I was blind, now I can see

All Star Padraic Man­nion wit­nesses mir­a­cles

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy by Thomas Triebel

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.”

Quiet rev­o­lu­tion

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.

Hor­rific dis­as­ter

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

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