Never to Be Taken Away From Me
As told by: Rowena Dinah Koloi, 27 of age
I am a highly motivated young lady who has seen the beauty of life through one eye. I was diagnosed with keratoconus at 14 years (a corneal disorder condition) whereby light cannot enter yours eyes, leaving you short sighted.
It all began in 2007 when I gradually became short sighted. All of a sudden, I needed to be seated in the front row in order to see the notes that were written on the board and had to squint in order to read from my textbooks. In mitigation to this, I went to see an optometrist and who prescribed a pair of spectacles in correction of my short sightedness.
The glasses fortunately corrected my sight, and all was well with me until the year 2010 when they became inefficient. Without reading much into it, we just concluded that I needed a new lens, so I was scheduled for an eye screening. This time around, I was given a double lens. As the weeks went by, I noticed that my eyesight was worsening at an alarming rate, but I kept it a secret because I did not want to worry my family.
During this struggle, there came a point where my vision became completely blurry. Even with the spectacles on, I could not see the notes on the board, could not write within the margins of my book or even see the faces of my teachers. This simultaneously caused my marks to decrease drastically to a point where one of teachers confronted me about it. It was this confrontation which led to my family‘s realization of the severity of my eye condition. It had surpassed the scope of an optometrist. I was referred to an eye specialist who diagnosed me with keratoconus. This condition can only be cured through a corneal transplant surgery, meaning you need somebody else's cornea.
In most cases, keratoconus only affects one eye, mine had unfortunately affected both eyes, I needed to get two corneal transplant surgeries performed on me. Corneal transplant surgeries are not a guarantee that eyesight would be restored to full functionality on the first transplant or ever. I went from one corneal transplant to the other, had tissue rejections in the process which were all done in South Africa. My body was rejecting these transplants and other surgeries emerged in the process. It was not just about the cornea, but other parts of the eye were now affected. The whole thing happened rapidly; each day came bearing a new complication. Every day was different, and it was not easy for me to open up about it because I did not understand it either. It started off with me complaining about not seeing from the back raw, to being moved to the middle raw in class. It was confusing because one day I was comfortable in the middle and then the next one all I could see were blurry images on the board.
Being a strong-willed person is both a curse and a blessing. You tend to believe that you can handle anything, so asking for help takes a whole lot of courage. My courage to ask for help died along the way.
That was the most painful period of my life. My short sightedness had reached a point where I could not even see the faces of my teachers so I would depend on their voices in order to know which teacher was standing before me. There were times where I had to pretend that I could see in class and even at home. I was only 2 years into my teenage years, a period where I was supposed to be discovering myself but here, I was losing my eyesight and my independence was threatened.
No matter how much I tried to maintain my positivity, I always felt like I was dealt with cards that were playing against me. I could not take part in sports or any other extra-curricular activities. I did an assessment; I was declared as visually impaired. To aid me at school, I was provided with magnifying glasses which I had to carry with me everywhere I went, especially in the classroom. The other students would give me stares and chuckle about my magnifying glasses. This whole experience changed my life in so many ways, I started getting low marks, my confidence changed. I experienced the same challenges in senior school Worse, I was now in a new environment, different people but same condition. I still went to South Africa for checkups and surgeries. I remember towards the end of form 4, my life taking a wrong turn, everything changed. My vision getting blurry again but this time it happened more rapidly than the first time. I had to depend on other people for assistance. I needed someone to lead me back to the hostel after evening studies. There were times where I had to suffer in silence, I felt like I was burdening other people.
The situation was a lot more challenging than before now that I was in a boarding school. I went to South Africa for regular check-ups, whioch caused me to miss school days. Sometimes I would go to bed healthy then wake up with a sore eye. Life did not allow me to catch a break. Despite all these I hated being given special treatment, I would insist on taking my lessons, tests and examinations with swollen eye. I remember in 2013, I was left with a week before sitting my exams. I had to study next to a box of painkillers and a bottle of water just so I could cope, and, on some days, I was not able to see anything at all. The situation worsened, I got referred to South Africa where I was told I had an open wound in my left eyes behind the cornea. I had a corneal graft surgery performed on my eye. I missed the final examinations and I had to re-do my form 5 again the next year. I went back to school to repeat form 5. This resulted in the same challenges, going in and out of the hospital but fortunately I managed to sit for the final exam and proceed to university. Two years in university I completely lost use of my left eye, as it went totally blind. I had to learn to live with one eye and it was that same year I was classified disabled, virtually impaired with low vision.
Adapting and Living Up to My Willpower
It was at this point in my life where I had to learn to accept myself. It was a turning point in my life. In 2019, I decided to put my life in a book, I published a book titled “A Walk to Remember, Disability Is Not Inability”. This purpose of the book was to motivate other young people going through the same challenges and to change negative perspectives that society have about issues of disabilities. I started using my book as a tool to speak to young people in schools, I participated in the young global African leaders exchange program where I represented Botswana.
I learned more about advocacy, I had an opportunity to interact with organizations giving service to people with disabilities. I made I decision that my life was going to be a reflection of the endless abilities that exist in each and every one of us and represent young people with disabilities. 2021 I was elected the first chairperson of the young people with disabilities network which was formed in accordance with the conversion on rights of persons with disabilities. I have facilitated the SRHR panel discussion on sexual reproductive health rights of young people with disabilities hosted by UNFPA.
I also had an opportunity to be part of the delegation that represented Botswana on the 8th regional program steering committee meeting safeguard young people program in South Africa as chairperson of the network. I have represented Botswana in the young women with disabilities leadership program hosted by the African disability forum in Ethiopia. I was also able to advocate for the empowerment of young people with disabilities through a project I implemented on the 25th of February 2022, “ABILITIES EXPO 2022” a platform created to open space for young people with disabilities to showcase their different abilities from entrepreneurship to music, arts and crafts. I am currently working as a graduate trainee at Botswana International University of science and technology where I work as a real estate intern.
Growing up different made me realize that if I wanted things done, I needed to advocate for myself and if I can advocate for myself, I can advocate for others. One of my greatest highlights of being a leader in the disability space was being able to use my voice and experiences to speak on issues that matters not only to me but to others as well and being able to use my life to demonstrate to other young people with disabilities that they can use their different abilities to live beyond their limitations.
I, Rowena Dinah Koloi, will continue to exceed my expectations and I challenge other young people to do the same, there has never been a greater time to do so than now.