We travel to the red clay-brick compound where Fatuma and her family live: a bustling, higgledy-piggledy area with a bumpy dirt track weaving in and out of the houses. Young children run around, scrambling over fallen tree trunks and playing with sticks nearby; the air full of the sound of children’s chatter.
Before we arrived in Ruangwa, Tanzania, a Sightsavers pre-screening programme identified Fatuma as needing surgery. We’re here to assess Fatuma before her operation, and provide vital screenings for her children and grandchildren.
When she’s well, Fatuma is a maize farmer and a hairdresser. Her family produce their own food but have to buy water as there are no taps, wells or rivers nearby. Fatuma’s eye problems mean she can’t do much work and depends on her family, who also struggle for money. Often, she can only afford to eat one meal a day.
Fatuma has been diagnosed with trichiasis (also known as advanced trachoma) in her right eye. When we meet, the discomfort is clear: her eye looks very sore and she struggles to fully open it. “It’s like my eyes are on fire,” she explains.
Sightsavers has been working in Tanzania since the 1970s to protect sight, prevent blinding diseases including trachoma, and lobby for inclusive healthcare.Learn more
Fatuma had been living with this pain for six years. She describes the moment she first noticed something wasn’t right: “I was plaiting my hair and I felt a pricking sensation in my eyes, which became very uncomfortable. I thought it was my hair being plaited too tightly, so I took the braids out, but things didn’t improve.”
While at the compound, the Sightsavers specialist team provide eye examinations for Fatuma’s daughters and grandchildren – early-stage detection is vital to stop the progress of this devastating disease. Philly, her five-year-old granddaughter is found to have early-stage trachoma. Without medication, the trachoma would progress significantly, so the doctor gives her some ointment, and advises her parents on how to apply it to Philly’s eyes.
Although she is worried about her granddaughter, Fatuma tells us she’s really looking forward to surgery, and it is clear what a difference it will make to her life.
On a blisteringly hot afternoon in a health clinic in Ruangwa, Fatuma is sat outside in a long line of patients awaiting surgery. Her eye looks worse than when we last saw her, but she is still smiling.
Dr Mbilinyi, the district eye coordinator in Nachingwea, will perform Fatuma’s surgery. Incredibly, this intricate procedure only requires a local anaesthetic.
Dr Mbilinyi explains that four eyelashes were stuck onto Fatuma’s eyeball, causing her pain. She also had a lot of corneal scarring – the risk of blindness from scarring is very high, so Fatuma was dangerously close to losing her sight. Damage to her optic nerve from a previous bout of shingles meant a 50 per cent restoration in her right eye would be a good outcome. Thankfully, her left eye looked healthy.
After surgery, Fatuma smiles as she is helped off the rudimentary operating table. “I’m looking forward to no more pain and no more tears!” she tells us, adding how happy and grateful she is for the surgery, as she is led to the recovery room.
The following day, we visit Fatuma at home so the doctor could remove her bandages and give her granddaughter Philly some antibiotics. At this stage, the antibiotics alone will prevent the trachoma infection in Philly’s eyes. Fatuma shows us into her house – it’s small but very tidy. She explains that she keeps it that way so she knows where everything is when she can’t see well enough to find things.
Fatuma tells us that she was in a lot of pain after the anaesthetic wore off. When the doctor takes her bandages off, her eye is still very swollen, but she is delighted: the constant pricking sensation in her eyes had gone. The doctor applies more ointment to Fatuma’s eyes before we have to say our goodbyes. We promise to visit again and Fatuma thanks everyone for the operation.
We visit Fatuma and Philly a month later, to see how they were doing. Fatuma was cheerful and happy to see us. Her vision had improved so much that she could now go street-to-street selling her snacks without difficulty. She looked much more independent and was managing household chores, and her business, with very little help from her family.
Little Philly was all smiles throughout our visit; she loved picking up mangoes that fell from a nearby tree. The doctor examined her and told us she was doing fine – her eyes looked white and healthy. Her father couldn’t stop thanking us for the treatment she’d received.
We will never forget those two beautiful smiles. We’re so grateful to Fatuma and Philly for sharing their story.
Incredible stories like Fatuma’s are only possible because of donations from Sightsavers supporters. Your life-changing gifts can help pay for medicines and surgery in some of the poorest parts of the world. Thank you.
Dr Moira Chinthambi received a Sightsavers scholarship to train as an ophthalmologist and now works on our inclusive eye health programme in Malawi.
Alinafe Zaina is studying clinical ophthalmology in Malawi with the help of a scholarship provided by Sightsavers’ inclusive eye health programme.
We’re working with partners in Cameroon and Senegal to ensure people with disabilities are able to take part in every stage of the political process.