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The farmer who tells his crops apart by touch

“YES, I am blind, but when I’m working on the farm, I do not think of myself as such,” says Patrick Jonathan Chisale, a farmer from Welemu Village in Malawi’s Southern District of Thyolo.

He has been farming since 2000, but 52-year-old Chisale was not born blind.

“Before I became blind, I loved farming. This is why even after becoming blind, I wanted to continue doing what I loved, and I also wanted to make my family food-secure,” he said.

After finishing primary school and getting his high school certificate in 1996, Chisale secured a job at a tea estate.

While he was there, he began experiencing persistent itching in his eyes, which was soon followed by a burning sensation.

“I went as far as Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital [a referral hospital] in the commercial city of Blantyre, but I failed to get relief for my eyes. The doctor told me that I would not be able to see again. There was nothing I could do – apart from accepting my fate,” he said.

Chisale then went to the Mulanje School for the Blind to help him adapt to his new reality. Here he learnt more farming skills. The lessons included modern farming methods, early planting, soil structure and texture and crop management.

“In addition to farming, I was most importantly trained on mobility as a blind person and also in business skills. The training took place from 1999 to 2000,” said Chisale.

After leaving Mulanje, he joined a farmer field school (FFS) in his locality to gain more agricultural production techniques. Chisale said at FFS, the lessons were more in-depth since they went into greater detail.

Patrick Jonathan Chisale’s wife at their farm in Welemu Village in Malawi’s Southern District of Thyolo. Photo Courtesy: Edwin Nyirongo

“Besides my love and passion for farming, I quickly realised I would need money to buy necessities for myself and my family. Food items are easy to sell in this country and that is why I insisted on farming for also commercial purposes,” he said.

Chisale currently cultivates a two-acre farm where he grows various crops, including maize, beans, potatoes, bananas, and vegetables.

“I know that several blind people beg in the streets, but this is not the decision I made. That is why I thought about farming. I plant, weed and harvest crops without problems,” he added.

Weeding, which involves separating crops from weeds, is highly visual. But Mujale says even this does not challenge him.

“This is not a problem for me because I learnt everything from Mulanje School for the Blind. I know how a number of crops feel like when I touch them. I can tell almost all crops apart by hands, that’s how I weed in my farm,” he said.

Despite this feat, Chisale acknowledges that there are natural setbacks blind people have when it comes to making a living for themselves.

“When you resign to your fate, nothing can move. Yes, I am blind, but that should not stop me from doing what I want. I have a family to feed and can only do that through working in the field.”

Besides legumes and vegetables, Chisale also grows soya and pineapples as part of the Farmer Field School (FFS) group activities.

FFS is a United Nations-supported component of the Kulima Programme. It aims to build the capacity of farmers and extension workers on transformative participatory farmer learning approaches.

Chisale is one of 30 farmers that benefitted from the programme by acquiring skills and knowledge through season-long experiential learning.

Patrick Jonathan Chisale at his farm in Welemu Village in Malawi’s Southern District of Thyolo. Photo Courtesy: Edwin Nyirongo

FFS community-based facilitator, Evelyn Savala, describes Chisale as an example to people who want to aim high in agricultural activities.

“What he does is fantastic, an example to those who aspire to learn modern ways of farming,” said Savala, who points out that Chisale is always ready to try new techniques.

“With climate change, farming is no longer business as usual. As such, farmers need to adapt by learning new methods of farming. This is what Chisale is good at.”

When asked about his plans, Chisale expressed his desire to continue farming and expand his farm.

He also encourages other blind individuals to pursue a career in farming, assuring them that there is a steady market for their produce.

Currently, however, Chisale is the only known blind farmer in Malawi.