Blinded by a Preventable Disease, the Story of Mairige


She is 10 years old and should be going to school. But Wajir has never read a book, never done a test in maths or biology. While the other children from the neighbourhood are learning and playing in the classrooms of the village school, Wajir is needed at home: she has to take care of her great-aunt. 

70-year-old Mairige holds a wooden stick in her hand. Her eyes are wide open - but she cannot see anything.

"Without Wajir's help, I cannot go anywhere. I would even have trouble finding my way to the toilet," says the elderly woman – and adds: "Most of the time I sit in or in front of my hut. Wajir brings me food, fetches me water for bathing and washes my clothes. I cannot do all that alone.” 

“In earlier years, I did all this myself. But since I became blind, I am totally dependent. Although I am happy to have Wajir around me - because I do not have any children myself - I am very sad about my life and my circumstances. It's terrible..." says Mairige as she buries her face in her hands. 

Mairige was blinded by onchocerciasis - commonly known as river blindness. It is a neglected tropical disease (NTD) caused by the parasitic worm onchocerca volvulus and transmitted by the bite of infected black flies. More than 99% of people suffering from onchocerciasis live in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries like Nigeria, where Mairige lives. 

In Nigeria, as in many African countries, millions of people are at risk of onchocerciasis. Blindness is a late stage of the disease. There is no vaccine that prevents river blindness. However, if an infected person receives a medicine called Mectizan® (Ivermectin ) in time, the disease can be treated and stopped - because it kills the parasites in the human body and prevents them from causing damage such as skin diseases and blindness. The treatment has to be done every year because Mectizan® (Ivermectin ) only kills the baby worms - and the adult worms live and reproduce the larvae for 15 to 20 years. 

The Pain Felt Like a Spitting Snake

Mairige cannot remember when exactly she went blind. "I was not that old then," she says. 

According to her memory, it was as if a snake was spitting poison into her eyes while she was working in the fields. 

"That's how it all started," Mairige is convinced, adding, "A few years later I could not see anything."  

However, all the symptoms and circumstances she describes before she went blind are those of river blindness:  

"I used to work in the fields with my husband. We grew cassava, rice, cereals and maize. We sold part of our harvest at the market. Farming was our life. There were these flies that often stung us. As time went by, I had severe itching all over my body. It never stopped. I felt like I was dying. And finally, the itching reached my eyes. It was unbearable," Mairige says. 

To this day, she is not fully aware of the risks of coming into contact with black flies. The fast-flowing Taraba River near her village is an ideal breeding ground for these black flies. They are active during the day and feed on blood - and each of their bites transmits dangerous parasites to the human organism. As the parasites multiply, hundreds of thousands of larvae spread through the human body. The worms tangle under the skin (visible as nodules). 

Most of the baby worms die just under the surface of the skin, causing severe itching. If left untreated, the disease can eventually damage the eyes and lead to irreversible blindness - as in Mairige's case. 

When she went blind, Mairige's life was never the same - and her relationship with her husband changed too. She does not say much about it. Only this much: "We had a fight and separated."  

As a result, she had to leave his house and found shelter with her younger sister. Since then, they have been living together in a house without electricity and running water. 

Hauwa, Mairige's younger sister, is 55 years old. Her eldest grandchild - 10-year-old Wajir - takes care of Mairige. Everyone has become accustomed to this situation, and it seems uncertain whether they will ever send Wajir to school. While they are unable to raise the money for the school uniform and books, the current situation is the best for them. 

"I feel sad that she is blind and cannot do something herself," says Wajir, who affectionately calls Mairige "Grandi". "I like to sit next to Grandi and talk to her. Sometimes I wish she could see me and we could look at each other," says Wajir.

And Mairige adds, "I am so grateful that she is here to help me. I wish so much that I could see Wajir and all the other children around me. I was already blind when Wajir was born,” Mairige says in a serious voice. 

Then she scratches her legs again, where the skin is severely damaged. People call it "elephant skin" - also a manifestation of onchocerciasis.

"Once a year they bring us pills and say that they protect us from blindness," Mairige explains, adding, "It's good because being blind is terrible. Every night I ask God to help us with food and clothes and to protect my sister and the children, so they do not go blind. I am thankful for them because they help me to survive."  

Then she remembers an old hymn and begins to sing. "Yabe Jesu segotuba ..."

"Jesus, we should stay in your culture and be Christians," Mairige sings. 

Despite all the challenges in her life: she remains hopeful.