I have just returned from Sierra Leone, where I was part of a Vision Aid Overseas team sent to test eyes and give glasses to as many people as we could over a two-week period. We would also be helping to train local eyecare workers to carry on our work after we returned home. We had 6 opticians in our team, some had been on many assignments to Africa whilst for others it was the very first trip.
Sierra Leone is in West Africa, is approximately the size of Ireland, and has a population of around 7 million people. Following the ravages of a brutal civil war through the 1990s it had the rather dubious accolade of being listed as the poorest country on earth. Just as it was finding its feet, it was hit by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014. Over 11,000 people fell ill with over 40% dying within days of getting sick.
So it would be fair to say that we were unsure of what to expect upon our arrival in Freetown, the capital city situated on the Atlantic west coast of the country. We soon had an answer when we were bundled into the Toyota Landcruiser that would be our reliable means of transport throughout the trip. We were taken on a 10-hour journey inland to the east of the country, very close to the Guinea and Liberia borders. Sierra Leone is tropical and fortunately we were visiting during the dry season, as many roads are simple dirt tracks and are all but impassable come the rains.
We were to be based in a town called Kailahun, the epicentre of the outbreak of Ebola, and dominated by houses made from mud bricks with thatched roofs, with electricity only available by generator, and then only between 7pm and 7am. We spent half our time working in the eye clinic in Kailahun itself, and the other week on outreach at even more remote villages. The landscape was lush, following the wet season, and beautiful, being dominated by coffee, cocoa, palm and banana trees.
And so we set to work, arriving in a new village each day, picking the most suitable place to examine patients, sticking letter charts to walls, setting out our equipment. And then they came! Dozens and dozens of people, many of whom didn’t even know what an optician was, never mind what we could do for them! It could be heart breaking, as many of the first people to arrive were the most desperate, with poorest vision. Very often they had walked several miles to see us, only to be told they were suffering from a blinding eye disease and glasses would not be of help. Others had survived ebola, only to see parents, siblings and often their children die from it. But there were many hundreds more that we could help with the gift of glasses. Common occupations were trader, teacher, tailor, farmer and each of these trades benefits from improved vision with glasses.
An equally important part of our work was to help train local eye care workers to carry on this work when we are not there. We spent many hours with Lance and Edward, two interns who have been sponsored by Vision Aid Overseas to learn how to test eyes and provide glasses. They were two remarkable young men, with an understanding beyond their years of their country’s needs and how it might develop into a strong, stable nation. They were so grateful for the opportunity they have been given by VAO and have pledged to spend their lives serving their own people through eyecare and glasses. Humbling indeed.
So there it is, what started as a trip to help others turned into an unforgettable experience that probably gave more to me than I could have ever given to it. I could see that we were making a huge difference to many, many people’s lives and that made it all worthwhile.
I hope this won’t be the last time that I visit Africa to test eyes and give glasses to those less fortunate than us.
If you feel you would like to hear more about the work of Vision Aid Overseas, or to donate to their cause, please contact me at the practice on 028 9070 5787 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, you can visit their website www.visionaidoverseas.org.