She has never been able to see anything with her right eye, and had only some peripheral vision in her left. Her mother struggled to care for her, so Asha was sent to live with her grandmother. Yet her cataracts made her self-conscious and painfully shy, and she was ostracised and often bullied by other children in the village.
Eventually, a friend of the family, Humoud Mohammed, brought Asha to Zanzibar to live with his family, who are all very fond of her. Despite her visual impairments she helps around the house, sweeping and making the beds.
Asha was brought to Zanzibar in Tanzania in the hope that she could receive treatment for her cataracts, as the facilities are more advanced than in her home country of Mozambique.
Yet even in Zanzibar there are no paediatric ophthalmologists, and there is an extreme shortage of other eye care professionals, leaving large rural areas without any help at all. Every three months, a team of eye care specialists travels over from Dar Es Salaam on the mainland. During a four-day visit, the specialists screen up to 200 children and perform 40 cataract operations.
When we first meet Asha, we notice she constantly covers her eyes with her hands. She suffers from photophobia, which makes it painful for her to look at bright lights.
Asha is taken for eye screening at the nearby military hospital. As part of the screening, her eyes are tested and she’s asked to identify different objects, an activity she seems to enjoy – it’s good for her to see that lots of other children have the same problem as her.
She’s referred for surgery at the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital, but she says she isn’t nervous: she tells the other children she’s looking forward to her operation. “I’m going to have an operation and then I won’t be blind,” she says. “I’ll be treated, then I will be well!”
Asha’s dream has always been to regain her sight so she can go to school with the other children.
On the day of Asha’s operation, she is forced to wait until late afternoon before she’s called for surgery: she’s fourth on the list of eight children. She hasn’t eaten anything since midnight the previous night, but while some of the other children start to get restless and upset, Asha doesn’t grumble. Instead she sits quietly on her bed or takes a nap, and seems calm.
She seems to be enjoying every aspect of the treatment because she knows it is leading to her having her vision restored. When the nurse comes through to administer the eye drops, all the other children cry, but Asha accepts them with a smile.
Yet when she’s finally taken into operating theatre, she shows the first signs of fear, crying: “I’m scared!” The nurses help to calm her as she’s given her anaesthetic.
The day after surgery, we return to the hospital to visit Asha: it’s time to remove the large bandages covering her eyes.
She’s still tired and sleepy, and her eyes are sore and swollen. Dr Rajab Hilal checks her eyes with his torch, confirming that everything looks good. He says the surgery has gone well, the cataracts have been removed and Asha can how see. He advises her to rest for a few days and says she will be given a full vision test once her eyes have recovered.
Three days after her operation, Asha is allowed to go home. As she pulls up outside her house she jumps out of the car, happy to be back in familiar surroundings. Children from her neighbourhood arrive to welcome her, calling her name, and she’s soon playing with them, running, smiling and giggling – her shyness has completely disappeared.
Asha’s grandmother is amazed to find a different girl to the one she said goodbye to all those months ago. “Now she sees!” she exclaims. “She can look – she can see!”