Just days before, this young boy would cling to anything in his path to help him find his way around. And it was all because of the blinding cataracts in both his eyes.
Before his operation, Criscent was barely able to make out facial features, so he would come up close and be very tactile when you spoke to him. It was as if he wanted to get a better sense of who you were, and of your presence.
The only sign of him recognising any movement was when the low-vision specialist, Johnson, shone a torch into Criscent’s eyes during surgery prep. It was quite an incredible and moving moment, to see his face light up as he saw light and movement. He even reached out in the direction of the torch.
Criscent was excited for his operation, which is unusual for such a young child. We asked him what he hoped for afterwards: he had little concept of what it would be like to see, and simply responded: “more light”. After another moment’s thought though, he added he’d like to learn to play football.
And the very next day, there he was: running around on the lawn chasing the ball, kicking it in the direction of the bigger boys, who were also enjoying their vastly improved eyesight following surgery.
Once the ball game was over, we had the pleasure of joining Criscent in his first ever game of Frisbee. He was so utterly delighted that the game lasted a long time – we didn’t have the heart to stop.
When we eventually paused to rest, Sightsavers’ Sarah Filbey lifted Criscent up onto her hip and spoke to him through the translator.
“He turned his face towards me,” she said. “His newly dark pupils, where the cataracts had been, focused on my face, and I felt the intensity of the moment – being seen by him for the first time. I was probably a blurry mass of colours, because Criscent’s eyes had not yet recovered from the surgery and his vision will never be perfect. But he was seeing and recognising me nonetheless.”
Later we spoke to Dr Ssali and Johnson, the low-vision specialist, about their predictions for Criscent’s outcome. Dr Ssali explained that because Criscent had been brought in late in his development, he would likely only achieve 50 per cent vision. Children’s eyes usually stop developing by the age of seven, meaning it’s vital to remove cataracts before this time to ensure their eyes can develop properly. But with continued checks, and once measured for suitable spectacles, he said Criscent would be able to function well as a sighted person and hopefully even read.
On the day of the bandages being removed, Criscent was already talking about starting school. The hope is that when we follow up his story in a few months’ time, we’ll find him sitting in class, bespectacled and delighting his teacher with his polite and thoughtful manner, and strikingly sharp mind.
It’s now two and a half months since six-year-old Criscent had his operation. In that time he has been seen by the team at Ruharo Eye Hospital twice. The first time he was visited at home in Bundibugyo by Nelson Chwa, who checked that his eyes were healing. And the second, he returned to the hospital to have his glasses fitted.
His progress has been remarkable. “Criscent’s eyes have healed very well,” says Joseph Magyezi, the children’s cataract project coordinator at Ruharo. “The operation was successful and he has good vision of 60 per cent in his right eye and some navigational vision about 40 per cent in his left eye.”
Nelson Chwa is the vision therapist who has been assigned to Criscent. He is one of only four trained vision therapists in Uganda, and will work with the optometrist to assess the strength of the refractive lens Criscent needs for his glasses.
As soon as the glasses have been put together, Criscent heads to Nelson’s examination room to try them on. Immediately his face erupts into a smile – a sure indication that he can see clearly. He even turns and looks around at all the people watching him.
“Having vision is a process,” says Joseph. “Once Criscent gets his glasses, he will learn to use his eyes through what he sees through them. This will now be how he interprets the world, whereas before it was through touch and hearing.” Criscent’s eyes will now regularly be tested and as his vision improves, the strength of the lenses will hopefully change.
On the long car journey home from the hospital, Criscent sits by the window and stares intently at the world outside. He is very quiet with the occasional quizzical look on his face, making you wonder what he sees. Beside him in the car is his grandmother, who is keen to get home so he can show off his glasses to the rest of the family.
We accompany Criscent as he visits the local government school in Galiraya, which his brother Isingoma Gilbert attends. He is wearing his best clothes and shoes for the occasion and although he looks confident and wants to go to school, admits that he’s a bit scared.
Criscent enters the classroom excitedly and spots his brother writing the letter A and making the sound as instructed. Criscent joins in. The teacher gets all the children to make the vowel noise. “Aaaaa,” he repeats after the teacher, smiling to himself, proud of his achievement. He is clearly enjoying school and his attention is firmly fixed to the front, on the teacher and the blackboard.
All the while his grandmother has been sitting outside the classroom on a stone step watching him, her face a mixture of pride and joy. Did she ever think this day would come? “No,” she says. “I hoped and prayed it would, but for so long I could not get him the help he needed because we were too poor to afford the surgery, so I accepted that his life would be one of blindness.”