When Jonathan went to Ethiopia
With great excitement I headed off to Ethiopia in early October to examine people's eyes and provide them with glasses. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world and there are many millions of people who can't see well enough to go about their daily life just for the want of a pair of glasses.
There is little or no healthcare in many areas and eyecare is no different. I went on the trip with the eyecare charity Vision Aid Overseas, who dedicate their life to resolving this problem. When they first started their work, about 30 years ago, all they could do was to visit remote areas and try to help as many people as possible. This is still a big part of their work today but over the years they have also managed to set up what they call Vision Centres in some of these areas. They have helped to train local eyecare workers to manage and run these Vision Centres for themselves, which is great for 2 reasons; firstly, it gives the local people employment and a sense of ownership of the project. It is theirs. Secondly, in recent years, aid charities have realised that going into a country to help and then leaving again does nothing to sort out the long term problem. Only when the local people themselves get involved does the opportunity for eliminating the problem become a reality. A bit like the old saying, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." Our team were to divide their time between outreach, which is helping the poorest and remotest of people who are unable to even get to a Vision Centre; and training of local eyecare workers to keep working when the team returned home.
Sadly, the week the team were due to go, there was news from Ethiopia that there had been some protests and that several hundred peope had died as a result. On advice from Vision Aid contacts within the country, it was decided to go ahead with the trip but with a change of agenda, as it was not possible to travel the road that would take us to Butajira, our original destination. Arrangements were quickly made for us to work in the Menelik II Hospital in the capital city Addis Ababa and hope that we might get to travel on to Butajira a few days later.
There was more drama to come when we were sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow and were informed that Ethiopia had declared a State of Emergency, due to the heightening tension! We literally found this out as the plane door was closing and we didn't know what we were going to be met with when we landed. Not the greatest feeling in the world! But there was no option but to wait and see.
When we landed we were met by the Vision Aid country partner, Belachew, who, to our great relief, was able to tell us that there was no trouble in Addis Ababa itself. So we were able to spend some time in the local hospital examining patients and training First Year Ophthalmology students how to test a person's eyes for glasses. Disappointingly, it became apparent as the time progressed that there was only so much we could do in Addis and that the situation in the country was not improving so there would be no opportunity to get to Butajira after all. A decision was made to bring us home early.
I felt desperately sorry that I couldn't reach the people I had gone to help as they were the poorest of the poor and needed our help most of all. However, I did experience what it was like to be on a Vision Aid Overseas assignment. Africa is certainly a magical place and I really hope I get another opportunity to return some day soon to help as many more people as I can. We are resigned that we did what we could under the circumstances and I pray that Ethiopia can resolve its issues without any further loss of life.
Thank you to everyone who supported me.