February 23, 2017
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Edith Masango, 24, Zimbabwe’s first blind actress, plays the role of Jane, a blind and talented artist, in a short film titled “The Collector.”
In the opening scene, Jane sings a Shona traditional song while she paints.
The painting depicts a pair of black-and-white men’s shoes. The lights go off, and Jane’s face is filled with fear as she hears a person walking toward her. She sees a man wearing the shoes she was painting. At that moment, the alarm goes off, and Jane realizes that she was only dreaming.
Masango’s role in the film is unusual, and not only for Africa. A 2016 Annenberg Foundation study of 800 popular American films found that only 2.4 percent of speaking parts portrayed people with disabilities, and of that 2.4 percent, only 19 percent portrayed women.
Besides starring in the film, Masango also defies the odds by having a career. She works as a receptionist and a switchboard operator at the Zimbabwe International Film & Festival Trust.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Statistics from the African Studies Centre Leiden estimate that as many as 70 percent to 80 percent of disabled people in Africa are unemployed. The vast majority of Africans with disabilities are excluded from schools and employment opportunities, the group says, “virtually guaranteeing that they live as the poorest of the poor.”
But Masango, who lost her sight at 20 in 2012 from a rare hereditary eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, doesn’t let blindness deter her.
“I just decided to treat myself as an able-bodied person, although l am disabled,” she says.
Weekday mornings, Masango leaves her home before 7 a.m., escorted by her brother to the public commuter omnibus station. The commuter omnibus driver greets her, and she greets him back by his name as she boards. She knows most of the drivers by their voices, she says.
Masango arrives in the central business district of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, before 8 a.m., and the commuter omnibus conductor helps her cross the busy Charter Road. She holds her walking stick to help her identify objects in front of her as she walks toward Leopold Takawira Street.
“I use the same route to get to Copacabana, where l get my transport to Kensington, where l work,” she says.
As she walks, a group of touts, those who beckon commuters to various forms of transportation, notice that Masango is blind. One of the touts approaches Masango.
“You are so beautiful. Are you married? If you are not married, l want to marry you and take care of you,” shouts the tout as he tries to grab Masango’s hand, to the amusement of the other touts.
Masango continues on and says she gets this a lot, explaining that many men incorrectly think she is vulnerable.
At work, Masango sends emails and sets up appointments for Nigel Munyati, the founder and executive director of the film trust, through Job Access With Speech assistive software, a computer screen reader program with text-to-speech output.
And since the office no longer has a cleaning staff, Masango volunteers to tidy up. She sweeps the floor barefooted. This is “so that l can be able to feel the dirt that l will be sweeping,” she says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Munyati has worked with Masango for more than a year, and says she’s effective in her job.
“She is generally the face and life of this organization,” he says.
Some do not realize that Masango is blind when they first meet her, Munyati says, and visitors at times have complained when she does not automatically take their hand when they extended theirs to greet her.
“A person with any form of disability should never allow that to constrain their reach for the skies. They should use their disability or inability to challenge them to do more and achieve more,” he says.
Nakai Matema, who produced the film featuring Masango, says at first she had asked Masango only to show a sighted actress how a blind person moves to make the film more authentic. But Matema then decided that Masango should play the role herself when she saw Masango’s natural talent for acting.
Masango hopes to continue her acting career and be heard on the radio as well.
“My passion is to be on the radio, as a presenter, playing music and talking to radio listeners. If that passion is fulfilled, l will be happy,” she says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English.