At age nine, Philani Twala sat in class and struggled to see the black rectangular chalkboard with white chalk writings on it. All he could see were shapes and shadows. This had never happened to him before and he was so scared that he asked his friend, Xolani, to take him home. This was in 2005. “When I got home I sat on my bed and cried, not because my eyes were sore but because I couldn’t see,” says Philani.
He spent ten years pretending he could see
Philani didn’t know it at the time, but he had a visual impairment disorder called keratoconus. It is a slow progressive eye disease where the cornea (think of it as the windshield of the eye) bulges up and causes distorted vision. He says he told his mom that he could not see and she got him a cream that he used. The next day he went back to school. He pretended that he could see properly. He carried on like this for ten years and only his family, Xolani and the school principal knew that there was something wrong with his eyesight. “I didn’t understand why this was happening to me, but after some time I understood that this is how I was going to live.” But he had problems reading his textbooks and failed three times between primary and high school.
Teachers thought he was naughty when he said he could not see
Throughout his school career Xolani helped him by taking notes in class for him. Philani says his teachers often thought he was just being naughty when he brought up the fact that he could not see properly. He remembers once receiving a Valentine’s Day gift, a balloon with his name on it and a little note attached. He says he was embarrassed because he could not read the note. Instead a classmate grabbed it and read it aloud in front of the whole class. He could not see the girl who gave him the card so missed the opportunity of being her Valentine. “I saw the world through my friends eyes,” Philani says. He says he used to just listen and imagine what everything looked like, from tall buildings, the busy streets of Jozi, the calabash stadium, Nkandla, cars, 3D movies.
Seeing my mother again made him smile
Philani thought he would never see again, but thanks to donations from fellow South Africans and Ster-Kinekor, enough money was collected for him to get a cornea transplant in March this year. When he took the bandage off his eyes he saw his mom smiling and crying at the same time. “I just smiled and said mama you’re beautiful.” He was happy to see the person who has been taking care of him, now he just wants to make her proud. “I’m living now. I just want to do regular things again; cook, clean, go to the pool with my friends.” He looks forward to Christmas not because of the songs, but because he can finally see the clothes his mom buys for him, look at himself in the mirror and comment on how he looks. He can dream freely, of being a sound engineer and buying his mama a house. It’s funny how being blind gave him the privilege of not seeing people’s race or gender. He says he just heard voices, and that thought him not to treat people based on their race or gender.