I am Alinafe Zaina and I began working as a medical assistant in 2012. I am now at Malawi College of Health Sciences doing a diploma in clinical ophthalmology.
My training is based in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, which is about 400-500 kilometres from my home in Nsanje where I live with my family.
When I was young, and I fell sick, my parents would take me to the hospital and I could see how people would line up for help. I could see the challenges with the number of workers at the hospital; how the patients were struggling to get care because there were just a few medical professionals That inspired me to say that one day I should pursue something to do with the medical field so that I could help people in my area or community.
Most days when I wake up, I pray and thank God that he has given me a new day. If time allows, I do some exercises, then I get ready and go to class.
In class, the teachers come and give their presentations to teach us and give us assignments. That’s what we’re doing now – I’m really enjoying it. I know that it’s very essential for us in the future as we will become the ophthalmic clinical officers because that’s what will be applying into our daily work. We started [training] in February 2022, and it’s a total of 18 months.
At 12noon, we go for lunch and we get back to the class at 1.30pm. Then we are in class until 4.30pm in the afternoon. After classes we do some exercise [like football]. If I’m not playing football, I play volleyball. And if I’m not doing that, then I go for a run, just to exercise myself. I find it so helpful because it makes my body strong and it also makes me relax. When I have free time, I also like watching TV and chatting with friends as well as reading novels.
When I finished my certificate in clinical medicine, I was working in the hard-to-reach areas where I could see there were a lot of cases to do with eye health in the community. That made me say that I needed to pursue this now and in future to help the community, so maybe we can prevent most of the cases that can lead to blindness.
I knew of Sightsavers when I got into the medical field because it had been helping the Nsanje District with so many projects to do with eye care. Sightsavers is taking care of my tuition fees, boarding fees, and giving me money for food. It has really helped me because in some other ways I couldn’t have managed to source funds for these things.
When I’m done with the training, I will go back to my district, and continue working and helping people with eye problems. Once I’m fully trained I’ll be able to give eye health information to the community. They need to know what they can do if they have eye problems. I’ll be able to diagnose and treat them. Wherever there is need for treatment, the treatment will be given. Wherever there is need for a referral, a referral will be done.
My plan for the future is that when I’m done with this training, I’ll reach more people with eye problems. If all goes well with that I can do more health training to go further with my career; maybe even go to surgery training.
There’s a lot of stigma towards people with eye problems. If they have trachoma, they might have flies on their face and people say, ‘This one is not taking care of his or her body.’ And sometimes people may say to them, ‘You should not be with us. And you should go and stay on your own.’ Others may say, ‘Yeah, you are blind and you can’t stay with us.’ Some people think that they are not beneficial to the community. This can be overcome by doing more sensitisation: people should know that people living with this kind of problem may be able to see again or maybe they can be taken care of. So I think there is more to be done.
Sightsavers’ project has a lot to do with disability inclusion and improving access to eye health for groups of people who have been marginalised. I’ve attended some of the project meetings that have been held in Nsanje District in the past. At these meetings, I saw that most of the disability groups are attending to find out how to access health care.
It is so important to say that each one of the people who have disabilities should come together, because when they are together, they also share ideas to say that, when you have a disability, it doesn’t mean that you end there. You can also say, ‘I can be able to do things.’ They also encourage each other to say that yes, we are disabled but we can do things productive to our country, productive to our communities.
One of the challenges is that in most of the cases, the people who seek these interventions or treatments are coming from long distances away, and we lack transportation that can help us as health professionals to reach these people in their communities. There is a great need for outreach services, so that people can be helped accordingly and at the right time.
The other thing is that we lack funding and equipment that can help most of the cases to be avoided. If an eye department has been funded well, you can see that in most of the cases the thing is to do with outreach – if this has been done well, we can have many volunteers in the community, to help in case finding. And when this can be done, we can see that these cases that can cause blindness can be reduced.
I’ve seen so many people struggling with eye problems. When I’ve helped someone, I get so excited, because there are a lot of people in the communities who are really sick or who have problems and don’t know where to go. So when you’re in contact with that person, I feel so excited and I make sure that that person has been helped.
There was a day when I went to a hard-to-reach area. I found someone there who had eye problems and I told him, ‘It is very possible that your problem has to do with cataracts, and it is very possible that you can see again properly.’ He was really doubting that that could happen – but he came to the hospital and had cataract surgery and I am happy to say, he is able to see again!
If someone has seen again, or someone has improved his or her vision, it makes me feel good because each one of us really needs good health care. Then maybe most of the cases that make people lose sight can be reduced.
If there are a lot of people trained in the field of eye health, that means most of the cases will be found in the district. And if the most of the cases are found, that means most of them will be treated; and that means we have prevented blindness.
The achievement I’m most proud of is that I’ve been working in hard-to-reach areas – where we have seen people there I can say that I have achieved something. In most of the cases, people who are in hard-to-reach areas face so many challenges, and I’m there, helping them to make sure they have good health care each and every day they live. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and I’m so happy, so excited that I have found it.
Funded by the UK government through UK Aid Match, this inclusive eye health project aims to restore, save and protect the sight of people with and without disabilities in Malawi and Uganda by improving the accessibility and quality of eye care services.
“My name is Dr Gladys Atto. I wanted to be a doctor since I was a child, and I am very proud to be an ophthalmologist and have an impact on people’s lives.”
Dr Hawa Naiga Magembe is studying ophthalmology in Uganda with the help of a scholarship provided by Sightsavers’ inclusive eye health programme.
Dr Moira Chinthambi received a Sightsavers scholarship to train as an ophthalmologist and now works on our inclusive eye health programme in Malawi.