As told by Tshepiso Lazarus
I can never forget that day. It was in 2007, during the mid-year examinations. We were writing the second paper of mathematics, the first subject of the term. I can still recall that fateful morning as clearly as yesterday.
As usual, we were given the papers and asked to write our names. I could see the black color of the cover page, but I could not read the words. Our exam proctor was a social studies teacher who scared us all, so I was too nervous to call her to my desk. I wondered how she would react if I told her I couldn't see. Instead, I tried over and over to read, but it was useless. My eyes started to water, and tears rolled down my cheeks. I whispered to myself, “Tshepi, you can do this, you’re just tired,” wanting to be strong, but I felt defeated at the same time. I was confused and had so many questions. “What is happening to me?”
I decided to write my name anyway, but all I could see were the dark lines where I was supposed to write my name and class. The letters I wrote were not even on the line, because I couldn't see what I was writing. My heart was pounding, my tears were flowing, and my mind was overflowing with questions I had no answers for.
At some point, I took a deep breath and gathered some courage, then wrote a note to my mathematics teacher on the top part of the paper, where I knew there was some empty space. I was one of the best students in the school and in my class, so I knew she would mark my paper first. I wrote: "I cannot see, not sure what is going on, but I cannot read anything on this paper." Then I sat through the rest of the exam, pretending to write until it was over.
Let’s fast forward to one and half hours later, after the examination. While my classmates were discussing the math paper, I was in my small world, silent and wondering what had just happened. We then had a Setswana (our local language) paper later that day, where we had to write a composition and a letter. I had the same problem as before. I gave up, with a broken heart, and just sat there, confused. About an hour into the exam, I saw my math teacher coming into our class with one of the heads of department. I instantly knew they came for me. Part of me was relieved, but part of me was scared. They went to the exam proctor and then came to my desk. "Hi Lazarus, what is going on?" asked the math teacher. I told her that I didn't know what was happening, but I couldn't read the print. She opened the Setswana paper and saw a blank page. They asked me to follow them to the staff room, where they continued to question me.
They then took me to the hospital, where they ran various tests. They tested me for HIV/AIDS, sugar diabetes, and other diseases, but the results came back negative. After more tests, they diagnosed me with cataracts. The cataracts had already covered most of my eyes - both of them. The doctor suggested that I should go to Mnangagwa (the main hospital in my area at the time) for an eye surgery, which was done on the 4th of December 2007. But the surgery was not successful. My right eye got worse than before. I couldn't see anything with it. I started to experience swelling, redness, and blurry vision. A new life began.
You know, it all sounded like a nightmare I would wake up from, but I guess it was the start of my new reality. All my goals, dreams, and plans were shattered. I gave up on going to school. It was very hard. I had no reason to live anymore. I had suicidal thoughts, no support from my family, and no idea how to cope with this. I would pretend to be okay during the day, or when with people, but I would break down when alone. My teachers and friends were my only support system. I remember one of the heads of department even went with me to my last doctor's appointment in Francistown, where I was told that my vision cannot be restored. After that appointment, I quit school for two weeks.
I felt like my world had ended when I lost my sight. I was angry at God and hated my life and everything in it. Why did God let this happen to me when I was a good and principled child? I cried every night, hoping for some relief. One day, some teachers came to our home and asked me to come back to school. I wondered what the point was since I couldn't read or write anymore. They persuaded me, and I agreed, since I missed school, too.
I went to school for the whole of 2008, but I just sat at the back and did nothing. My name went from being among the top ten students to being the last one on the final paper of the compiled results. This crushed my confidence, as all the students in the school could see the results and mock me. They would say things like "she’s coming to school for food,” calling me discriminatory names, “sa Jericho,” referring to the account of a blind man, (Bartimaeus) who was healed by Jesus Christ in the gospel of Mark chapter 10. Getting to school was very difficult, as I often ran into various objects, such as poles, people, and trees, especially in winter. This drastic change also affected my social life. I stopped attending traditional dance group practices, pact meetings, and junior achievement Botswana meetings. I couldn't be part of any school fairs or school tour trips. Imagine the hurt, my friend!
One day, in October 2008, a group of people came to our school to see me. These people were representatives from the central region, Botswana examinations council, and special education. They held a meeting and decided that I shouldn't take the junior certificate examinations, since I might fail. They told me that I would move to Mochudi in 2009 to start my form three again. This news shattered me. I sobbed like a baby, not caring who was there. How could they do this to me, after I spent the whole year coming to school? They had let me down. Could they imagine the cold, unbearable pain of hitting people, trees, poles, and falling into trenches? “No! Not me, I am not going to let that happen.”
