Seeing is life. If you cannot see, then you are not completely yourself.”
As a communications professional who has, until recently, only worked for UK-based organisations, this was my first trip to Africa. Despite the vaccinations (all seven delivered rather alarmingly at once) and the complicated task of acquiring a visa, I was very much looking forward to it.
The CBM Inclusive Eye Health and Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) team came together from many parts of the world for a programme meeting in Kano, Nigeria, to learn more about the work of our Nigerian office, deepen relationships with our partners, make site visits and celebrate an important milestone.
The marvel that is city life
What struck me first was the extraordinary multiplicity of things. Kano, a city of 20 million people, is thick with activity - people selling nuts, hats, mattresses, buckets, scrap metal and sometimes goods that seemed to have little value to my eyes but were gleaned to form the shape of a trade. People chatted, cooked under faded umbrellas, whittled at sugar cane, washed up in road-side basins, pushed carts and nimbly circumnavigated the stream of tuc tucs as if their movements had been choreographed. I'm sure all this sounds familiar to my colleagues who travel a lot, but for me, this noisy, dusty, and multi-layered scene was a revelation.
Meeting with the patients
I barely had time to catch my breath before we visited the first of our partner hospitals - Al Bassar, with whom we have a long history of delivering eye care. It is a well-run facility with highly qualified and dedicated staff.
We were given a tour of the facility by Dr Azmat Shah, the community ophthalmologist, who introduced our tour by saying, "Our work with CBM has had a huge impact on the community here. The training CBM has provided in monitoring and evaluation, disability inclusion and risk management have enabled us to develop our workforce and build our capacity."
The director of Inclusive Eye Health, Babar Qureshi, has always stressed the importance of seeing the faces of the people we serve. It can get a bit theoretical when I write about community members from the comfort of the CBM Cambridge office, but here I was able to see for myself the need and life-changing impact of having access to eye care.
I spoke to Ismail, a teacher of thirty years, who had been unable to work. A CBM-funded surgery for bilateral cataracts enabled him to return to the classroom.
He said, "I care so much about my students. They will be our future doctors and maybe teachers like me."
I also spoke to a woman named Habiba who had also had eye surgery. She told me, "Seeing is life. If you cannot see, then you are not completely yourself."
Reaching a milestone
The next day we drove to Jigawa State. The CBM country office and our partner HANDS (Health And Development Support) organised a celebration to mark the 600 millionth dose against NTDs that CBM has supported worldwide since 1999.
It was a big day.
The banners had been hung, the community had gathered, and representatives from health ministries and religious and traditional leaders lined up. The town spokesperson joined in with gusto, attributing visitors and dignitaries with grand qualities as a sign of welcome and respect.
When the speeches were done, a 10-year-old girl named Surayya, solemn in a bright red shawl, stepped forward to receive the historic dose.
It was a symbolic moment, a photo opportunity of what happens ‘for real’ in our work, but nevertheless the moment had real significance. Suraiya and her family had never had preventative medicine before, and there was nothing manufactured about the fact that she and her family will now be protected from the ravages wrought by NTDs.
The trip gave me a better understanding of our work and a chance to talk face- to- face with colleagues about what they struggle with and what they are proud of. The risks of travelling to Kano, a state rife with conflict and instability, were weighed very carefully. Our security advisor kept us safe throughout our stay with great humour and professionalism.
It was a salutary experience for me to be the outsider for once - the person subject to scrutiny and curiosity.
So, despite the anti-malarial medication that gave me insomnia, the need to travel in vehicles with tinted windows, and the anxieties about whether I was showing respect in the proper ways, I felt very privileged to be able to participate in our Kano trip and am very grateful for all that I learned.