Happy 20th Birthday Kwale District Eye Centre

It was just another day for eye surgeon, Dr Helen Roberts MBChB, MRCOphth, FRCOphth, but her days are not quite like anyone else’s. It takes her around 15 minutes to restore sight to a person blinded by cataracts, and she might treat up to 20 patients in a day. On this particular day, however, Helen’s routine was interrupted by the arrival of a large cake which her staff had secretly had baked for her in celebration of the fact that it has been 20 years since Helen decided to dedicate her life to Kenya. And during that time she has restored sight to over 400,000 people and carried out over 30,000 operations.

That’s quite an achievement, and Helen celebrated it by sharing the cake with her staff and all the patients in her clinic.

Helen’s clinic, the Kwale District Eye Centre (KDEC) lies just inland from Mombasa’s famous Diani Beach. And, while dinner at one of Diani’s glossy hotels will cost about the same as making a blind man see, most of the local people are so poor they can’t even scrape together the money for the subsidized fee of Kshs 3,500: so they pay with a chicken, a few mangoes; or a smile.

No matter what her recompense, Helen never turns a patient away. Which is probably just as well when you consider the following; Kenya’s rate of blindness is ten times that of the Western world; of the world’s 45 million blind people 90% live in the developing world; Kenya has only one ophthalmologist to every million people; and of the millions of Kenyans who go blind, 80% need never have done so. Blindness, tragically, is largely preventable.

The magic of having one’s sight restored in 15 minutes, which is all the time it takes to ‘do’ a cataract, affects people differently. Helen tells the story of one old man who had been blind for most of his life. Persuaded by the community worker to come into the clinic, he had his operation, walked out into the carpark, threw away his white stick, summarily dismissed the small boy who had led him around, and danced off down the road. Another man who had been blind for 15 years returned to his village and shrieked with laughter over how much his neighbours had aged. Best of all is the tale of the community worker who came across a blind man up a tree, from which a noose dangled. He was sobbing in despair; his life seemed to be worthless. The community worker lured him down from the tree, on to the back of his motorbike, and in to the clinic. The next time he saw the man, he was up a tree again: laughing, singing and cutting down coconuts.

All this comes at a cost; yet government funding is not forthcoming. KDEC is entirely funded by charity, 60% by Christoffel Blindenmission International of Germany and ‘Sight Savers’ of Britain; and the rest by Helen’s endless round of fundraising events, ‘What better gift can you give than the gift of sight?’ is her campaign slogan. What indeed? Kshs 3,500 pays for a cataract operation and Kshs 10,000 sponsors a partially sighted child through 15 years of schooling in a normal school (providing spectacles, thick pens, and transparent roof tiles for the schoolroom). It’s not much to ask for such a precious gift.

Helen herself asks for very little. Merely the money to keep her clinic running. And, despite that fact that in 1996 she was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II, she remains inspired only by her gift. ‘When you take the pads off and the patient can see for the first time’ she says, ‘ they give a little smile. Then that smile grows and grows until it stretches from ear to ear. That’s my reward’.

So, if you’d like to fuel such a smile, why not spend the best Kshs 3,500 you’ll ever spend in your life.

Send your donation as indicated below and you will receive an official receipt plus details on the person whose sight you have restored.

Cheques should be made out to: Kwale District Eye Centre and mailed to POB 90142, Mombasa 80100. Please enclose a stamped, addressed envelope.

For further information please contact: email: eyeskwale[a]africaonline.co.ke or visit website: www.eyesforeastafrica.org

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