We drove for 40 minutes up some bone-jarringly bumpy roads, then parked the car and walked for about a mile through farmland until we heard rushing water, and made our way towards a fast-flowing river.
“Mr Winesi lives up there.” We’re pointed towards the top of a big hill: in the bright light we could see the silhouette of an old man moving hesitantly around the outside of a house, feeling his way with his hands. This is the man we’d come to meet. We took off our shoes, rolled up our trousers and waded across the river.
Winesi March was happy to talk to us, and as we chatted a few of his family members gathered around, including his wife Namaleta. He told us he is 69 years old, or 70 – he’s not entirely sure. He has a contagious chuckle, and we instantly warmed to him. But it was apparent that the past few years have been tough for him, and for his family.
His sight had been declining for more than a decade. Three years ago he could still see enough to get around, and was working on his farm planting and hoeing. Two years ago his vision got a lot worse, and he had been totally blind since then.
He could no longer work – occasionally he forced himself to try, but it usually ended in injury. The day we met him, he had an injured finger from tripping on a tree stump, and he had a bad gash on his leg from accidentally cutting himself with an axe. “During my free time I used to make traditional mats and trays,” he said. “I could also make handles for my hoes, for farming. I used to do all these things by myself, but now I’m no longer able to see, I’m failing to make these items.”
His typical day used to be full of activity; after his sight failed he had to wait for his family to help him, then sit on his mat. Sometimes he changed location, but he would need help to move the mat. If he needed the toilet, or wanted to prepare food, he’d need someone to guide him.
He missed being part of daily activities. “I am always here, and sometimes I can hear people laughing across the other side of the river,” he said. “I feel like: ‘Let me go and see them, let me go and join them,’ but I fail to do that because of this situation.”
There were times that Winesi didn’t have peace of mind. Losing his sight had knocked his confidence and he couldn’t relax because he worried that if someone came to assault him, he wouldn’t know. “I am scared of being attacked and there not being anyone to protect me. I feel like I’m not safe.”
That wasn’t his only fear. He worried that there was nobody to support the family, and felt he should have been able to provide for them. He missed his role as breadwinner. Namaleta and his 13 children do what they can, but it was a struggle, and when the food that they had harvested was finished, he didn’t know what they’d do to get by.
A lot of extra pressure was on Namaleta, who had to shoulder the responsibility of work and keep the household running. “I relied on him so much, to provide for the family, but now he can’t do anything. I have to do everything – finding food, making sure the children go to school. It’s painful having to do both roles. I would be so excited and so relieved to get back to normal life.”
Winesi missed being able to see the faces of his family. He didn’t think he’d seen his wife’s face properly for about 12 years. “I imagine what she looks like, but I can’t remember that well,” he said. He also has an 18-month-old grandson, Luka, who he’d never seen. When we asked him how he’d feel if his sight was restored, he laughed and told us he’d take up his hoe and jump up and down. “I know how to dance and I will dance on that day. I will dance a lot. I will do everything possible to look for money and buy my wife a dress. I’ll go for a white dress, meaning that my heart is white and I am happy.”
Winesi had been waiting a while for cataract surgery. Madalitso, the ophthalmic clinical officer who met him while on an outreach visit to the area, advised him to go for screening at the hospital a few months previously, but he couldn’t make it because Namaleta had been sick and he couldn’t get to the screening without assistance. He’s not nervous about the operation; he’s desperate to get back to work and is excited about the possibility of seeing the faces of his family again.
Watch the video below as Winesi undergoes surgery and, when his bandage is removed, sees his grandson for the first time.
Following his operation, Winesi was full of joy. “Everything that I was not able to see, I am able to see clearly now,” he explained. “I now have the sense of belonging to my community, a thing that was lacking during the time I was blind.
“There is great improvement. I was not able to see anything… I would stay indoors the whole day. Now I can walk around my village without bumping into objects and obstacles. I have crossed Mkulumadzi river without any trouble. I couldn’t manage such a thing before my first operation. I required guiding and support on the way to the hospital.
“When I first saw my son, I asked: ‘Are you really Frackson? Is this the way you look now?’
“Since he was born, I never had the chance to appreciate how big a boy he has grown into now. I could just see blurry pictures of him, so I saw strange features of my children who had grown up now.
“Now I am very happy. Before, every task, like gardening and taking care of our goats, was my children’s responsibility. Now I can take care of everything on my own. My wife and children will be hugely relieved of the burden they had in taking care of me now that I have my sight back.”