…as he overcomes loss of sight to ride the airwaves with hope for more
March, the month just gone-by is commemorated as Visual Impairment month, what more deserving a way to honour it than through the inspiring story of a 31-year-old visually impaired man Mohlomi Tlali, who until today despite the turbulences he has faced, still dreams of becoming an architect.
Known as Stable Steps in media circles where he plies his trade as radio presenter at the state-run Ultimate radio, Tlali says there is still hope that one day he will become an architect even though he had lost all hope of becoming one after losing his sight in 2011.
At the age of 21, Tlali experienced a shock of his life when he was told by doctors that he may never see again after he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. This was after he experienced a strange feeling one fateful afternoon while still at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT) doing his final year in Architecture when suddenly he started seeing the lines he was drawing blurring away.
“I was in the studio designing when I suddenly could not see the lines I was drawing anymore and the bit that I was seeing was blurry and slanting,” he said.
He said he thought this was just a temporary thing so he left for home and rested, assuming that the feeling had been result of exhaustion. Little did he know that this was the beginning of a new life journey for him.
The following day he realised that the situation had not changed, he hastily went to see a local doctor who ran tests but told him they couldn’t find anything that could be the course to lose sight.
He was given prescribed and referred to a hospital in Mapoteng where more tests were made, but it was all to no avail as he returned without concrete answers towards his emerging ailment, causing him to find another doctor since the situation was now getting out of control.
“I was slowly losing my left eye,” he said.
Because of this huge turn of events, he was resultantly bound to drop out of school, finding complications to carry-on with his studies with less to no right equipment to aid on his studies.
“I told the university about my condition and then dropped out because I couldn’t carry on without my sight and the school did not have any equipment to help me stay and carry on with my studies,” he said.
Eager to leave no stone unturned, the 31 year-old could not lose hope nor throw-in the towel on his endeavour of seeking answers, he decided to cross the frontiers to make it to the neighbouring Republic of South Africa, optimistic that perhaps certain doctors somewhere would help him understand his condition.
He went to see a doctor in Bethlehem who discovered that his left eye was bleeding internally.
“The doctor realised that my eye was bleeding internally and they couldn’t do anything about it but to refer me to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital where I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa,” he said.
According to the Mayo clinic, Retinitis pigmentosa is described as an eye disease in which the back wall of the eye (retina) is damaged. It is a rare, inherited degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment.
The National Eye Institute on the other hand, explains that the condition is an inherited disorder that results from harmful changes in any one of more than 50 genes.
The institution continues that the genes carry the instructions for making proteins that are needed in cells within the retina, called photoreceptors.
Some of the changes, or mutations, within genes are so severe that the gene cannot make the required protein, thus limiting the cell’s function. Other mutations produce a protein that is toxic to the cell. Still other mutations lead to an abnormal protein that doesn’t function properly. In all three cases, the result is damage to the photoreceptors.
Tlali stares in the air like he sees while he narrates his story. His hands calmly placed on both his lap as he remembers how difficult those times were for him.
“I spent close to seven months in hospital with doctors running tests and trying to find out how they could help me retain my sight but all these came down to one conclusion which was that I had lost my sight and this was permanent,” he recalls.
By the end of 2012 after check-ups and medication, he was told that the doctors had tried everything they could to restore his sight but nothing could help. They said their efforts to regenerate tissues from the back of his eyes all failed.
In January 2013, he was given a letter directed to the Ministry of Social Development saying he will now have to be part of people with disabilities and that he should be signed up with an organization that would help him read and write in braille.
Braille is a form of written language for blind people, in which characters are represented by patterns of raised dots felt with fingertips.
It was during the same year when he joined an organisation called Lesotho National League of the Visually Impaired Persons (LNLVIP) to learn how to read and write in braille.
According to LNLVIP, close to 10 000 people in Lesotho are visually impaired with more than 8 000 members of LNLVIP.
LNLVIP Secretary General ‘Mabataung Khetsi says, visual impairment is not only a state people are born in. She said anyone can be visually impaired at any time due to different conditions.
She continued that injuries such as head injuries can result in one losing their sight adding that there are people who are visually impaired as a result of diseases they have or had.
Khesi said diseases that are common to affect one’s vision include Sugar Diabetes, HIV and AIDS and Cancer to name a few.
Asked how the transition was from being sighted to having no vision at all was, Tlali said it was really hard especially during his time in hospital when all was gloom and doom.
“It was hard for me specially the treatment from the people surrounding me because people started treating me differently or one would think they were. It was not nice having to need someone to hold you for you to walk around.
