In 2008, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) founded the Alliance to Fight Avoidable Blindness, which brought together partners from across the globe to support and build capacity to fight the root causes of blindness in Africa. The primary goal was to treat cataracts, which are the leading cause of blindness in many countries where ophthalmologists are scarce, and people lack the skills to perform successful surgeries. The first phase of the initiative focused on eight African member countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Guinea, Mali and Niger. The Alliance has provided eye care to over 244,000 people and restored the eyesight of more than 49,000 suffering from blindness.
We grew up in the dusty suburbs of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, where I spent my childhood playing with my cousins and siblings outside our small, mud-brick house. We all lived together under one roof, sharing what little we had; space, food, water and the air we breathed. Despite Chad being one of the poorest countries in the world, as Africa’s most expensive city, N’Djamena was prohibitively expensive. For poor families like ours, it was unaffordable.
Chad’s expatriate population had grown in the last decade with the development of the oil sector, which was locally referred to as black gold. This meant that goods and services such as housing, transport and utilities had become particularly costly as the supply of decent infrastructure was far behind demand. For locals, water and electricity had become luxury products.
But despite not having much, we never let it bother us too much. My brother Ahmadu and I spent our days running through clouds of exhaust fumes, spewed by cars zipping through the city’s potholed streets. “Fatimatou wait for me!” my brother would yell, as we raced through roadsides crammed with people selling peanuts, vegetables and squawking chickens. But then one day, everything changed.
I remember that day well. I knew something was wrong as soon as I woke up and stumbled out from beneath the mosquito net that hung over my bed. My right eye felt blurry as I walked slowly over to the wash basin; water trickled down my face as I splashed one handful after another. Mama sat me down and stared worriedly into my face. “Fatimatou your eye has turned white!” she exclaimed. We would soon learn through a family friend that I had developed something called a cataract.
Outside, the clear skies suddenly became cloudy. As weeks turned into months, the vision in my right eye started to deteriorate. I found myself shielding my eyes from the sunlight I embraced as a young girl. We couldn’t afford to see a doctor, let alone surgery, so I learned to cope. I became increasingly reliant on my left eye, for which I was grateful, but I was saddened to see the bright colors of N’Djamena, my hometown on the edge of the Sahara, slowly fade to a yellow hue – a memory in motion.
Summer came to an end, and so did my childhood. One day, Baba came home and announced he had found me a suitor; the son of a neighbor who lived close by. I felt anxious but knew my increasing loss of vision had become burdensome for my family, who were already struggling to get by. My husband Omar was poor, but he was a good man and Baba knew that he would take care of me.
But six months after my marriage, things took a turn for the worse, when another cataract began developing in my left eye. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. The thought of being completely blind terrified me. My husband went into the city every weekend looking for anyone that might be able to help but returned home alone each time.
We soon came to learn that I was pregnant. Though this news should have brought me joy, it left me feeling more anxious than ever. I was nervous about bringing a child into the world without knowing if I could properly take care of it, let alone be able to see it. The pregnancy was difficult. I tried not to move around too much, in case I fell over as I was already bumping into things inside our small shack. But as my belly grew, so did my cataract; we were up against time.
Two months before the baby was due, my worst fear was confirmed: I had turned completely blind.
I woke up one day to find that my entire world had plummeted into darkness. I felt helpless and overcome with grief. I could neither help my family or myself, and worried constantly about how I would care for my unborn child. As the days passed, I felt more and more helpless.
Relief only came when I held my baby for the first time. After hours of labor, my neighbor gently placed the newborn into my arms and told me, “Fatimatou, it’s a baby boy!” Tears ran down my cheeks as I slowly mapped out his face with my fingers. Two eyes, a small nose and lips. How I longed to see my son’s face. I held his delicate head close to my ears and listened to the sound of his soft breathing. For the first time in a long time, I felt content. We named him Ibrahim.
For the first few years of his life, I was unable to care for my child the way a mother normally would. I was grateful to my family who regularly came around to help. Ibrahim grew to be an intelligent and thoughtful little boy, often describing things to me in vivid detail to make up for my blindness. I would imagine what he looked like as he spoke, and whether he looked like me or his father. I yearned desperately to see him and prayed that one day, my eyesight would return.
One day, my brother Ahmadu hurried home with some news. He had been wandering through the market that morning when he heard an announcement from a loudspeaker about a free medical campaign. He turned a corner and found people gathered around a group, who were explaining what the campaign was about.
"I woke up one day to find that my entire world had plummeted into darkness. I felt helpless and overcome with grief. I could neither help my family or myself, and worried constantly about how I would care for my unborn child."
Ahmadu approached one of the men, who introduced himself as Mohamed Laswad. Mohamed explained that he was part of a mission sponsored by IsDB to treat people suffering from cataracts free of charge. Ahmadu explained that I had lost vision in both eyes and had given birth to a baby, who I still hadn’t seen after five years.
Mohamed was saddened to hear this and told Ahmadu to register me for surgery immediately. He asked him to bring me to the Al-Hurriya Hospital the next morning to be examined by doctors who would decide what action to take. As Ahmadu explained what had happened, I cried with joy. Though there was a chance the surgery might not work, the possibility that it could gave me hope. I immediately agreed and asked my brother to accompany me.
Ahmadu arrived early the next morning and we made our way to the hospital. The corridor was crowded with patients, and the walls were plastered with information about the campaign. Ahmadu read them out loud so that I could understand, and we stood together in a queue until I was called. Following my medical examination, the doctors decided to perform an emergency procedure on both eyes, and I was swiftly taken into the operating room.
"The operation had been successful. Light filled the room as I slowly adjusted to my surroundings. The curtain of blindness had been lifted."
Ahmadu waited in the mosque next to the hospital and prayed desperately for my recovery. An hour later, he came to collect me, and we left the hospital with white bandages wrapped around my eyes. I felt some slight discomfort and was taken home to rest as we needed to come back the following day to see if the operation had been successful. That night, I hardly slept at all.
I woke up bright and early the next morning and kissed my son before I left. When we reached the hospital, I was taken into a small room, where I sat down nervously as a doctor came in and carefully unwrapped my bandages. I kept my head down and took a deep breath, before mustering the courage to open my eyes. When I did, it felt like I had awoken from a deep sleep.
The operation had been successful. Light filled the room as I slowly adjusted to my surroundings. The curtain of blindness had been lifted. “Praise be to Allah!” Ahmadu rejoiced, as we embraced one another with joy. I don’t recall ever being so happy and grateful in my life. I thanked the doctors, who gave me some medication and advice before letting me leave.
I couldn’t wait to go home to see my family. As we reached the house, I found all my extended kin waiting eagerly to welcome me. As I got out of the car, a little boy ran straight towards me. I instinctively knew it was my son and embraced him as he leapt into my arms. “How beautiful you are, Ibrahim,” I cried. I held him tightly as my tears soaked his shirt, and then looked into his face to memorize every detail. I will never forget the day I had both my faith and vision restored.