Yet she doesn’t let the gruelling commute affect her. She says it’s worth it to see people who once suffered from debilitating eye diseases, leaving them unable to look after themselves, being able to live independently.
She has a compelling reason for choosing to work in eye heath: her own aunt is blind. Ever since she was a girl, she remembers her aunt being unable to get around by herself because of her visual impairment. “I wish I had become an eye doctor before,” she explains. “Then I could have helped her see before it was too late.”
Sister Habiba started her career as a nurse, yet there was little attention paid to eye care as part of her nursing training. So last year, when she was chosen to become an integrated eye care worker, she travelled to the district capital, Arba Minch, where she was trained by a surgeon.
A large part of her work is to carry out surgery in the rural neighbourhood health outposts, treating patients with glaucoma, cataracts and trachoma.
Sister Habiba’s outreach work is run by eye health charity Orbis, as part of a five-year programme funded by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID). The programme is overseen by Sightsavers, on behalf of the International Coalition for Trachoma Control. Working in Chad, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia, it aims to provide surgery for more than 155,000 people affected by trichiasis, and antibiotics to protect more than 14 million people against trachoma, the bacterial infection that causes trichiasis.
As part of the World Health Organization’s SAFE strategy, the programme also educates communities to improve hygiene and sanitation practices, and works with others to improve access to safe water sources and sanitation.
Before the outreach project was set up, all patients had to travel to the city’s health centre or the district hospital, a journey that was all but impossible for poor or elderly patients. Now, local communities can receive treatment much closer to home – Sister Habiba has performed about 100 operations in the past year.
Seeing people cured of eye disease is what she enjoys most about her job. She recalls the case of a 55-year-old man who had chronic trichiasis, but refused treatment. After she sat down with him to explain the procedure and what was happening to his eyes, he eventually agreed to surgery.
She recounts how his life improved after the operation – he started preaching at the church, telling the congregation how Sister Habiba gave light to his life. He can now read the Bible, and describes Sister Habiba as his “eyes”. He’s also keen to explain to others in the community why they must look after their eyes.
So how has this affected the community’s perception of Sister Habiba? “My patients see me and kiss me in the street!” she says.