I was blind, now I can see
All Star Padraic Mannion witnesses miracles
Black. White. Blue. Pink. More white. Jamie Bockarie’s eyes are moving around the room. They are not dancing. Rather, they are slow and concentrated. Finding their way, carefully and deliberately, soaking up colour and form. The room is taking shape. The people standing in front of her begin to loom large. Their clothes...
“Black. White. Blue. Pink. White.”
But she is still nervous, as if she literally cannot believe her eyes. Finally, her smile widens. Yes, Jamie Bockarie can see again.
Just over a week earlier, Jamie was totally blind. She was also totally blinded by the prevailing wisdom in her native town. She would never see again — that’s what they all said. Her eyes were ‘spoiled’. She believed them too, convinced her pathetic, spoiled eyes would never work again. She would never see her children or her grandchildren again. She would live in the dark.
Against the odds, some force compelled her to sell her clothes, sneak out of her neighbourhood, and make the 150-mile trip to a hospital in the town of Kenema that she had been told could work miracles. Against the wishes of her friends and neighbours, she decided to have the operation she had heard so much about. “My faith made me come,” she says. “Two years! I have been like this for two years — without vision.”
Before darkness came, Jamie baked bread and cooked food to sell in Kailahun, in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province. Now, in this moment of personal triumph, Jamie’s thoughts return to Kailahun, and to all those who had tried to take hope from her. They must know how wrong they were.
When she was blind, she left her phone in a charging booth, but in a cruel exploitation of her disability, its battery was stolen, so she is loaned a phone now to call one of her sons. “I have regained my sight,” she tells him. “You should go to the market to tell everyone about this — that I have regained my sight and no one should be worried about me.” She tells him he must come to Kenema to give Dr Sheriff a hug because he has done marvellous work. “Dr Sheriff is like a father to me, because what he has done is good.”
As she speaks, Dr Lansane Sheriff has been circling the ward, removing bandages from two other women and a little girl. They, too, have had their sight
restored following cataract surgery the previous day. This is one of the oldest known types of surgery. It has long been a common practice in Ireland and the developed world, yet the practice in many countries has been a very different one, as poverty, superstition, fear and the power wielded by ‘healers’ combined to devastating effect. What to us is a simple matter, is a traumatic, life-changing event for millions of people.
One thing that you quickly learn about life in Sierra Leone is that hardship and tragedy are never far away — they creep up on you when you least expect it. Jamie has been in hospital for over a week with only her sister Fatimata by her side, so, when she is asked if she is looking forward to seeing her children again — her daughter, and three sons — her expression changes. There is no direct answer to the question, until it emerges that her only daughter died a few days earlier in childbirth. Her grandchild died too.
“When they were removing the bandages and I was crying, these were the things I was thinking about. Even when I go back, I can’t see my daughter because she is dead... and she is buried already.” She stops for a moment, then begins to speak again. “Crying won’t bring my daughter back,” she says, “so I’m not going to cry tears because I have just got my eyes back.”
Black, white, blue, pink. A group of visitors to the hospital have witnessed the emotion of the moment, and as Jamie became aware of their presence, she thrilled in letting them know she could see them. They are from Sightsavers — from the local office in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, and from the Irish office. There has been a quiet revolution in Sierra Leone in eye care and moments like this are a powerful tribute to the progress being made.
Sightsavers works in over 30 countries, protecting sight and, increasingly, fighting for disability rights, and has had a presence in Sierra Leone since the early 1960s. The country is one of its success stories. In Africa, 75pc of sight loss can be cured or even prevented, and Jamie’s story is a typical one. From the very young to the very old, people are becoming more aware that diseases and illnesses which lead to blindness and greater suffering can be cured. Blindness can be reversed. Better still, it can be prevented.
The visit to Kenema is part of an intense week’s work, taking in projects around Freetown and the towns of Bo, Kenema and Makeni. Facilities are still a problem in helping to deliver eye care in Sierra Leone, but it is now more common to see health professionals going from village to village to screen the population. Two years ago, Sightsavers received a five-year development grant from Irish Aid to support projects in four countries — Cameroon, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Indeed, many of the eye-care facilities we visited in Sierra Leone had received financial assistance from Irish Aid.
