Imfama – mapping our progress over the past 50 years

Imfama – mapping our progress over the past 50 years

Picture of the first Imfama

By Lindie van Zyl

I pondered for a long time about the exact content of this article. We wanted to do something special for our golden jubilee year to show the progress of Imfama. We wanted to do it from a different angle other than the previous articles which have captured the history and evolution of Imfama. When I read the letter by Dr. Louis van Schalkwijk, Council’s Chairperson at the time the very first Imfama was printed in September 1961, I realised that we needed to follow his guidance.

He described the function of Imfama as (translated from the original Afrikaans) “Every welfare organisation in our and other countries, has a magazine that informs interested parties about the functions of the organisation and its affiliated associations…”; “… the magazine is the only effective way in which to spread knowledge about the work of the organisation and to promote the togetherness of the participating organisations.” and “…the new magazine form will not only enhance its visual appeal and readability, but it will also serve as proof of the ever increasing progress in our service to the blind.”

We feel that we definitely use Imfama to tell stakeholders about our work and we feature our member organisations to make sure that the important work they do, is also publicised. So let’s see how well we have done over the years in measuring up to the promises we made in the first edition to prove our commitment to progress with services to blind people with the main issues addressed in the first issues of Imfama.

Available formats and accessibility
One of the features of Imfama – in contrast with its predecessor, The Newsletter, is that it was produced in print format (as opposed to the Roneo format of The Newsletter – Roneo is a rotary duplicator that uses a stencil through which ink is pressed). Dr. van Schalkwijk promised that the organisation would do its utmost best to produce Imfama in Braille - “so that our blind friends can read it themselves and not be dependent on others”. Even in those days, cost was the reason for not providing this option before. Luckily today we can report that we not only produce Imfama in print and Braille, but also make it available in Daisy format, on tape and in electronic (html and .txt) formats. With pride, I would like to add that the printed version has improved in appearance to keep up with the times and new available technology – it is now very attractive visually and printed in full colour as opposed to the black and white, ‘newspaper look’ of the early editions.

Dr. van Schalkwijk alluded to the fact that Council, and him in person, were lobbying for the availability of reading material for blind persons. Although Council and its members have made great strides over the past 50 years, access to information is still a very relevant topic and the discussions at WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) are still underway with our current National Executive Director, Jace Nair, in the centre of the fight as a World Blind Union representative at WIPO. The objective is a treaty which will allow the sharing of copyright materials across international borders.

Issue 1 of Imfama featured articles and advertisements of the ‘new books on tape’ and the useful tape recorders with pictures showing a tape recorder bigger that a desktop pc with two moving spools on top (as seen on the right in the black and white picture taken from that very first issue). Not considered high technology these days, but certainly a pioneer for access for information back then, none the less.

National versus international news
Both Mr. van Schalkwijk and the first Editor of Imfama, Dr. Walter Cowen, (whose name is curiously omitted from the first issue) refer to the inclusion of international news into the publication. We still honour this practice and we not only have a regular international news section, but also have articles in the technology and features sections that deal with international advances and happenings. We want to continuously inform our readers about what is happening in their world – especially since the world has become a global village. We, as the leaders in Africa, cannot be left behind.

The first edition features many snippets and an article about trachoma and Council’s Bureau for the Prevention of Blindness’ trachoma research work and their “major anti-trachoma mass treatment project”. It quotes the following statistic: “The trachoma research unit has established the disturbing and unsuspected fact that between 10% and 40% of the natives in the townships of Johannesburg are infected with trachoma.”

Trachoma is the result of infection of the eye with Chlamydia trachomatis. The infection spreads from person to person, especially where there are shortages of water, numerous flies, and crowded living conditions. If left untreated, the infection eventually causes the eyelid to turn inwards, which in turn causes the eyelashes to rub on the eyeball, resulting in intense pain and scarring of the front of the eye. This ultimately leads to irreversible blindness, typically between 30 and 40 years of age.

According to a report by the Department of Health in March 2005, there are very few reported cases of trachoma in South Africa these days, mostly due to better hygiene standards and availability of running water. We are sure that the Bureau’s work made a major impact as well! The Bureau does not focus on eliminating trachoma any longer, although they keep a watchful eye whenever they have outreach tours and screen people’s eyes.

Inappropriate terms
There are some strange terms that were used which are seen as derogatory these days. It feels so out of place to read them in a magazine about blindness. Things like the new Geluk vir die Gebreklikes (directly translated as Joy for the Deformed) organisation. And reference to disabled people like: “handicapped persons…cripples, epileptics, mental defectives….deaf and dumb”. These are all terms that make the hair at the back of your neck stand up today. One tends to wonder if the current terms will fall so badly on the ears of the Imfama readers of 2061 as well.

Internationally acclaimed blind persons
Articles include information about Helen Keller and a play about her and Anne Sullivan The Miracle Worker that toured South Africa. You can read through our section on Helen Keller and her tour to South Africa. Issue 1 also featured an article about the Louis Braille museum in Coupvray that was newly established. The museum was recently very prominent again as festivities were held there, on the Bicentenary of Louis Braille’s birth on 4 January 2009, which were covered by Imfama.

An article by Miss E. Geyer – Rehabilitation Officer stresses the importance of starting with rehabilitation as soon as possible after a person has lost their vision. Mention is also made of organisations having their own social workers – a luxury that is very scarce these days. With rehabilitation having been moved to the person’s own community, it is much more focussed on individual circumstances than the old institutional model. Rehabilitation is one of the areas Council and its members feel very strongly about. Council now has community based rehabilitation projects in three provinces and is doing its utmost to expand it so that it can be deployed in all nine provinces.

Physiotherapy studies
The first editions of Imfama made a couple of mentions of the blind and partially sighted students who were studying physiotherapy in London. It was very exciting news in those days, although it is mentioned that the students faced difficulties with adapting to the different circumstances of a strange country and the language barrier as students had to study in English. These days we are very fortunate that visually impaired students can study physiotherapy locally at the University of the Western Cape – which we featured in Imfama recently.

So all in all, it seems that Imfama truly serves as proof of the ever increasing progress in our service to blind persons. We idealistically hope that in another 50 years, all of the issues we currently report on will have been resolved and Imfama will serve only to report on the creative ways in which the obstacles have been overcome.

From the first Imfama:

"A Message from our President
Miss J E Wood, that grand little lady who has ensured the provision of reading matter for the blind people of South Africa for so many many years, and whose name is a household word among blind people as honorary secretary of the S.A. Library for the Blind, Grahamstown, is the respected President of the S.A. National Council for the Blind. It is therefore with pleasure that we print hereunder a message from our President on the occasion of the first issue of “Imfama.”

As President of the S.A. National Council for the Blind, I welcome this new printed magazine “Imfama” which will provide photographs, news items and articles of local and worldwide interest about things concerning the blind.

The Editor of “The Newsletter” has done such wonderful work and I wish him all success in this new venture. It has been a great help to us in the Library to get news of our readers and of other Societies and we are very grateful for this help.

We are looking forward to this first number of “Imfama.”

Good luck!
Yours sincerely,
J.E. WOOD (Miss)”


“The title Imfama for the first time

We would like to open a column wherein our readers may give expression to their views on any aspect of blind welfare, but this will only be possible if our readers summon up the energy to write to our Editor.

We have chosen the name “Imfama” for our magazine because it is the Xhosa word for a blind person; because it is trilingual, which is just as well in a country where there are so many languages; because in the field of blind welfare we pay as much attention to the plight or the blind native as we do that of the blind European; because it is a short word, easily pronounced and easily remembered; finally, because we like the name, and we hope you do too.”


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