Simon Peter with his young son..
Simon Peter with his young son..

Photo © Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville

Simon Peter

From child soldier to disability advocate and role model

Simon Peter Otoyo had just got back from school when the rebels of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army arrived in his village in northern Uganda.

They tied his hands behind his back and marched him, with three of his brothers, to a rebel camp deep in the bush.

As a child soldier for the LRA, 11-year-old Simon Peter was given a gun and sent out to fight the government army. During a fierce battle in 1996, a bullet pierced his temple. It shattered his skull and lodged behind his left eye, leaving him permanently blind. A decade later, he has turned his life around, and is now fighting to overturn attitudes towards blind people in Uganda.

“People see blind people as a burden,” says Simon Peter. “They look at us like we are dirty, and they think we can’t work properly. But I wanted to show that disabled people can also be productive.”

Simon Peter hugging one of his students.

Simon Peter Otoyo with one of his graduating students at Amor Foundation Vocational Training graduation in Bweyale, Uganda.

Photo © Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville

After he was shot, Simon Peter spent the next 10 days in a coma. The rebels took him to various hospitals, but none of them would attempt to remove the bullet from behind his eye. For the next nine years he endured intense pain as he moved with them from camp to camp in the borderlands between Uganda and Sudan. He stayed behind with the women and children when the men went off to fight.

Eventually, an ambush by the army offered him a way out. As missiles rained down on the rebels’ jungle base, Simon Peter made a run for it, scrambling his way through the trees. A bullet smashed through his shin bone, but he kept going until the noise of the fighting died down. For three days he wandered through the wilderness, using only his senses of hearing and touch, before he was found and taken to hospital.

Today, the 31-year-old has a full time job teaching knitting classes to students at the Amor Foundation Vocational Training Institute in Bweyale. He’s able to financially support his wife and 10-month-old son, and he’s breaking down stereotypes about people with visual impairments.

An old photo showing a group of young people standing together.

Simon Peter (second from left) with two of his brothers, two sisters-in-law and an uncle. Both brothers in the photo were abducted at the same time as Simon Peter, one month after this photo was taken, and died during conflict in 1998.

Photo © Simon Peter Otoyo

Disability in Uganda

From Uganda’s population of 34.6m people (according to 2014 census results), 14 per cent of people over five years of age have a disability, with higher figures in rural areas. Despite inclusive disability policies, a lack of data and statistics on disability makes monitoring and accountability very difficult. As a result, insufficient attention and resources have been provided for people with disabilities. This further limits the services offered to them and the investments made in changing societal perceptions on disability.

Edith Kagoya, the coordinator of a Sightsavers-supported training and employment project for young people with disabilities, says the biggest challenge is changing community attitudes. “Often, the community thinks that disabled people have been cursed,” she explains, adding that many young people find themselves neglected by their families, or over-protected. This can deny them the opportunity to gain independence and learn how to navigate the world on their own. Many never finish school, and in a country with high unemployment across the board, people with disabilities find it especially difficult to secure a job.

Simon Peter with a young girl holding a sweater.

Simon Peter stands proudly with one of his students holding a sweater she made in class.

Photo © Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville

Teaching helps me to forget what happened and move forward. No condition is permanent, and for the first time, I am free.

A life-changing programme

The Connecting the Dots programme, which is funded by the European Union, has trained more than 300 young people with disabilities in vocational skills such as carpentry, knitting and IT, before placing them in internships. It was through this project that Simon Peter learned his trade.

On a Monday in late November, Simon Peter arrived at his workplace amid wild celebrations to mark graduation day. Dressed immaculately in a light grey three-piece suit and guided by his younger brother, he embraced his students and chatted with his fellow teachers.

“At first I did not think he would be able to teach us anything,” said Awello Younes, a 16-year-old student at the Institute who has spent a year in Simon Peter’s knitting class. “My family asked me if it was true that a blind man can teach, and my brother even came here to see for himself.”

Now, Awello is making money by selling scarves and sweaters to local residents, and plans to continue knitting as a career.

“I have worked hard to open the eyes of the community, to show them that blind people should be supported,” says Simon Peter. “We will change their minds, but we haven’t reached that point yet.”

Simon Peter smiling with two students by a knitting machine.

Simon Peter teaching students to use the knitting machine.

Photo © Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville

Learning a skill, and then helping to pass it on to others, has helped Simon Peter overcome the trauma of a decade spent in the bush with one of the world’s most brutal rebel groups.

“They trained us to use guns, and to abduct other children. They made us do things,” says Simon Peter. “But friendship, a good home, living well, all these things help me to move forward. Teaching helps me to forget what happened… for the first time, I am free.”