The week is also a baptism of fire for Padraic
Mannion, who this year became a goodwill ambassador for Sightsavers. He has travelled to Sierra Leone to get first-hand experience of their work. Mannion is 26 years old and hurls for Galway. He has won an All-Ireland medal, two All Stars and has come within a whisker of being chosen by his peers as the hurler of the year. He is a teacher in St Cuan’s College in east Galway and plays club hurling for Ahascragh-Fohenagh and football for Caltra.
Hurling has defined much of his life. He is the first to admit that he is utterly consumed by it. The demands now on an inter-county player with a top team are unrelenting. If you commit to the cause, you commit to dedicating your entire lifestyle to it as well. It’s a bubble — and a recurring theme with many footballers and hurlers is how they quickly become assimilated into a way of thinking which pretty much curtails other aspects of their life.
He first thought about Africa when he was in college, watching as friends volunteered with various charities. It planted a seed, but there was always hurling. So when Sightsavers came calling, he jumped at the opportunity to get involved. And Jamie Bockaire will stay with him forever.
“She’s going home now,” he says. “She doesn’t want to go back to her job as a cook, probably because of the smoke and the steam, so she’s probably going back to very little.
“But the fact that she’s going back to her village and proving everybody wrong, is going to be very powerful in the future for anybody in that village that has any issue with their eyesight, so from that point of view, no poster or talk is going to be as powerful as her actually going back and showing everybody.”
He is moved by her story. It took huge courage to make the journey to Kenema, and even though Jamie can now see, the road home will be even tougher in the wake of the tragic deaths of her daughter and grandchild. Sierra
Leone and its people, Padraic feels, are the very embodiment of resilience.
Early on the morning of August 14, 2017, a man left his house on the outskirts of Freetown to get bread for his family. He never saw his family, or his house, again. As he walked to the shop, he was rocked by a terrible explosion, like a bomb had just gone off. In fact, after days of heavy rain the side had literally fallen out of the mountain above the settlement he had just left. Over 1,000 people were buried beneath the mud, and over 3,000 more left homeless.
Tiangay Gondoe is the programme manager for Sightsavers in Sierra Leone, and as we make our way out of Freetown, en route to Bo in the Southern District, she points to the gaping hole in the side of the mountain. She begins to tell us the story of the mudslide. “People died...” But her voice tails off, the memory of it is still too much.
This horrific disaster seems to encapsulate the history of Sierra Leone. The country was just recovering from the ferocious civil war which left over 50,000 dead and exposed the population to terror and brutality, when the Ebola virus ripped it apart again. These two events alone set the country’s development back over 100 years, according to many.
“One of the doctors went into a lot of detail about the Ebola outbreak and he commented on how resilient the country was because of the way they came through it,” says Mannion. “He basically said they get knocked down, but they keep getting back up. But you can know even by talking to people that they are resilient — they just come across that way. If there are little issues at all, it doesn’t faze them. It makes you think about what we complain about at home. Over here, you just get on with it... it’s definitely a huge characteristic that all the people have.”
Sheku Koroma was one of the doctors on the frontline of the battle against Ebola. “We got our fair share of what Ebola looks like in West Africa, and we don’t want to see that no more... no, no more,” he says. “We are tough people. We laugh at it now, probably because we are descended from slaves. We never bow to anything.”
Sierra Leone is a country of about seven-and-a-halfmillion people. Like Ireland, remnants of British rule are everywhere; and like Ireland, it is mostly evidenced through old buildings and place names like Regent, Grafton and Waterloo. Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961 but it is only since the late 1990s that it has settled into democracy. Civil war and disease has held the country back, but so too has corruption. There’s a sense that Sierra Leone is only now finding its way, taking tentative steps to maybe one day being able to stand on its own two feet.
Tiangay is a passionate advocate for change, and believes strongly that the next generation of Sierra
“It makes you think about what we complain about at home. Over here, you just get on with it”
Leoneans will be a force for good in the country’s growth. For the first time, she is seeing a wider degree of anger, and a level of understanding about what has been happening in Sierra Leone. A lack of education in the past was as much a tool of oppression as it was a product of poverty and political ineptitude.
“We had independence 58 years ago, and things never got better,” she says. “We cannot expect it to get better in a year or two. It takes a while, but the systems that are being put in place now will help us change the narrative.”
Education, then, will be the key. Kadie Moore is the principal of a primary school in the Bombali district. She, too, believes in the future. “I want to see children acquire what they are supposed to be at the end,” she says. “I want to see children from this school that are carrying big titles; I want to see future leaders from this school. That is what I want to achieve.”
