In The Country Of The blind...

It is not how well we see but how well we interpret life that offers us vision. Since 2007 the Kenyan Eye Care Charity 'Asante' has helped people to both see and interpret their lives through the restoration of physical and metaphorical sight.

by Brendan Harding ©2011


'In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.'

          It may be an old, third century adage, and one not meant to be taken literally, but over the past five years I have witnessed this enigmatic phrase come to life and walk among us.

          Let me explain.

          In 2007 through a fortuitous encounter between a Mercy nun, Sister Goretti Ward and an Irish optician, Bernard Jennings, Asante – the Kenyan Eye Charity – was born. The kindly nun merely noted how valuable the services of an optician would be in the Eastern Kenyan village of Nuu, Sister Goretti's home, where poverty, drought and sickness are the norm. The altruistic optician listened attentively and acted swiftly. Three months later he arrived in Kenya, blind as to what lay ahead, but, more importantly, willing to have his eyes opened.

          The task at hand seemed vague but nonetheless daunting – to screen the eyesight of the people in the remote outlying villages around Nuu; but what then?

          Thankfully, as I was to discover, with the assistance of the expansive Mercy network, answers were readily found. A hospital was located where patients could be treated. Rural chiefs and rural health centres gave permission for the optician to come and set up his clinics. Transport and accommodation was offered freely. And, an unending supply of people, both nuns and laity, were there to greet us with open arms and wide smiles offering the words Karibu Sana, you are very welcome. After that, few problems seemed insurmountable.

          They were humble beginnings; crude eye tests in even cruder surroundings, but it was clear to all of us that the potential for good was overwhelming.

          Since those humble beginnings 'Asante' has grown and become a vital entity. Additional opticians have come on board and offered their services free of charge. Friends and strangers alike have answered the call time and time again raising the necessary funds and offering their words and prayers and support. The net has been cast wider and the teams of opticians have travelled further into the bush and beyond. The villages around Nuu are now accustomed to the arrival of the clinics and every villager can now add stories of lives changed to their vast repertoire of tribal lore. Real people can stand before their neighbours and testify to the changes in their lives; they can tell of blindness cured, opaque vision cleansed, hope offered and dignity restored.

          In 2011 'Asante' reached out beyond the known and into the unknown by journeying to the Great Rift Valley and the camps for internally displaced peoples (IDP's), remnants of the all too recent post-election violence. This was a new departure for 'Asante' and one which emphasised the sheer scale of possibilities for the future. It became self-evident that a map of Kenya could be opened and a pin stuck blindly into its flattened topography revealing one more place where 'Asante's' efforts could be employed. Kenya is like that, a vast and boundless well of poverty and need.

          Also in 2011 'Asante' offered a clinic in the convent of the SMG nuns in the sprawling market town of Mwingi. The clinic was held on one day but due to the huge response it was one day which could have stretched to many. The SMG convent is also a story of humble beginnings, a place where street-boys were fed, clothed and ultimately educated. The project developed and grew into the Francis Taylor Family Learning Centre, a place where, Sister Juliana Munanie Syengo advised me " all people are empowered to help themselves."

          In the five years I have travelled with 'Asante', chronicling its stories and watching it grow, I have been struck countless times by the simplicity with which people's lives can be changed and empowered. How effortless it is to screen a man or woman whose vision has been all but eradicated by cataracts or disease and then returned to the bountiful land of the sighted. How this person is no longer a burden on family or friends, no longer a dead-weight demanding to have their hunger and thirst sated, but a person who is once again an esteemed and valuable part of the community. A person who can walk tall and carry their head high with dignity.

          Even in the many cases where a person's sight is only partially restored, the battle for that partial sight has been a major victory. No longer are they forced to hide away in a darkened corner hoping for what little is proffered their way, or in some cases, even hoping for death itself. They too have become useful contributors to their own lives and the lives of their families and neighbours. They too have been empowered.

          'Asante' has made a profound difference to many people. It has made a profound difference to me and to all the others who have been an active part of its activities since the outset. But, 'Asante' is merely an instrument, a tool employed to ensure the work gets done. The real life-force behind the work of the project are the people who have given freely of their time and money; friends and strangers alike who have unfailingly answered and continue to answer our call. Those who have been willing to look further and really see the importance of 'Asante's' work. Even if they only see a little it is still better than seeing nothing at all. To once again quote the ancient adage; 'In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.' And you my friends, are truly Kings.

          Thank you.