Sight to the blind in South Sudan

Sight to the blind in South Sudan

LuAnne Cadd meets an inspirational eye-team MAF flew to a remote corner of South Sudan

The MAF plane touched down in the town of Rumbek, a fairly large centre by South Sudanese standards. Six Kenyans and one South Sudanese man walked across the red African dirt to the aircraft with their luggage, blue Christian Mission Aid (CMA) logos on their kaki jackets. These were extraordinary servants.

They travel from town to village to refugee camp across South Sudan. By day they see an endless stream of patients – performing as many as 30 cataract surgeries a day. By night they sleep in local mud huts, taking cold bucket baths and using squat toilets. They are far from ordinary. They give sight to the blind.

The CMA Eye Team in Lui, South Sudan in August 2014. From left to right:  Santino Malang, catharact surgeon; Ann Njeru, anesthetist; Daniel Erus, Ophthalmic Officer; Joseph Njau, Project Coordinator and Ophthalmic Officer; Elvis Sempele, Ophthalmic Technician.

The team has just one surgeon, Santino Malang – the only South Sudanese in the group. When CMA paid for his training it was a dream come true. His father became blind and Santino saw the trauma it caused their family. He also saw the miracle of cataract surgery that gave his father his sight again.

River blindness

The team will tell you that the hardest part of their job is when they can't help someone see again. A major cause can be a small worm known as OV – 'River Blindness'. This condition mainly affects the elderly who don't take medication early enough. The parasite worm is spread by the bites of a black fly. Left untreated, a person will go blind. Medication must be taken for ten years – the life-cycle of a worm – to completely kill it. Many blind patients who come with OV are hoping for good news, but will rarely receive it.

Joseph sat outside the CMA Eye Clinic in Lui.One such patient, Joseph, sits on a wooden bench after his evaluation. He struggles to get his bare feet into a faded pair of boots, which are obviously too small. Joseph walked 15 miles to see the team today. He is going blind from OV, and although he looks much older, he thinks he's about 55. He's probably had OV most of his life. Santino sadly told him they couldn't help. He responded, as many Africans do, with resignation. 'It's OK. There's nothing I can do about it.'

A success

Santino has operated on thousands of patients over the last five years, but one of his favourite stories is from Bor.

'We operated on this mother who was blind in both eyes. She had four children and had been blind for two years. She'd even not seen her last two children.

Dr. Santino Malang operates on a patient at the CMA Eye Clinic in Lui, South Sudan in August 2014

'After removing the bandages, she looked around then saw her youngest daughter. "Is that my daughter?" she asked. We said yes. The lady started laughing, screaming and praising God. "I have seen my child!" she shouted. It was very touching and you really feel that you can do great things for people to restore their sight.'

MAF's help

Joseph Njau deals with the logistics of making the eye clinics run smoothly, including travel. He expressed deep gratitude to MAF.

'MAF has been a real help to the team. Since we started the programme, we've been travelling with MAF and they've been very faithful. The most important part is when the pilots pray for us. That brings a lot of joy. It would be very hard to travel without MAF – the roads are too bad. We have sensitive equipment that can't withstand jerky movements. In other places, we don't have roads at all.'

Pilot Ryan Unger arrives in Rumbek to pick up the CMA Eye Team for transport to Mundri.

Prayer

This inspirational team works for 12 weeks, then takes 10 days off with their families – all year round. It's draining, and Joseph asks that people remember them in prayer.

'Please pray for us to persevere – at times it's not easy, especially when you're faced with problems you can't help. We need God's grace to continue.'

Patients who had cataract surgery the day before wait for the bandages to come off at the CMA Eye Clinic in Lui, South Sudan in August 2014