In the last week of August 2020 I decided to visit my home village in eastern Zambia.
When I got to the village, I got sick. I developed symptoms like coronavirus. I have had short breaths, irregular coughs, weight loss, loss of balance while walking, and feverish experiences. There was no health center where I could be diagnosed or treated.
These experiences sent me a flood of thoughts. Is that COVID-19? How could I have signed it, knowing that I did everything I could to keep the virus from attacking me?
My instincts told me it could have been my white stick that passed the virus on to me. It kind of made sense. I mean, I was passionate about face masking, sanitizing, hand washing, and, where possible, following social distancing guidelines. But my white cane is not disinfected or washed. And I hold it from sunrise to sunset as it guides me. I remembered placing it under my arm or leaning it against an object every time I disinfected or washed my hands. After disinfecting or washing, I would grab it and continue my journey. I would sometimes handle the white stick before washing or disinfecting my hands. Other people would touch it too.
These revelations made me feel that my white cane was responsible for my illness, and I started to get angry about it. But it was not possible to get rid of it. The sicker I got, the more I needed it. It acted like my supporter when I lost my balance and led myself.
These feelings reminded me of how I became a friend of the white cane.
How I got my first floor – and gave up
After I lost my sight at the age of 10, my father was working on a stick that he had made for me to navigate around the homestead. However, when I was taken to a school for the blind with the same stick, my friends laughed at me. These friends ran and ran around the school without the help of a sighted guide and without a white stick. They viewed walking sticks as outdated and old-fashioned. I joined them and threw away my walking stick.
After the seventh grade, we were taken to a new secondary school (which traditionally was not a special education center) along with my friends who had made it to secondary school. The place was undulating, hilly and rocky. We all tried to learn the paths from our hostels to the classrooms, but we failed because we fell into ditches or stones tripped over each other along the way. We had to rely on sighted friends to guide us. But these seeing friends wouldn’t always be there. And we needed the independence to go to places alone.
I’ll try again
These experiences made us aware of the need for walking sticks. During the first school vacation, I told my father to make me another wooden stick so I could explore my secondary school. When schools opened, I had my walking stick. I would manage to go to class on my own and I would visit many other places without any assistance from a sighted guide. My blind friends admired this and made wooden sticks that could be used as walking sticks. Since my school days I have become a cane friend.
I also remember how helpful my white cane was when I received a scholarship to study at the University of Leeds in 2014. Although a personal assistant was provided for the Disability Support Unit, these assistants were only available intermittently. You couldn’t have a personal assistant whenever you wanted one. I had to learn to go from my dorm to law school by myself. The white cane proved it was up to the task. Fortunately, the infrastructure in England is designed to accommodate the blind. For example, there is good signage on the streets and sidewalks. So I became an advocate of walking around the main center of the university, and sometimes I would guide my blind friend who was not very good at using a white cane.
Was the stick the culprit?
Back to 2020: The questions I asked against the white stick needed answers. Did it give me COVID-19? I had to go to the hospital for diagnosis. I traveled back to Lusaka and rushed to the hospital when I arrived. They tested me for COVID-19 and … they didn’t find it. It turned out that something else, luckily not as serious as the virus, had made me uncomfortable. Oh, my white cane has been relieved! But since then I’ve taken great care to keep it clean and hygienic.
I’ve always relied on my white cane – despite the short time COVID-19 made me doubt it – and my life wouldn’t be the same without it.