Seeing Sightsavers’ life-changing work in Mozambique

March 2017
Sightsavers Board of Trustees chairman Martin Dinham watches a cataract operation in Mozambique.

“There was silence. Then a smile, and a cry. And a man who had been blind for 22 years was once again able to see”

Martin Dinham, Chair of Sightsavers’ Board of Trustees, travelled to Mozambique recently to witness first-hand the work that Sightsavers is doing to fight avoidable blindness. Here is his story.

I had lunch the other day with John Lafferty. Until a couple of years ago John was a fellow Sightsavers Trustee. By then, he had completed his maximum eight years and had to cycle off the Board. But we keep in touch.

John has been blind from birth. He left school at 16 with no formal qualifications. He is now a full-time High Court judge sitting at Snaresbrook Crown Court, the largest in the UK.

No matter how you try to square this, it’s a pretty extraordinary trajectory. But what defines John is not his blindness but his Scottish wit and his belief that with grit, determination and generosity of spirit, nothing is beyond reach.

That philosophy and approach to life was in my mind when I visited Mozambique recently to see something of Sightsavers’ operations there. It’s a beautiful land, of great potential with a talented and diverse population.  But despite recent economic growth, Mozambique remains a Least Developed Country.

For ordinary people, particularly for those outside the urban areas, life is hard, access to economic opportunities is limited and the government’s education and health services are stretched. If you are an ordinary person who is blind or has some other form of disability, life is harder still.

Determination to succeed

It was against this challenging backdrop that Sightsavers set up operations in Mozambique – in the remote north-eastern province of Nampula – in 2007, under Izidine Hassane, who remains the director of our Country Office.

Over the past 10 years, Izidine and his small but very able Mozambican team have demonstrated all the grit, determination and generosity of spirit of the Lafferty School of Life.

They have been working with imagination and creativity alongside extremely dedicated individuals from the Mozambican administration at every level of government. Izidine introduced me to a number of these: in particular, two inspirational women – the National Health Minister, Dr Nazira Abdula, and the Provincial Health Director, Dr Munira Abudou – without whose dedication and collaboration nothing would have been possible. And then there was the wonderful Dr Anselmo Vilanculus, a skilled ophthalmologist and our partner from the beginning at the Nampula eye clinic, which Sightsavers helped to provide.

The transformation achieved as a result of this collaboration over the past 10 years has been extraordinary: from fewer than 150 surgeries carried out in 2007 to 2,700 in 2016; from fewer than 15,000 screenings to more than 60,000 now; from no outreach activities to the current coverage of six Districts with surgical capacity. And this has been a combined effort – Sightsavers working hand in glove with the government and with local communities.

The most magical words I heard on my trip were from the Health Minister, Dr Nazira: “I think of Sightsavers as part of my own team,” she said. “I trust them like my own.”

Inside the operating theatre

There is nothing like seeing one’s first eye operation.

The moment came for me in the eye clinic operating theatre in Nampula, which Sightsavers had helped to kit out. I was ushered in, wearing my green gown, shower cap and plastic over-socks. A figure was laying silently on the operating table, completely shrouded in a green cover with only the eye disconcertingly visible. The patient was fully conscious, sedated only by a local anaesthetic, but made no sound during the entire operation. I was hoping that I would be able to stay the course with similar stoicism.

I need not have worried. The ophthalmologist – a wonderful young Cuban woman on secondment from Havana – kept my attention glued as she talked me through the operation in perfect English: the most delicate removal of the cataract; the skilful insertion of the new lens; the bandage applied – all within a breathtaking 20 minutes. This was one of 12 such operations performed on an average day – 12 lives brought back into the light.

The following day I returned to see the moment the bandages came off. The elderly man, irrevocably blind in his right eye, with a bandage over his left, was led in, frail and anxious, on the arm of a young relative. He sat down. A kindly orderly gently removed the bandage, all the while lubricating his eye with fluid. The Cuban ophthalmologist peered into the uncovered eye with her scope. The orderly asked: “Can you see?”

There was a short silence followed by a look of bewilderment. Then a smile, and a cry.  Then he was up. There was dancing, hugging, laughter and clapping. And a man who had been blind for 22 years was once again able to see himself in the mirror.

By Martin Dinham, Chair of Sightsavers’ Board of Trustees

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