And for her mother, Shafa, life was even harder. With a job as a primary school teacher and three other children to look after, Khadijah’s cataracts meant Shafa was often unable to work and provide for her children.
Shafa believes her daughter’s sight problems began after she had measles. She recovered from the disease, with financial help from Shafa’s brother, but she could not afford the treatment for cataracts, and Khadijah’s sight began to get worse.
“If there isn’t enough light, Khadijah struggles to find things. She can recognise people, but not if they are far away or moving. And if she goes in the sun it affects her eye so she closes it,” Shafa told us.
“Khadijah tries her best and she is doing well, but children tease her and she can’t join in with their games. They say: ‘look at you. You were made with only one eye. Look at her with one eye.’”
Khadijah and Shafa both got upset when this happened.
Even though Khadijah wanted to learn, her condition has stopped her from learning to read or write. When the teacher wrote something on the board, she could not read it, and she was unable to do her homework as she could not see well enough.
She was getting into trouble at school for not being able to do her work. Teachers thought she was being lazy – or worse, was lying. Because her eyes were sometimes open, they presumed she could see well. This would upset Shafa as she knew the daily struggles Khadijah faced because of her sight. “I just want my daughter to be OK,” Shafa added. “How she is going to be able to go to school and become something in the future?”
Even though Shafa had help from family members to look after Khadijah, she did not like to leave her alone, particularly if Khadijah was having a particularly bad day. This meant Shafa was often unable to work and provide for her family. And she was told treatment would be very expensive, which deterred her from getting help.
But help came from a surprising place. Under the Northwest Nigeria Child Health Initiative, funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, local teachers and administrators were trained to screen children for eye problems, and how to refer them in more serious cases. In her work as a teacher, Shafa was among the staff trained.
Now she knew what to look out for, Shafa started to watch her daughter closely, and noticed Khadijah couldn’t see anything with her left eye. To be sure she asked the local health and sports desk officer, Ahmed, to screen her again, and he confirmed Khadijah’s sight problem and referred them to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a cataract in one eye. However, Shafa was worried about payment: “I told Ahmed ‘no, if they are going to ask for money for the treatment, don’t call them, I don’t have money to give them.’”
When she found out Khadijah could have the operation for free she was very happy and was eager for her to be operated on.
Many people questioned her choice to let Khadijah have the operation; others told her Khadijah was too young but she knew it was the best option for her as she wanted her daughter to see well like everyone else and to do well at school.
Dr Nasiru Muhammad – the surgeon who operated on Khadijah – is the only paediatric ophthalmologist in the state. He says there aren’t enough doctors to help everyone, but thanks to Sightsavers he is able to help more children than before.
“A blind child is at high risk of living in poverty and dependence for life. With this access to services we are highly optimistic of a brighter future for them,” he says. “Often if they don’t get treatment, they end up on the streets begging. What is worse is that some parents actually use them to make money. It’s a source of income. That’s the way some families handle blind children in our cities. It is quite painful, but it’s real. I’ve seen this.
“Sightsavers has provided everything I use from the consumables to the instruments and equipment, things I would have been unable to provide – although I have the skills to, I didn’t have the facility to do it. Just making those things available enabled me to provide that service. Not only that, taking the responsibility for paying for children has enabled us to attend to more children,” he adds.
During the operation, Dr Muhammad made a small cut in the eye and removed the ‘cloudy’ lens from Khadijah’s eye and replaced it with a clear artificial lens. It is a fairly straightforward procedure, which takes as little as an hour.
Khadijah’s eye was then protected with a pad for a couple of days to allow it to heal. After the surgery, she was very happy. “I can see properly, even when I’m outside. When I get back home I’ll watch films and play,” Khadijah said.