Sainsbury’s Magazine – May 2000
Sue Thomas reports a remarkable success story
The Success Story of Eyes for Zimbabwe
When you have read your morning newspaper and despaired at human nature, this is the kind of story you need to remind you that although good deeds and happy endings might not make the headlines, they do happen.
Last year, in our February issue, we told you about the Eyes4Zimbabwe charity, set up and run by Reeve Nield, a woman who, six years ago, hatched an ambitious plan – to eradicate blindness caused by cataracts that afflict about 80,000 people in Zimbabwe.
The project, if successful, would not only change the lives of thousands of people whose sight would be restored. When a person is blind in Zimbabwe, a relative – usually a child – becomes their guide. SAINSBURY’S This child will miss school to help their blind relative. With cataract surgery, one person recovers their sight, another recovers their freedom.
But how could such an audacious plan ever work? Surgeons from around the world would have to use their holiday to travel to Zimbabwe and operate – for nothing. Airlines and courier services MAGAZINE hopeful future would be needed to transport people and products – for nothing. Medical supplies would have to be bought; volunteers would have to travel to remote villages and find people who could be helped; operating camps would have to be set up; people would need to be assessed, transported, treated …
The most extraordinary thing about this project is that it has worked – better than anyone dared hope. Thousands have had their sight restored. Hundreds of people from across the world have given their time, talent, energy and ingenuity. They have not only helped change people’s lives for the better, they’ve also got something immeasurable back. They’ve made a difference.
And ifyou were among the thousands who answered our appeal last year and took your old spectacles and sunglasses to your local Sainsbury’s store, then you have made a difference, too. ‘We thought we’d collect 50,000 pairs,’ says Nield. ‘Maybe, ifwe were really lucky, 100,000 pairs. In fact, 300,000 pairs were donated. It was unbelievable.’
So what happened to all these glasses? ‘First they were sent to Zimbabwe by DHL, which gives us invaluable help by transporting goods free (as does the airline KLM, which flies surgeons to Zimbabwe) where volunteers, supervised by Dr Beata Tumushime, sorted them into long-sighted, short-sighted, bifocals and children’s glasses, and boxed and labelled them. ‘
The glasses were then sent to the eye camps and given to the many people who, for years, have had to just accept poor vision. The sunglasses bring relief for a few weeks after cataracts have been removed, when the world seems painfully bright.’
Your glasses went to DECEMBER 2001 people such as Georgina, who had been blind for 10 years when she had her first operation last year. After surgery she heard her daughter’s voice and turned to see her for the first time in a decade. Recently, she returned to an eye camp to have her other cataract removed. While there, she saw her picture in Sainsbury’s Magazine – she thought it was fantastic.
Your glasses went to a little boy called Tinashe, whose sight was successfully restored. ‘You have no idea how grateful people are,’ says Nield. ‘Tinashe’s mother now knows that he has a life of his own. He will be able to look after himself.’
Glasses went to George, a five-year-old boy who arrived at the eye camp alone. ‘Sometimes it’s not possible for people to accompany the children,’ Nield explains, ‘but he was fine. Everyone looks after each other.’ George had SAINSBURY’S surgery, and was driven back to his village able to see.
Your glasses went to blind people who had no option but to beg. Volunteers went to find them and, understandably, many were fearful about the offer. In some cases volunteers paid them to accompany them to eye camps. ‘Are these doctors any good?’ one old man asked. ‘Excellent,’ he was told. ‘They do more of these operations than anyone in the world. They’re local and they’re the best.’ He met the surgeon, Dr Solomon Guramatunhu, the chairman of Eyes4Zimbabwe. ‘I don’t believe this will work,’ the old man said. ‘Give me 20 minutes,’ said Dr Guramatunhu. ‘We’ll see what we can do.’
When his bandages came off 24 hours later, he was elated. ‘These doctors are good, eh?’ he said. ‘I can see.’ What must it feel like to have lived in darkness for years – perhaps, in a child’s MAGAZINE case, for your whole life – and then, after an operation that takes just 15 minutes, be able to see? How do people react?
‘They dance,’ says Nield. ‘The children are mostly quiet – it’s quite a shock to see after so long. They sing. They clap their hands. They cry. There’s a lot to take in. Parents may be seeing their children for the first time; children might never have seen their parents. Their patches come off and their lives change completely. You watch people being guided in, and walking out unaided. You see discarded walking sticks by the door they’re not needed any more.’
One of the most inspiring things about Eyes4Zimbabwe is the way it is organised, and the fact that it is not interested in accumulating funds in bank accounts. ‘We don’t want money, we want things,’ explains Nield, who as well as running Eyes4Zimbabwe works on in setting up this organisation. ‘Going to Zimbabwe puts everything in perspective,’ says Maritz. ‘It makes you realise how lucky you are. We realised we could raise money by organising ProAm tournaments where amateur golfers pay to play with the pros,’ she says.
Many golfers decided to help in other ways. Anna Berg, a Swedish golfer, wrote to the head of Synsan, a chain of opticians in her country, which then invited its customers to bring in their old spectacles and get £20 off a new pair. ‘It was fantastic,’
Cecelie Lundgreen from Norway collected 600 pairs of glasses, then got an airline to let her take them to Africa with her at no extra charge.
‘We don’t need money, we need things, and we go bargain-hunting across the world to get them,’ says Nield. ‘We get companies to donate all sorts of goods: sterile gowns, drapes, caps and shoes, antiseptic scrub, antibiotics. Medical companies donate stuff that is near its useby date.’
And always, of course, they need more. They constantly require medical ophthalmic surgeons and nurses, but also volunteers to go out to villages and assess who might benefit from surgery; to package supplies, to host, guide and care for the patients. And they need more glasses and sunglasses.
‘I never realised how much help would be required when I started this,’ admits Nield. ‘But the beauty of this project is that everyone can help in some way. People can hold raffles and sponsored activities and send the money directly to the manufacturers to buy surgical instruments; afterwards, I’ll make sure they know exactly where and how the equipment they’ve helped buy is being used.’
There are already six operating theatres in Zimbabwe. Nield would like to increase that to 20. And after Zimbabwe, there’s Zambia, Zaire, Mozambique and many more countries needing help. Six years of campaigning and organising hasn’t dulled her enthusiasm a jot. ‘A cataract operation is so simple. It takes 15 minutes and costs only £30. I’m so grateful to Eyes4Zimbabwe; for a person to come in blind, then be able to see the next day still seems miraculous.’ ♥