Profile: Shakila Maharaj of Durban South Africa

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While a guest of Tourism KwaZulu Natal I had the good fortune to meet the charming yet fiercely resilient Shakila Mahraj. An article in today's Deccan Herald recounts her extraordinary as a woman with blindness who has risen to prominence in the face of persistent discrimination to prove her many skills in service to her country and to the international community of persons with disabilities. As the author, Subramani M, notes, " The cause of Shakila's blindness is not a visual condition but a political one; Apartheid."

Not mentioned in the following article is the fact that Shakila sits on the KwaZulu province tourism board advisory council and has single-handedly organized the Inclusive Tourism presence at this year's South African international tourism expo - Indaba.

Despite her short, thin frame, there is something distinctive about Shakila Maharaj. The vividly Irish accent contrasted with her Indian mannerism and the way she narrated her life story had the hallmarks of the fabled 'African wisdom'.

Any surprise this may have caused would vanish in an instant as you hear that Ms Maharaj is a South African Indian and has spent several years in Dublin (Ireland). What may hold our interest in her is the fact that she runs four successful companies in Durban and could do that without allowing her visual challenge to stand in the way.

To be blind and have a professional career is one thing, but having that disability and running four businesses -- albeit with partnerships -- is quite another. "Oh yes, this is business, but this is certainly something based on my core expertise in training and psychology," Shakila (49) explained. But still, she has taken less than five years to develop the businesses and is slowly expanding her orientation programme for companies outside her homeland.

All this after losing eyesight by 17, dropping out of school, suffering rejection due to disability at work and by her own family. The cause of Shakila's blindness is not a visual condition but a political one; Apartheid. In fact, but for the politics of her country in those times, she would have actually been seeing the world now.

Aged 12, she slipped down a long flight of stairs as she drove a toy car one day. "There wasn't much of an impact initially, but doctors in Ireland -- where my parents took me in the hope of finding a cure for my impairment -- suspected that fall from the staircase as the reason for the dwindling vision. This could have been found and treated at an early stage in South Africa itself, but being non-Whites we had no access to advanced treatment then."

 Preoccupation with restoring her vision meant that Shakila had to frequently absent herself from the school she attended in Ireland. This might have been "fun" in childhood, but as her peers passed out of school and pursued their college, the loss was telling. While the uncertain situation would have left anyone descend into conditions far worse, Shakila found her feet.

 The first decision was to continue with her education. Wanting to be closer to her father brought her back to South Africa, where she joined the school for the blind in Pietermaritzburg. Getting her Masters in Psychology in the University of Durban (Westphalia) and tutoring there, Shakila often felt like doing more. Which took her to Columbia University (New York) for a masters in organisational psychology.

 Before leaving Durban, Shakila met her husband Naresh Maharaj. Being an able-bodied person in love with a visually challenged girl and his subsequent plan to marry her didn't go down well with his family, who were against the idea from the beginning. To reaffirm his love for Shakila, Naresh travelled down to New York to propose to her.

"I was touched by this and accepted his proposal for marriage," she said. Married life wasn't as pleasant as she expected. The hostility that arose due to her disability, which she expected would fade away in time, was in fact growing stronger in Naresh's family. "That was perhaps the most trying period of my life.

Not only was living with my husband's family a challenge, but my quest to intern with companies in Durban was proving to be difficult as well," she said. Poor treatment at home and a fruitless search for a job forced Shakila to leave South Africa. Ireland, the only other place she knew well, sounded like a good place to start afresh.

With her husband, Shakila ventured into something totally new and exciting: women fashion stores. Besides a successful business, the venture also resulted in a book on how to run fashion stores successfully. But changes in South Africa -- especially the imminent departure of Apartheid system-- meant that Shakila had got back the urge to return home. Her enthusiasm was short-lived as all the problems that first chased her out came crowding back again.

While resentment for the blind daughter-in-law grew stronger with Naresh's parents, the arrival of their first and only child increased tensions. The parents-in-law sought the custody of Shakila's son on the grounds that she was incapable of caring for it. But pre-empting them, Shakila moved the court to secure the 'barring order' that disallowed any claim from her in-laws on her son. 

The professional front wasn't easier either. Flanked by her guide dog and sighted assistant, Shakila had to squat in front of Spoornet (South African Railway) office for three months demanding opportunity for an internship. A year after securing it, when Shakila was one of the candidates considered for a vacancy, her application was rejected since a member of the selection panel doubted her ability to work. "I came out as the best candidate from the selection process, but the person wasn't convinced a disabled person could perform efficiently in that position," she remembers

Today, she is not only a successful professional but also a successful mother to her son Prashanth. "I keep telling people that our progress at times is stalled by self doubt. If people start to discover the spirit and self belief they have as children, surely they would generate solutions and not problems. This is what I learnt in the most trying times of my life," she said.

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