My Blind Life in a Sighted World: Proud of My White can

Abraham Mateta with a white can

Yesterday was the international White Can Safety day.

Growing up before going to school, I used to hear that blind people use walking sticks to find their way. I however never understood the logic behind the use of a walking stick and at home I just knew my environment. Of course, many times, I would smash against obstacles that would be put in my way and I didn’t seem to know if there was a way of getting around that problem. When I went to do my Primary school, there was a blind teacher called Mr Bvudzijena who would walk whilst tapping the floors and pavements with a stick. I later learnt that the stick was called a White can. While doing mobility lessons, I recall that teachers such as Mr Telford Nyoni would insist that we use the white can. However, the white can was largely unpopular and in some cases stigmatised. We therefore chose to master our environment and would move without it. Although I can confess that during the days I used the white can, it saved me from falling into trenches that would occasionally be dug by the town council, we still felt that the white can would make us look less like other children.

It wasn’t until when I was in my High School years that I started questioning a lot of issues to do with me and my blind life. One of the challenges I felt I should confront was that of identity crisis and I felt from that time that shunning the white can was perpetuating that terrible identity crisis. I became clear to myself that I was blind as a matter of fact and that the white can should be to me as the belt is to the pair of trousers, (I’m thinking in my first language).

It so happened that when I was doing my upper 6th, construction work began and a lot of digging took place on my usual route to our classroom. I therefore resorted to taking the white can to use in order to avoid falling into the pits that were being dug. I was the only blind learner in the upper 6th classes during that year. I remember vividly a conversation I had with a friend and classmate whose name was Timothy. Timothy expressed concern why I had resorted to the use of the white can. I indicated to him that it was due to the fact that my route to the classroom was now dangerous due to diggings that were taking place. He felt that my use of the white can was not necessary since a lot of people were willing to help me move from one place to another. He also confessed that he associated the white can with the blind people in the street and felt that I was too intelligent to be seen carrying such an object. I told him of the history of the white can and about popular people in the US and South Africa who I had read about who used the white can as independent living tools. My conversation with Timothy was a frank exchange of ideas and knowledge. At the end of the day, we reached a common ground.

The university of Zimbabwe had a very difficult terrain. We nicknamed it USA for University of Steps in Africa. I can state without equivocation that my movement on campus would not have been easy without a white can. When I consider life in Harare, I find something quite sad. Our roads and pavements are now very difficult to navigate for a blind person even with a white can. If the problem is not that of vendors selling tomatoes and other things in the pavements, it will be the council digging trenches. I hope we will as a society improve the conditions that facilitate the independent movement of blind people in our towns and we must always make sure that we support a culture in which the white can will be a tool which blind people can be proud of.


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