Eye Testing In Rural Kenya - I

From the Carlow Nationalist May/July 2009 ©

by Brendan Harding

It had been a long, hot journey from Nairobi to the village of Nuu in the dry scrublands of Eastern Kenya. During the seven hour road trip we had seen the landscape transform in a sweeping gradient of colour; from the lush greens of the Central Highlands to the burnt ochres and tawny yellows of the semi-desert surrounding our destination.

In previous years the parched landscape had left us wondering loudly how life could survive and even thrive in such conditions, but somehow it did. How the trees could support vast flocks of sunbirds and weavers, hornbills and bee-eaters, how ground squirrels could raise families and scamper in large groups across the murram road ahead of the oncoming vehicle. But this year the scene awaiting our arrival was greeted with silence and disbelief. How could if have gotten any worse? we asked ourselves quietly.

The fat full frames of the baobab trees appeared to have aged rapidly, shrivelled and dried, their wide trunks hanging with bark which sagged like old decrepit skin. Their branches bare except for the tubular wooden beehives lodged in their towering arms, reminders of better times, of sweeter times. Even the thick, green, thorn bushes that survive when all else fails seemed now to wilt and prostrate themselves on the hot dry earth. It was clear that once again, for the third consecutive year, the rains had failed to arrive bringing famine  in its wake.

As we neared our goal a young goatherd seemed to emphasise the point; he stood dressed in rags in the meagre shade of an acacia tree, his charge of usually busy foraging animals looked slow, emaciated and raw-boned. Unusually, the boy did not return the waves of the passing strangers, his young eyes were dull and jaundiced, his matt skin covered in a film of red dust.

The evidence of the disaster continued to mount as we rounded the final bend into the village. The roads, so normally full of chattering people busy with their lives were empty and dustblown. There were no running children keeping pace with the arriving jeep, no women beating the backs of stubborn mules laden with water on the return trip from the well. The one solitary shadetree in the village square was skeletal and bare of leaves, beneath it, the seat where old men gather to tell old men’s stories was abandoned and broken.

The jeep stopped in the grounds of the Mercy compound rising a pall of dust. Waiting once again were the faces of old friends, their arms outstretched even before the sound of the engine had died. The nuns and their staff gathered at the back door to welcome us; unlike the fancy and monstrously-priced hotels of Nairobi city, in their hands there were no hot towels or cold drinks to greet the arriving guests, but instead they wore wide genuine smiles which immediately reminded us of the work we were about to undertake.

* * * *

“Karibuni.” they called, “welcome to you all.” We embraced and spoke rapidly of the journey now behind us. “Praise the Lord for your safe arrival,” Sister Bernadette the ever-cheerful Kenyan nun gushed with the eagerness of a child, “now, come inside, it is so hot and we have much to plan and much to talk about.” And she was right, over a long and welcoming dinner in the nuns’ humble surroundings plans were made for our every movement. The names of the villages were listed; Kavindu, Wingemi, Mwambiu, Nyaani and our usual clinic here in the village of Nuu, timed to coincide with the weekly market. Sr Bernadette was right, there was indeed much to plan.

Next morning we arrived in the village of Kavindu at eight, already the thermometer read thirty degrees and I cursed my lack of sleep. Somewhere in the dead of night singing voices and drum beats had come wafting through the open window. One voice in particular – that of a young women I guessed – rose above the other voices repeating the same line over and over, the reason was anybody’s guess. I listened hard trying to work out its meaning but the harder I strained the more detached it became. The stifling heat of the night pressed down on my sweating body like a physical presence. The process became like a wheel within a wheel, keeping my mind active and pushing sleep further and further away. And then it was morning.

Last time in Kavindu I had written a story about the weaver birds clambering in the green tree tops, about their noise and bustle, about their flashing golden plumage, about their straw nests which hung like Christmas tree baubles. Now there were none and the trees were bare, the shredded remnants of last year’s nests drooped in the empty branches. Across the countryside there was no bird song except for the occasional screeching call from a lone augur buzzard. Even the cicadas were silent.

But the people had come and waited patiently in what little shade they could find. It was a baptism of fire in the most literal sense for Jim our new colleague. He had been suffering from a chest infection and the conditions inside a tin-roofed building one degree from the equator was not exactly what the doctor had ordered. Still, he carried on testing the seemingly endless line of people who waited throughout the day.

By day’s end both opticians had treated onehundred and three people, twenty-four of whom would make the hard journey to Nairobi by bus where their cataracts would be removed and their lives would begin afresh. It was a good day. We drove home as the Sun sat low on the surrounding hills washing the volcanic landscape in a soft and

gentle pink glow. An eagle spun in tireless circles over the village. On my first visit here I would have gushed in amazement at the sights around me, but now I sat silent in the back seat of the jeep, smiling contentedly at the work that at been performed on this first day.