Schools are showing leadership in society in many ways. It is now commonplace in most schools to have teachers trained to screen pupils for issues relating to their eyes — from basic problems like just having poor eyesight, right up to more serious problems like cataracts. Sightsavers has been at the heart of this initiative, funding the training of teachers and helping to spread the message of inclusive education for children with disabilities. It seems simple now, but it has required a seismic culture shift for people.
The eyes, says Tiangay, are everything to children, so involving teachers is “a way of making sure that problems are identified early enough so that it doesn’t get worse”. Francis James Sandi teaches in a school near the city of Bo and has been involved in screening for five years. He has seen first-hand the difference it is making in education. “Without good eyesight there will not be good learning,” he says.
If getting children and their families to think more about their eyes was a challenge, then addressing attitudes towards disabilities — including blindness — is a longer road to travel. Schools can be where prevailing prejudices are challenged as communities are encouraged to look in the mirror and change their thinking. Kadie Moore’s school is involved in the inclusivity project and she openly admits she had to radically challenge her own perception of people with any type of disability.
“I never knew... in fact, I never knew that these people were important people, to be very sincere and honest... I never knew. Well now I know that these people are very important people. Nobody knows how he or she ends. Some may not be born with this disability, but you do not know how you end up. Like some of our parents, they were born strong, but as it goes by they become sick, they lose their power, their feet, their hands; they become physically challenged... some of them, they can’t even smell; some of them, they lose their hearing.”
She has known situations where families have ignored a child with disabilities, believing that child to be ‘useless’. “Now people have changed their minds, and in fact they are sending their children to school because they never knew. They have not been including them; they have not been counting them; they saw them as inferior. In fact, they didn’t want to know about them.”
Kadie introduces Nandewa Karybo, whose young son Abdulai had been blind for four years, but can now see again. She translates as Nandewa tells her story:
“She said Abdulai was not going to school. She did not give birth to him that way. We actually asked her to bring this child to school. When he came to school, he had been hearing the voice of the teachers, but he could not see the teacher standing in front of him. He could not see anybody. It was this programme that took him to Makeni for medication. So they went and did the operation on one of the eyes. She thanks God for this operation. He can now see with it. She said they promised that they will take care of the other eye. They will come and collect him again and take him for medication for the other eye. The one is now perfect.
“Now Abdulai has friends. Now he mixes,” Kadie says. “Abdulai can participate, he can do everything with other friends in the age group. She said she is very much happy now that he has friends. Before now he was not playing, because he was not seeing, and he had no friends. But now he has friends in school. She said when she comes here she sees Abdulai playing with the other kids in the class.”
As she speaks, Abdulai is in the yard just outside, where Padraic is teaching him how to play hurling. After a wild swing or two, the youngster catches on very quickly, and is soon striking the sliotar with impressive ease. A few feet away, his mother beams with pride. “I feel fine,” she manages in English — and she starts clapping her hands.
Big stepping stone
There’s always hurling. It is never far from his mind — even in Africa. Padraic has looked most at ease when showing children the skills of this peculiar ancient game. The teachers are as bemused by it as their pupils. Surrounded by several hundred children, Padraic is feeling the heat. “This is more pressure than taking a free in Croke Park,” he jokes.
The chance to hit a sliotar, even casually, gives him reassurance. The truth is he feels conflicted because his mind has been drifting home, his thoughts turning to a very important game for his club which has
been scheduled for a few days after he returns. Ahascragh-Fohenagh have to win the match to hold on to their status as a senior team in Galway.
“You’re kind of thinking that you shouldn’t be thinking about the game too much when you’re out here, and you’re seeing what people are going through, but the other side of it is that hurling is massively important to me,” he says. “Like here, people’s livelihoods, people’s work, going to school, people’s families — they are all really important to them, and even talking to some of the kids, they all love playing sport as well, playing soccer at lunchtime, or whatever it is.
“I grew up with hurling being a massive part of me, so I don’t know any different, and the fact that it’s a relegation game with my club... I was part of the team that got the club up to senior, and to be honest, I would be really disappointed if we went back down. In my own head, whenever I finish playing, I want to leave the club in a better place, and a massive part of that is staying senior. A big stepping stone to that is Saturday... I know I’m out here, but it’s still in the back of my mind.”
