On Tuesday Edward Koni was completely blind. On Wednesday he went to St Paul's Mission Hospital in Zambia and was given cataract surgery on both eyes. A remarkable story of life change in the Valley of the Blind.
"The embroidered cloth hanging over the pulpit of Jesus Cares Ministries Church in the small northern town of Mansa, glowed; back-lit as if waiting to be photographed. As part of this series of images on blindness prevention in Zambia, this picture spoke of the joy I saw in 78-year-old Edward Koni's face when, after cataract surgery, he had his sight restored. He broke his walking stick over his knee and walked triumphantly out of the hospital – the light had come. Photography has allowed me to see some tragic and remarkable things, but rarely have I been so moved."

This is the remarkable testimony of photographer Robin Hammond, who visited Luapula Valley in northern Zambia to document blindness prevention initiatives. The region is also known as The Valley of the Blind. With little access to quality healthcare, an unnecessarily high percentage of Zambians suffer from forms of blindness such as cataracts, glaucoma and trachoma, which are preventable, and indeed curable. If the local initiatives continue to reach and benefit the population in the way they have this past year (for example 60 percent of one of Luapula's most affected regions, Kawambwa, were beneficiaries), perhaps the valley will instead become synonymous with the freshness of its fish, or the beauty of its lakes.

Zambia is a landlocked country in Southern Africa. The neighbouring countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to the south, and Angola to the west. The capital city is Lusaka, located in the south-central part of the country. The population is concentrated mainly around Lusaka in the south and the Copperbelt Province to the northwest.

Patients at St Paul's Mission Hospital, Nchelenge, Luapula Province recover from sight restoring surgery.

"Blindness in Zambia has so much more of an impact than in a developed country, said Hammond. "Guide dogs allow a certain amount of independence to the visually impaired, beeping crossings tell you when it is safe to walk across the road, and Braille is taught. In Zambia, to lose your sight is to lose independence and income. You simply cannot fish if you cannot see your nets. You must rely on relatives for food, to guide you to the toilet, to bring your shopping. Behind sightless eyes there is a kind of dark prison."

The causes of eye disease vary, but include poor diet, hygiene and lack of access to medicine or treatment. The community-based projects that make up the initiative are organised in order to target all the contributing factors holistically. A new 30-bed eye ward at St Paul''s Mission Hospital in Nchelenge provides surgery and treatment, while the hospital is also responsible for training health centre staff and volunteer sight ambassadors, who will share all kinds of information about health and hygiene with friends and family. Staff have also helped some traditional healers learn about how some of their practices can be harmful, and instead to dispense medicines such as tetracycline.

"The team from St Paul's eye hospital, often departing at five o'clock in the morning, drove more than four hours each way to do screening sessions. Everyday dozens would arrive blind and return home the following day able to see. Dr Consity Mwale is the miracle worker. He is the only ophthalmologist to service a region with a population of over one million. In sparsely populated Zambia,that is a big area. He has an amazing job – he gives people back their sight, but he is frustrated. So many of his patients, he explains, come to him too late.

They are already blind. The facilities are not yet there for him to reach as many individuals as he would like early enough. He says to me that the difference is in my country people drive to cataract surgery and read a magazine in the waiting room.

Robin witnessed Edward Koni regaining his sight as part of the RISE project, a collection of photos and stories that celebrates hope in the midst of adversity. For more information about RISE and to see more of the photos captured on this project, please click here.

"His patients are guided into the operating room as they have been guided everywhere for months, sometimes years. Things are getting slowly better but for an educated man who sees too many of his people needlessly suffering, it is not happening fast enough."

Hammond saw people of all ages arrive on foot, by bicycle and by boat to squint at eye charts and have torches shone in their eyes at health centres across the province, where screenings are organised once a month for rural communities.The news was spreading. In villages and towns on the other side of the nearby border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, people had heard of the doctors who could restore sight. Some of them came too to be offered this life-changing opportunity.

Robin Hammond

On Tuesday Edward Koni was completely blind; as he had been for the past year. On Wednesday he went to St Paul's Mission Hospital in Nchelenge, Luapula Province, and was given cataract surgery on both eyes. When the bandages were taken off on Thursday he could see again. His grandson Bernard had become accustomed to cleaning Edward's house, bringing him food and taking him to the toilet. Edward celebrated the return of his sight with family members and neighbours shouting "I am not a blind man, I am not a blind man!"

Robin Hammond


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