Eye Testing In Rural Kenya - II

From the Carlow Nationalist May/July 2007 ©

by Brendan Harding

Arriving at the clinic in Wingemi a large grey and white bird screamed from the topmost branch of a thorn bush. ‘Go away! Go away!’ it called; the opticians, unloading the jeep and preparing for the day which lay ahead payed it no attention.

I had heard the call of the White-bellied goaway- bird before but this was my first time to see one – in the feathers, so to speak. He stood perched high on his pedestal surveying the vast and arid landscape surrounding his home territory. From blue mountains to blue mountains he watched everything that moved. He watched as the thin children led their flocks out into the bush, as the haggard women drove their mules many miles to the well and as the sick and dying were laid outside their homes to breathe the fresh morning air. A lavish plume of slate-grey feathers rose stiffly from his crown and his long, out-of-proportion tail bobbed like a conductor’s baton. ‘Go away!’ he screamed once again at the line of tired-looking people appearing slowly through the gates of this remote and rural clinic.

The people – unlike the noisy resident of the thorn tree – were silent as they dragged their weary feet through the thick red dust of Eastern Kenya. It was only at their journey’s end, as they reached the shelter of the tired government building did they once again become animated; shaking hands with friends, touching the faces of the elderly and recounting tales of their journey and their hard lives. Throughout the day the people came in ones and twos. Their stories linked by a common thread – that thread, the hope of a better life, an easier life.

In Wingemi village the waiting people were mostly old, a testament to the fact of how the younger members of each community had been forced to travel to distant towns and cities in an effort to make the dream of that better life come true. In the slums of Nairobi and Thika, Mwingi and Machakos they shared tiny houses made from whatever material that came to hand; corrugated metal for the lucky ones; cardboard and flattened oil drums for the others. They eked an existence for themselves and for those at home by picking their way through the refuse of others; competing with the ever-present flocks of gulls and black kites. They stood knee deep in the filth of their countrymen as ugly, wattlenecked Marabou storks watched over them like undertakers at a funeral.

Others had gone to the city in search of glory only to be swallowed up in its bowels, never to be heard from again. Like the painted girls who sat at the bars every evening in every hotel, smiling at every man who walked into the room. After this there was no way home again.

But the ones who remained waited throughout the day with patience and dignity. Eventually, when their turn arrived they were welcomed by the smiling faces and ever-open arms of Sisters Goretti and Bernadette. Ushered with compassionate whispers they were led into the clinic where the opticians took their time and allayed their fears before conducting each test in the soaring heat as if it were the first and only one of the day. At ease the peoples’ nervous faces turned to smiles, laughter and even the occasional song. These songs were seen as a form of payment for the work of the Wazungu - the white men who had come to help them.

Over the following days the clinics continued; the opticians pushed to their very limits in primitive conditions where furnace-like was the norm. Firstly in the village of Nuu on market day where the crowds had gathered since before the sun had fully risen and continued to arrive until it set once more twelve hours later. And again in the untidy settlement of Nyaani where long-dead vehicles sat rusting in the single street amid an air of destitution. This untidiness was mirrored in the rooms of the clinic where spent syringes and pools of dried blood gathered lazy fat flies in record numbers around the delivery table; the very table used by vulnerable women in troublesome labour.

But the negatives were overshadowed by the results obtained. By the end of the clinics the tally of patients who had been examined came to 403 individuals, and from these over 100 would travel to Nairobi where they would be further evaluated and eventually treated under the care of Dr Walia in the pristine and efficient Kikuyu Eye Hospital.

Since the team’s first contact with the hospital back in 2007 a viable and flourishing link has been formed and now constitutes a ready assembly line of patients for the waiting surgeons. Because of the unselfish nature of the opticians, the hospital staff, the Mercy nuns and so many others who have given generously from their lives and their pockets, project ASANTE has witnessed the spectacle of over four hundred people restored to full or partial vision. A miracle in itself.

On our final night in Nuu we sat on the verandah of the convent assessing the work that had been done and allowing the cool taste of Tusker beer to wash away the dust of the countryside from our throats. In the sky above the far off Tana hills a full, butter-coloured moon traversed the cloudless sky and despite the sheer beauty of the scene we were now a little more humble and a little more aware of the conditions being suffered by those who call this home. How so many still died from famine, AIDS, malaria, measles, sleeping sickness and so many afflictions which we read about in the pages of newspapers from the comfort of our homes. We were also aware of the many who would never witness these sights; but still through the goodness that lives within them they reach deep into their pockets and their hearts when it is asked of them to help the suffering of those they will never know.

To them we once again say, thank you – Asante