Blandina Happiness Sembu was a pioneering Tanzanian journalist and disability activist who died suddenly in March 2021.
Blandina’s television shows made her a role model for hundreds of thousands of disabled people – especially women and girls. She was also an instrumental part of our project working for disability rights and gender equality in Tanzania. Alongside 19 other women activists, Blandina was working to challenge violence and discrimination towards disabled women and to strengthen national policies for gender equity.
We were honoured to interview Blandina about her work. Heartbreakingly, Blandina died suddenly four days after this interview took place. With her family’s permission, we wanted to share with you her thoughts and words in the hopes that they inspire you as deeply as she inspired us.
Born in Dar es Saleem in the 1970s, when Blandina was 14, she was involved in a road accident and lost her right arm.
“At 14, overnight, I became a person with a disability. It was a difficult time. I was in hospital for six months and my arm was amputated. Life was never the same.
My mum was the closest person to me. She was shocked. She never expected to have a child with a disability. But she told me, “it is your arm that was cut off, not your brain. You have to go back to school.”
I got my primary, high school and college education. We didn’t have much money so it wasn’t easy, but I kept thinking, as long as I am alive, I thank God that I can do things. After high school I got involved with disability organisations.
I became the chairperson for women and children for my organisation. I lobbied other organisations to get disabled women into positions of power. We want to eliminate all violence against women and children with disabilities in Tanzania. We have this drive of humanity within us. When you ask me, who is Blandina, this is who Blandina is.
Don’t judge disabled women as incapable.
Be positive. Don’t look at my impairment, look at the environment, and ask how it can be made friendly for me.
The community attitude infects us. Women are marginalised. Disabled women even more so. Disabled women are capable. They can be good mothers. Good wives. Millionaires! I am missing this positive representation. That gives me pain.
This is why we have to increase our efforts to get disabled girls into school, into universities. In the future I would love to see disabled women at the forefront of life. Not out of sympathy, not because you pity me, but because you see I am a human, you see what I can do. This is what we have to work for.
Like many disabled people in Tanzania, joining her local Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) was central to Blandina’s journey.
DPOs are the lifeblood of the disability movement. Across communities, DPOs create safe spaces for disabled people to meet, build solidarity, and lobby for change.
“In the DPO you find another family. The DPO will give you support to accept yourself, and trainings to do different activities. Personally, I was uplifted by my DPO. After my accident my DPO brought me up, up, up, to where I am now. I love to help women with disabilities wherever they are, to have the confidence to raise up their voices, fight violence and fight for the happiness of others.
What is so special about ADD is that when the lockdown happened, they stuck with us.
But we didn’t want to stagnate. We wanted to keep moving. We asked ADD for smartphones so we could keep working and they supported us. We are now 20 disability activists connected on Whatsapp. We can share information and in one hour, set things up and make a move.
For example, this year on International Women’s Day we wanted to take action despite the situation. So, using our phones, we hosted a very big Zoom meeting with 200 leaders from across the DPO movement. Prior to the call I did a mapping survey of DPO leadership and saw that women were not represented in the top roles.
So, we hosted a 3 hour zoom meeting with leaders from across the DPO movement to talk about how to change this. We identified that there is a problem with our constitutions – they do not talk about equal representation – so now we are all committed to reviewing and changing this. It was something so special.
All the women activists with their smartphones were in this meeting. We can do wonders when we have these IT appliances! We can work even more and further.