Graduate Silver Francis Oonyu Returns Home to Africa to Start School

by John Conroy

Oonyu at Pitt studying with assistive technology that translates print and Web text into an audio format.

Family. Community. Animals. Crops. And then for Silver Francis Oonyu, it disappeared.

He had a short time to create a lifetime’s worth of visual memories, because at age four he lost his sight due to measles. However, 40 years later he traveled from Uganda to the United States, and more specifically, the University of Pittsburgh, to attend the School of Education and earn a masters degree in vision studies with the goal of starting a nursery school for orphans as well as the blind and visually impaired (ages 5-17) in his home country.

“Having a disability, and being born to parents without formal education, I was not given any chance for special education services,” said Oonyu. “Hence, there were no opportunities for appropriate services that every child with blindness deserves. Instead, I was taken to Opucet Primary school, where I suffered all sorts of mistreatment from my fellow students, teachers, and the community around.”

It was only after the fall of Idi Amin’s regime in April 1979 that Oonyu happened upon the St. Francis Primary School for the Blind. “While at this school, I developed the idea that an inclusive setting rather than a residential one would be best,” he said. “And this feeling was later reinforced through the professional trainings and interactions I received at the School of Education. I was given help and encouragement to pursue the dream to start the Silver Memorial Inclusive Community Learning Center, or SMILE, some day.”

Oonyu graduated in 2012 and shortly after moved back to Uganda, where he taught part-time at the St. Francis, the same school that had supported him as a child, while meeting with friends and churches to procure funding for his own school. “Like the biblical mustard seed, which is the smallest seed on planet earth, but later grew into a very big tree under which birds get shelter, I hope that SMILE will start in a humble way and steadily grow to become an education and learning center,” said Oonyu.

Over two years he developed proposals, plans, and obtained funding to help build the school, including a series of efforts from the Pittsburgh-based organization, Vulnerable Children and Youth Action (VCAYA), which included bar crawls on Pittsburgh’s South Side, a “Raise the Roof” campaign involving an event at Carlow University, and sales by Penn Hills High School students in its gardening and interact clubs.

Then on July 1, 2014, the Advocacy for Vulnerable Children’s Rights (AVCR), Project to End Human Trafficking (PEHT), and members of the VCAYA team from Pittsburgh, in collaboration with members of the Opucet community (where Oonyu was born), held a ceremony and broke ground for SMILE. “The team from Pittsburgh helped members of AVCR, children of the school, and parents make bricks, fetch water, and mix mortar under the scorching tropical sun. “

It was discovered later in 2014 that the Ugandan government could only accredit the school if children had access to clean water. Within two months of this information, the Penn Hills Rotary helped Oonyu by raising the necessary funds for a well, which was drilled in December 2014. Oonyu continues working with VCAYA for funding to install a water harvesting system on the roof of the school as both an educational tool and for watering the school garden.

On the importance of education, Oonyu wrote in his school proposal, “Education is a right, not a privilege and as such, it enables and facilitates all people regardless of social status, to access other rights, and equips vulnerable children with life skills, hence empowering them to live desirable lives.”

For anyone interested in helping Oonyu, contact Program Coordinator James Ojilong at