Lessons from African Plains and Cambridge Classrooms
By Kristin Fleschner, BS’04
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2004, Kristin Fleschner began a year as a Vanderbilt Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow, journeying to Southern and Eastern Africa to study sexual violence against women and children. Now a third-year student at Harvard Law School, Fleschner has worked for the federal government since 2008. She received a pancreas transplant in 2007 and started experiencing vision loss in 2008.
“I’m leaving Africa with a heavy heart and a monumental task before me. When saying goodbyes at the Center for the Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers, Edna [not her real name]—an 18-year-old who was abducted by Ugandan rebels at the age of 12—asked me to promise her two things. First, not to forget the experiences and lives of the women I had been working with for the past year. Second, that I would use my voice to create positive change.”
—Excerpt from my journal, July 30, 2005
Upon returning from my Keegan Fellowship, as I struggled to find a way to honor the African women’s challenges and triumphs, I frequently recalled the horrific story of a young woman who was traveling with her husband when they encountered a rebel group. Rebels decapitated her husband and forced her to attempt intercourse with his corpse if she wanted to live. This woman told me her story not with sorrow but with an understanding of the gravity of her situation, focusing on the gratitude she felt for her survival. Despite the horrors she endured, she exuded strength and happiness, which she said were rooted in her belief that life is a precious gift.
I decided that maintaining the positive attitude those women exhibited regardless of the challenges they faced was one way I could honor their lives. At the time I made that promise to myself, I could not have predicted how difficult and influential this commitment would be. Several years after returning from Africa, I faced a pancreas transplant and blindness. As I struggled to find a positive angle to my changed world, I wondered if I would have to alter the goals and dreams that were so important to me.
The transplant and vision loss forced me to dissect beliefs developed during my time in Africa—including the fact that a person always has a choice to pursue happiness. It had been a theoretical idea that I had convinced myself to be true; now it was put to the test.
I do not want to foster misconceptions about this: Choosing happiness is not always easy. I have been unhappy or faked happiness many times in the years since then. At times I have felt disgusted with myself for feeling exhausted or frustrated; I vomited once after feeling that the hardships of vision loss and illness were more persistent than my own spirit. I grasped for the world that I had during my Keegan Fellowship. I grasped for the “old me.”
At times I’ve been unable to control the heartache that comes with not being able to enjoy things in the same way I once did. I miss the sparkle in another person’s eyes when they are happy. I miss the color of African sunsets and the view of an open African safari plain. I miss running races, riding a bike and driving. I miss being able to pick up a book or newspaper and easily read fine print.
Challenges make you change as quickly as a hairpin turn on a mountain road on a dark night. Without choice or thought, you do it. As the women in Africa illustrated, ultimately the only choice you have is whether you do it with happiness and love. As my vision loss progressed, I found myself focusing on lessons I learned from the women in Africa, welcoming the unknown and uncomfortable as opportunities for growth rather than as roadblocks or wells of sadness. If I could harness my challenges as opportunities, the riches of the world would be within grasp.
Through the power of a hearty hug or the comfort of a loved one’s hand, I have learned to be the bystander and observer of others’ happiness. I feel solace as the rays in a sunset warm my skin and the quietness of nature provides peace. I have spent hours hooked to my father with a rope, running distances of up to 20 miles, and I have sat behind him on a tandem bike for a one-day, 160-mile ride across Indiana. I never would have spent those hours and shared those moments without being forced to confront the challenges of a transplant or blindness. I would not have felt the same happiness at the end of a race or the end of a law school exam if the ability to ride a bike or read had not been taken from me.
I left the comforts of the United States for the fellowship to be an outsider and completely independent. I sought to live in places where no one was close by to rely upon when malaria struck or when I was lonely. I thought I felt most comfortable, intellectually curious and fulfilled when I was an “independent outsider.” But looking back, as my year in Africa progressed, I was no longer independent and definitely not an outsider. Africa was my home, and I quickly developed trust and love for my African family.
Africa taught me that the unknown could be comfortable and that any environment, even the war-torn corners of Uganda or the darkness of blindness, could be a beautiful place of peace and happiness. Africa taught me that I was happiest as an interdependent member of a strong community.
My friends and family loved the “old me” as much as I did, but most of them have not lived alone in Africa and learned the same kinds of lessons that taught me to welcome the unknown—even blindness—as an opportunity. People, even friends, sometimes act as if they cannot see me, or they stare and compliment me for completing a mundane task like climbing a set of stairs. Others’ reactions to blindness can make me once again feel like an outsider. Feeling stimulated and happy as an outsider is more difficult when you do not make the choice to be on the outside. To be human is to face challenges, struggles and loss of control. My challenges—vision loss and transplant—are not different from those that all humans must face.
Making that connection has allowed me to educate others about my experience. Last spring I partnered with another Harvard law student, Desta Reff, and the Harvard Law Documentary Studio to make a documentary about vision loss and educate others about blindness. Desta related to my transition to blindness as she transitioned to motherhood. Both of us were constantly learning, being challenged and fighting exhaustion as we navigated our new worlds. We used this connection to create a documentary everyone could relate to, even if they had not experienced vision loss. Through the documentary and articles like this one, I hope to fulfill my second promise to Edna: to use my voice to advocate for others. In addition to advocating for women, I can be an advocate for people with disabilities.
I am grateful for the fellowship and the women it allowed me to encounter. Without these experiences, acting on my belief that life is a precious gift and that any challenge can be faced with a relentless spirit of positive energy, would have been more difficult. This, coupled with the patience and loving nature of my family and friends, has empowered me to share my story.
If you would like to learn more, please view our documentary, Blind Ambition.
Read an article Kristin wrote for Vanderbilt Magazine when she returned from Africa.