Suddenly, what looks like a frantic rugby scrum breaks out among a large crowd of children, and a huge dust cloud appears around them. But this isn’t a fight; it’s a mad scramble for the big bowl of ripe mangoes carried by eye specialist Aliyu A-Umar.
Once the fruit is shared out, Aliyu sings and dances his way through the village, beating a rhythm on the empty mango bowl. As the captivated children follow behind, Aliyu leads them into a shaded clearing and dons his magnifying glasses. This is an eye care screening session, cleverly disguised as a party.
“They are our people; we joke, we laugh, and they come closer to us,” Aliyu explains. “Whenever we come now, they accept us. If you come and act like they are nobody, if you ignore them, they run away from your programme.”
Formerly a head ophthalmic nurse and lead trachoma surgeon, Aliyu has been working in eye care for 23 years and has been part of the Sightsavers programme for at least 12 of those. Now he’s retired from surgery and has taken up a new role as a Sightsavers trachoma project officer, bringing his wealth of experience and charming personality to the role.
During his days as a surgeon, children lined up willingly for him to gently tilt their faces and shine his torch in their eyes, some even running off to find others they knew who were experiencing eye problems, then pushing them to the front. It was important that they were seen: many of them were suffering from eye disease trachoma, and without treatment, they risked going blind.
“People who are suffering from this disease, always, they bend their head [he dips his head to demonstrate and shuffles forward slowly]. They don’t want to open their eyes,” he says. “They will not be able to go to the farm, or to the market to sell their things. But after you have been operated on you will be OK, you will be able to farm, get food, go to the market, and do so many things. By combating trachoma, the economy of the nation will improve.”
The root cause of the infection? Poor hygiene. “There is an adage in our language: that somebody that is very dirty is very strong,” he reveals. “We have to do a lot to change these attitudes.
“Right now, people still have the disease, so we give antibiotics to stop the spread of the infection,” Aliyu says. “Those that have already been affected, we do surgeries. But gradually the number of people with advanced trachoma is decreasing. I am seeing a vision of a day when trachoma is eliminated, because of the commitment of the health workers.
“Before Sightsavers came there were a lot of people who needed surgery. When we held outreach projects, we worked from morning to night. There was a time I operated on more than 50 eyes in one day. I operated on patients, then I slept on the operating table and continued the next day.”
But now when they call for people with eye problems, fewer and fewer need surgery for trachoma.