Everything he has experienced has had a huge impact on him, but as a teacher, the school visits stand out. “What really strikes you is how happy the kids are, and even when you’d be driving past, they’d all be waving.” The picture in every school was the same: happy children following the tall Irishman around, wondering what he was going to do with the strange-looking stick and even stranger-looking ball. Their faces made it easy to forget that adversity is never far from their door. They look happy, we say to a teacher in one school. “They are hungry, but they are happy,” he replies.
Put your faith in medicine
James Momoh Konneh is quite the character. At 73 years of age, he has seen it all. But his zest for life is unquenched. And since he got his sight back, he is like a man reborn. He is originally from the town of Zimmi, not far from the border with Liberia. “Some time back,” he tells us, “my eye begin to get dark gradually. I begin to lose sight, and I don’t see well, and it came more, and then I can’t read.”
He was urged to go to a local healer but he resisted and travelled instead to Bo, where he was able to stay with family while he received treatment, culminating in an operation in August. “When Dr Sandy say I’ve got to come home on that day — it was Friday — my wife, my children and grandchildren, they went to welcome me, and I recognised all of them. We came home laughing. I am so happy I can see clearly.”
He sent a message back to Zimmi: ignore healers and place your faith in medicine. “I say to them, traditional medicine was used a long time ago when there were no specialists. And we considered them [healers] because there was no way out. I say, I want you, if someone is sick, to take them to the hospital. If you are not able to go to Pujehun Hospital, go to Bo. If you have not got money, you go, the doctor will help you. If you have not got money, get a way to reach them, and explain your condition to them. If I go back to my village, I will still continue to tell them: the world has changed. What makes you happy a long time ago does not make you happy today. Today is a different world.”
People like James and Jamie, and the army of children going through the education system, are like emissaries because, as much as training eye-care specialists has achieved, it is nothing in comparison to the impact these success stories are having in communities. Eyes — literally — are being opened.
Padraic Mannion’s eyes have been opened too, although maybe they’ve been open all along. Why else would he be here? Before he travelled, he spoke to teammate Joe Canning about his work with Unicef, but he tried not to have any preconceived notions about what he’d find in Sierra Leone, although as a teacher, he can’t help himself making comparisons.
“I don’t know does it sound the right thing to say, but growing up in Ireland is a very tough place to be, too — mentally, maybe not physically like it is here, but definitely mentally it’s a tough place to be growing up, with social media and everyone kind of being really self-conscious, whereas out here, you’re outside; if you’re bored, you just go and play. There’s no phones, there’s no Instagram, no Facebook,” he says.
“Mentally, that is really healthy. Obviously, though, they go through a lot of physical hardship because all the children work in whatever family business they have. You’d just hope they’ll make gains in some ways, that they won’t lose that positivity that they have, and that resilience that they have.
“I’ll be hoping to bring a more positive frame of mind to not just the hurling, but to my life in general. At home, there’s so much going on, it’s awful easy for us to get caught up in thinking about things that aren’t really important, just because there’s so much going on, but I think it’ll definitely have an influence on me.
I’m not going to say I’ll be a completely different person, but it’ll hopefully have a positive influence on me and make me appreciate the basics, and the necessities a bit more.”
A few days later, six minutes of injury time had been played in the relegation play-off between Ahascragh-Fohenagh and Abbeyknockmoy, when Padraic’s teammate Barry Farragher scored a point to earn his side a dramatic reprieve — a second chance to stay senior. In the replay, Padraic’s younger brother Cathal stole the show, scoring a goal and 13 points in a five-point win that kept the club in the senior grade.
There’s always hurling...
LEFT: In Africa, 75pc of sight loss can be cured or even prevented. It is a slow learning curve, but from the very young to the very old, people are becoming more aware that diseases and illnesses which lead to blindness and greater suffering can be cured, so Yatta brought her five-year-old daughter Fatmata to Kenema Hospital for treatment FAR LEFT: The moment when Jamie Bockarie, who was blind for two years, regained her eyesight with the help of Sightsavers
ABOVE: As he travelled around Sierra Leone, Padraic Mannion gave tutorials on the game with the strange-looking stick, and even stranger-looking ball
LEFT: Padraic was struck by how children like Abdulai, who had his sight restored, had excellent hand-to-eye coordination OPPOSITE PAGE: James Momoh Konneh resisted pressure to go to a traditional healer when he began losing his sight. He had an operation on his eyes, and can now see his family clearly for the first time in years