Issues surrounding disability and special education in Namibia

Dan Buckley, on leave from the principalship of New Court School in Bray, County Wicklow, is teaching special education in Namibia with APSO.


Namibia was previously known as South West Africa and that name generally describes its location. It is a large country about thirteen times the size of Ireland and has a population of approximately 1.7 million. Much of the land is desert or semi-arid and there are large tracts owned primarily by the small white population and run as commercial farms. Most of the people live in the north of the country close to the Angolan border, on communal land, and rely on goat and cattle rearing and subsistence farming.

Within Namibia there are eleven main ethnic groups and several languages. Historically the country was a German colony from the mid-1800s until the First World War; thereafter it became a protectorate of South Africa. It was subject to the apartheid regime until it achieved independence in 1990-

An understanding of disability issues and special education provision in Namibia is best explained against this geographical and historical background. There is an unequal distribution of services, wealth and resources between the larger urban and rural areas—a legacy of the pre-independence policies of separate provision. Many of the best medical and educational services are located in the capital city of Windhoek, which is 600–800km from where most of the people live. Before independence, the education system for the majority was restrictive and limited both in content and extent. Many adults are illiterate; many of the teachers have no formal training. The introduction of English as the official language was seen not to favour any particular sector, but it has posed many difficulties for teachers and, of course, also for children—not least those with difficulties, who have to learn it as a second language.

The war prior to 1990 with South Africa resulted in many people being killed, injured or displaced, a situation which still continues to a lesser extent as the civil war in Angola sometimes spills across the border. The Ministry for Lands Resettlement and Rehabilitation has primary responsibility for these people. This Ministry also has responsibility for people with disabilities. Unfortunately the rehabilitation dimension is often dwarfed by the other sections of the department.

The presence of many people (mostly men) in wheelchairs is a reminder of the war—and perhaps also of road accidents, which are disproportionately high for the population size. There is little by way of specialised training or employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The state pays a pension of approximately IR£30 per month to some people with disabilities, but not everyone is entitled to this. Efforts at rehabilitation are on a community-based module, where the focus is on creating an acceptance by, and participation of the community, in the care of people with disabilities. This work is frequently left to volunteers with a minimum of training.

Namibia is still very much a rural society, although many are moving to the larger urban areas. Traditionally men leave to find work in the mines or urban areas and return for the planting or harvesting. This places a greater onus of care on the women and the grandparents. Girls are sometimes withdrawn from school to look after a disabled relative or sibling. Disabled girls are less valued than disabled boys and are less likely to have access to education. Poverty frequently exacerbates disability and the need to care for a disabled person can make heavy demands on relatives and reduce the time for economic activity.

Namibia has greater disparities in wealth than any other country in the world. There are in fact two Namibias. One has prosperous and rich people who enjoy all the comforts of modern society; their children attend schools which are equivalent to any found in the most advanced countries. The other Namibia is restrictive, poor, under-resourced and squalid, with people living in extreme poverty, and hungry children who lack adequate shelter, food and amenities. The schools available for these children are totally inadequate for their needs, without adequate shelter, toilets, classroom facilities textbooks or other resources.

The Namibian Constitution acknowledges the right of all children to an education and equality for all before the law. The government is a signatory to a number of international agreements in this context. However, as in many other countries, children and people with disabilities are often among the last to be considered for services. The government has clear policies favouring inclusion of children with disability into mainstream schools. The arguments put forward in its favour are as much financial as ideological or educational, although underlying this is the fact that any separate provision is frequently equated with apartheid.

There are many factors that make inclusion difficult to achieve. There are no accurate figures for the number of children with disabilities. A census planned for later this year will hopefully resolve this. Not all children attend school, in any case, and many with disabilities remain at home. Many teachers are unqualified and those who are qualified have received no training in special needs. There are efforts to change this and in-service courses are offered through Teacher Resource Centres. There are now modules on special education in pre-service training. Class sizes are large (even by Irish standards!) and it is not uncommon to have fifty or sixty children in a room with scarcely any resources. Truancy among teachers is also not unknown.

Identification and support for children who are experiencing difficulties is also a challenge. For education administrative purposes, the country is divided into eight regions with as many as 350 schools in some of them. In each area there are school counsellors whose jobs include, among other duties, the identification of children with difficulties and putting in place support structures for them. In one such area there are 120,000 children, no remedial teacher, and one special class. The absence of support provision can in some instances be for bureaucratic reasons, while the presence of services can reflect the affluence of a particular urban area where parents can afford to employ a remedial or special class teacher. There are eight special schools in the country, but it would appear that these cater for the more able of the children with special needs. All but two are located in the capital Windhoek. There are strict criteria for entry into these schools and many children do not reach the entry requirements.

Over the past ten years education has been a priority for the Namibian government and it has received a large proportion of national funding. In spite of this there are still huge demands that are not met and there is a large implementation gap between policy and practice.

Attitudes toward children and people with disabilities, in the past and possibly still, are partly based on misinformation and lack of understanding. Causes were sometimes linked with witchcraft, curses on families and fear of childbirth or adultery, by women. Children born with disabilities were sometimes neglected and left to die. Community attitudes are still often negative and intolerant and disability may be seen as a punishment on a particular family. For some people the influence of the Lutheran Church has introduced a Christian perspective on disability and some parents believe their disabled child is a gift from God. However in a society where there is a strong reliance on subsistence agriculture, where drought can mean a shortage of food and where everyone is expected to work in the fields, the presence of a child without prospects of contributing to the family is seen as a heavy burden.

There are a number of emerging organisations highlighting the needs and rights of people with disabilities. The more high-profile of these are concerned with vision and hearing impairments. There is also a national federation of such organisations. As yet parents are not generally vocal or demanding of their rights with regard to any aspect of education, although the government policies acknowledge their role in the education process. The impression is that there is gratitude for whatever provision is available, rather than a questioning of the quality and extent of the service.

The prevalence of HIV/Aids in all of Southern Africa is a constant backdrop to life and a further dimension to disability. The issue receives a lot of media attention but is seldom raised or discussed in general conversation. The perception one gets is that ordinary people do not question or dwell on the situation, but try to accept it and get on with living. In a local hospital over thirty per cent of pregnant women are HIV-positive. Teaching is acknowledged as one of the professions that is going to be affected the most, but every aspect of society is affected by AIDS, either in the reduction of the labour force, increased demands on the medical service, or the creation of orphans. The high proportion of people who are ill or incapacitated with HIV puts a strain on existing services, as people need care and support for extended periods.

From an Irish perspective, our perceptions of African countries are often somewhat skewed and manipulated by media pictures of disasters, famine or war. Reconciling the huge discrepancy in wealth is one of the more difficult aspects of living in Namibia. It is a complex society. It is going through many changes and attempting to reconcile many different groups and positions. There are bureaucracy problems and many frustrating aspects within the system. However many of these are also present in our country.


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