim tradition of giving alms reinforces begging in the disabled community, he believes that the message of cooperation, self-reliance and independence will succeed in recruiting members.
CoCo is the third of eight children in his family. Born partially sighted, he struggled to function in the regular school system. He developed the knack of organizing the people around him to garner the necessary support and help he needed not only to survive, but to achieve. After losing his sight completely, CoCo spent eighteen months at home with nothing to do before enrolling in the Bulu Center. Exclusion from school deeply troubled him, so he organized a neighborhood club that met for drama, crafts and organized youth discussions. The group immediately selected him as leader.Upon entering the Bulu Center, he soon discovered that many of the new boys had not yet developed the art of listening well, and had difficulty learning. He organized study groups in the dorm where the brighter boys helped other students learn to listen and to understand course work. During these sessions, CoCo noticed that everyone gained self-confidence and respect for their peers in the process of learning. It was during this time that he began to realize the real potential of blind people for helping each other.While at Bulu, CoCo began to plan what he could do after graduation. CoCo did not want to go begging to the sighted community for work, and began to formulate the idea of working with other blind people to provide encouragement, motivation and, ultimately, the opportunity to become active contributors to society. To this end, he used the modest stipend given him upon graduation and persuaded his classmate, Martin Luther, to add his own grant. They then mustered others to join them in their first cooperative enterprise (which provided important learning, but not a steady income!).While at the school CoCo developed his deep spiritual faith and his love of music, a source of great joy and inspiration as he spreads his message. His music has become well known in the Cameroon.