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World Braille Day: Sr Veronica, 'Where my sight cannot reach, my other senses can'

On World Braille Day, Sr. Veronica shares her story as a visually-impaired religious sister from Kenya, and describes how every challenge should be accepted as a portion of Christ's cross to be bourne in service to others.

By Francesca Merlo

As World Braille Day reminds us of the importance of accessibility and independence for people who are blind or visually-impaired, Sr. Veronica shares her story as a religious sister from Kenya who became visually impaired in her early teenage years.

“It all depends on the way one accepts themselves. God never does anything to cause anyone harm. I used to ask myself why I cannot see when my brothers and sisters all can? The way I accept myself, and the way I present myself, that is how others will either accept or reject me.”

Don Orione

Sister Veronica lives in Kenya, in a community with three other visually impaired sisters, which is part of an even larger congregation: the Sacramentine Sisters of Don Orione.

Speaking to Vatican News from her home in Kenya, she explains that the sisters in the congregation are both contemplative and active.

“This was Don Orione’s desire”: to allow those who needed to, to be able to serve God through adoration. “Whatever one has to offer the congregation, they can do so here,” she says. Of the 7 sisters in her community, the 4 who are visually impaired are only "partially contemplative", since they participate in activities around the house, meet people, and give talks.

The four contemplative sisters Veronica, Mary Carmen, Angelina and Rachel
The four contemplative sisters Veronica, Mary Carmen, Angelina and Rachel

They are a comfort to each other, Sr. Veronica explains, "but I did not join the congregation because I need help."

"I need opportunity, not sympathy," she says. "Often people assume they should be 'doing things for me.' That doesn't help me! Show me how to get the fish, but don't get it for me," says Sr. Veronica. And that is what the sisters in her community do. 

Sr. Veronica's story

Veronica was born with full eyesight. At the age of 13, she contracted malaria and was given medication called Quinine to treat it.

"The hospitals weren't anything like they are now," she says, and the medication, which was later banned in Kenya in 1999, damaged her optic nerve and caused her to lose her sight. “I do recognise light and shadow, though,” she specifies, adding that technology is a wonderful help. She explains that she dictates her WhatsApp messages to her phone, and that it reads received messages back to her.

At 13 years old, “that’s the age when you start to develop... you get your first period, when things begin to change, and that’s when I lost my sight," says Sr. Veronica. “But when something like this happens to you as a child, it is easier to bear with and accept.”

She adds that some people lose their sight when they are already settled in life, and that they risk throwing away their lives. “It all depends on the faith of each person,” says Sr Veronica.

Sr Veronica
Sr Veronica

Faith and impairment

“I was born into a Catholic family.” At first, Veronica's father, a fisherman, had difficulty accepting her illness, and often asked “why me?”, “why my daughter?" He never did any harm to anyone, she says.

Her mother, who worked helping out in family homes and congregations was more accepting at first. But, “they never stopped going to Church, or praying” and her father grew to accept it, too, because "they knew that everything that happens has its purpose.” And when it does happen, she adds, and you have a family which helps and sustains you, “it becomes much easier.”

But, despite the help of a loving family, being visually impaired does take courage. Now aged 63, Sr. Veronica says it was courage that allowed her to turn what at first seemed like a weakness into a strength and a virtue. "You can't depend on your parents forever," she says.

It all depends on the person with the disability, she points out. "The way I present myself is the way you will accept me.”

Braille, learning and teaching

School for blind people was free in Kenya at the time. "I learned Braille when I was 13, the same year I contracted the illness that caused my visual impairment." Sr. Veronica then went "to blind school where, for 7 years, I studied the same curriculum all other students across Kenya studied. Though I studied in Braille, the exam is the same for everyone." She says students had to type their responses out on a keyboard, just like everybody else.

Then, between finishing school and becoming a nun at the age of 23, Sr. Veronica felt the calling to teach visually impaired children English and Swahili, the Kenyan national language. "And sometimes even maths," she adds, with the laugh of someone who is perhaps not particularly good at the subject.

One challenge, like another

Sr. Veronica never loses the joyful tone in her voice, speaking with strength and determination.

“I am not shy about talking about myself! This is part of life! This situation is normal. Challenges are everywhere... you must learn to handle your challenges, and not allow them to handle you. Once God diminishes one sense, the others increase. Where my sight cannot reach, I can use my imagination, and sensitivity... and common sense. It depends on the gift of each one.”

This is why, she says, "there is no difference between me and you."

Travelling

Sr. Veronica also loves to travel. "I do have trouble crossing the road," she admits, but with help getting on the right bus, and changing onto the correct next one, "I can go anywhere." She used to travel to a different province, overnight, to get to school, and she did so on her own. 

“Be confident. Not so much as to say that you can do everything and that you don't need help. But before you ask for help, try. If others can do it, you can at least try.”

Bearing the Cross

Sr. Veronica has never "seen" her two brothers and her sister. They were born after she lost her most of her sight.

At first, the religious sister says she asked herself why they could see and she could not. But later, she began to understand that she should appreciate that "each of us, the visually impaired, has a piece of God's Cross." With that in mind, "it is better to appreciate it, and live happily."

Each day is a gift, she concludes, and "I have gained my independence."

04 January 2022, 10:25