“Relationships also became a challenge because even the girls start to distance themselves once they realise that one can’t see anymore. I was not suicidal but I was always looking for solutions hence I learned how to use a white cane. At least I knew that it guaranteed me a kind of independence as I could now move on my own,” he says.
He says things got a little bit better when he got to the resource centre for the visually-impaired, because at the centre, one gets to meet new people all who are there for the same reason.
“The centre played a huge role in making me accept situations as they are and deciding to start on a new slate,” he says.
He says he got to meet different people who made him realise that his situation was not all that bad compared to others’.
“Listening to different stories made me realize that my story was not as bad as it seemed,” he remembers.
Tlali recalls how staying at the centre was rather challenging for him because the setup was tiring for a person at the age of 21.
“Having to sleep, wake up and eat at a time given by the centre was rather exhausting,” he laughs as he reminisces on those days.
He says around June while home for the holidays he would keep himself busy with knitting which he had learned at the centre, although it didn’t satisfy him as it was not within the scope of his passion.
At the end of the same year, he graduated and could properly read and write in Braille.
The next step was to navigate his path; as he was young and ambitious to become something, follow a dream of making the industry of Art and Architecture. He couldn’t stand the notion of reading and writing.
“At this point I asked myself what’s next because I could not do anything with the reading and writing I had learned. I wanted to do art and I believed architecture was my true calling.
“Through architecture, I wanted to be very much unique to see what I could change that already exists and come up with something different for Lesotho and knowing that I could never be able to do that anymore was one of the hardest things to accept,” he says, adding that the worst thing was that he hadn’t even completed his degree in architecture.
While he was home pondering on the question of his future between 2013 and 2014, he received a letter from LUCT.
“They reached out to find out what I was up to since I dropped out. I told them I wanted to go back to school but that I did not know what to study so they advised me to enrol in Journalism and Media.
“In 2015, I left for Limkokwing University in Botswana where they sent me. There was suitable equipment which made me feel like a proper student. My notes were given in braille and I also had a recorder to help” he recalls.
In 2017, TlaIi graduated and got an internship program at some radio station in Botwana before making his way back home after its completion.
“I had to come back home and was welcomed by unemployment. Obviously, I couldn’t work at a supermarket like anyone else but I needed money so I applied for a job I heard of on a local radio station where they needed someone with qualifications in journalism and media.
“In 2019, I was volunteering at the Ministry of Gender in the Department of Communications, when I received a call for an interview around March.
“I remember clearly that it was raining on that day. I remember I had to hold an umbrella on the other hand and my white cane in the other hand. I shoved my documents into my jacket to protect them from the rain and headed there,” he says.
He passed the interview and is currently a radio presenter at a local radio station.
“April 1, 2019 was my first day at work.
“I couldn’t believe it.
“I had to use my phone to write and submit stories. It was a challenge. I remember interviewing the now Prime Minister who was then Minister of Finance, and my phone died. I had to memorise the whole interview,” he laughs as he recalls the challenges he met at the time.
He made is baby steps in the media fraternity and crew up to create a renowned name “Stable Steps” for himself at the Ultimate radio.
But his dream of one day becoming an architect is still burning in his chest.
He has recently been doing some research about architecture and came across someone called Chris Downey, a practicing architect in the United States of America who lost sight due to a brain tumour.
“Coming across someone like Chris brought back a spark in me. It brought so much hope back in me that maybe I might bounce back.
“I studied architecture at the time when I could see but the things I could come up with now are different from the things I learnt in school, especially about accessibility and everything that has to do with texture because of the experience I now have.
“There may be elevators with braille but finding it can be a challenge for people who can’t see. There are a lot of things that need to change and not only in Lesotho but around the world,” he says with renewed hope that he can and will ably live his dream and make his mark in this world.
One of his co-workers at the radio station, Bonang ‘Bonita’ Motumi describes Tlali as one of the bubbliest people she has ever met. She says he always oozes humour and confidence which makes him a people’s person.
“I worked with Tlali since his arrival at the Ultimate FM. We did a show together called The Midday Bid and I already knew from the beginning that it was going to be a challenge having to teach him how the studio operates but to my relieve, he already knew things such as operating the computer by himself and so everything else ran smoothly,” she smiles
She said speaking on radio for Tlali was easy because he already had the confidence, the voice and the personality for radio.
“He is such a funny guy who is always creating jokes and making people laugh and I look up to him because he came and made a name for himself despite his disability, which he has refused to have become an impediment to his path,” she says.