I told this group that I would write my final examinations and pass. It was a week-long debate, but they finally gave in to my plea to write, and even offered me the option of rewriting in case I failed. They hired a scribe for me, and that was how I wrote my junior certificate examinations in 2008. Luckily, I got second class, proceeding to high the next level of my education. My friend, my high school was a whole new experience for me. I mean, it was the first time I had seen or been to a boarding facility. I had no clue about the living and eating arrangements. The worst part was that I was not good at using Braille. How could I cope with all this alone? It was hard. I remember the first time I got my white cane. I felt like everyone was staring at me. It was so overwhelming, but I got the hang of it. Braille was very hard to learn. Reading and writing with Braille was not easy. I had to take extra lessons during the evening study to learn Braille. The first time I read for myself was in July, even though I was very slow. It was a moment to give myself a pat on the shoulder. I got better with time, until I was skilled enough to write my final year examinations.
Now, my dear friend, let me tell you about my journey of overcoming blindness and achieving my dreams. It was not easy, but I learned a lot along the way. I have always been a good student, and I have some awards to prove it. Here are some of them:
Best Student: Class 5H 2009 and 2010
Best student: Orientation and Mobility - 2009 and 2010
Top Achiever Best Student: Special Education - Botswana Examinations Council, 2nd Annual Excellence Awards
Program Achievement Award - Canadore College
Ed Ireland Award for International Students with Disabilities - Carleton University
Definitely, these achievements did not come without challenges. In fact, I faced one of the biggest challenges of my life in 2013, when I decided to seek medical attention from one of the doctors in North Bay, Canada. I wanted to know if there was any hope of restoring my sight, which I had lost in 2007. He told me that my right eye was beyond repair, but my left eye had equal chances of either restoring sight or not. I took a leap of faith and had an operation on my left eye in April. Since my medical aid did not cover the surgery, I spent all my savings on it and prayed for God's intervention. Fortunately, it was a success, and I regained some of my vision. This boosted my confidence, and I was able to enjoy some activities again, such as swimming, boat cruising, and shopping.
Just when I thought God had answered my prayers, I got diagnosed with idiopathic uveitis, cornea detachment, and severe scarring in October 2018. My left eye became extremely painful, along with severe headaches, swelling, and redness. They tried to ease the pain by injecting the eye, but it did not help. The doctor told me that they had exhausted all the treatment options, and I had to remove it. At first, I agreed to this, because I was tired of suffering. I underwent training on cleaning the prosthetic eye, and they set a date for the surgery. But when the day came, I just couldn't do it. I was not emotionally ready, so I ignored their calls until they gave up.
This was during the last semester of my final year at Carleton University. I had seminars and a final project to work on, but I had no strength. This problem devastated me to the point of depression and suicidal thoughts. I skipped school and locked myself in my room all day, with my phones disconnected. I bought sleeping pills on Amazon, because I knew I wouldn't get them at the school pharmacy. These sleeping pills helped me to get into a very deep sleep, where I couldn't hear anything. I also tried to kill myself by overdosing on pills and drinking a liquid that you add to a hair relaxer. But none of my attempts worked, as I would vomit and be okay. I guess God did not want me to die at that time. My academic advisor noticed my situation and reported me to the health services. They came and took me to the hospital. After I was discharged, I was referred to the mental health office for counseling, which I attended for a couple of months before coming back to Botswana. Therapy helped me to accept my disability and appreciate life more. I can confidently say I gained more than I ever thought I would.
Despite all these challenges, my friend, I managed to graduate with flying colors from Carleton University. I now work for Debswana Jwaneng Mine in the health services department, under the employee assistance program. Like they say, disability is not inability. The most important step is to allow yourself to go through the process of healing, and then self-acceptance becomes the key.
Remember, my friend, life may throw challenges our way, but with resilience and support, we can overcome them and emerge stronger, and you believe that, right? We may have all our senses today, but tomorrow is not known. Whatever challenges that may come your way, it is my hope that my journey will be your go to area for comfort and assurance that you can come out victorious, shining like a diamond. Appreciate life as a gift, treasure every moment you have, and do all it takes to preserve it as much as you can. Embrace persons with disabilities, show compassion, care and understanding in your association with them.
Let inclusion be your guide. Yes, make it your pride.