|Posted on:||Tuesday, 2nd March, 2021|
David Taylor is Head of Partnerships and Philanthropy at CBM UK. He travelled to Zimbabwe in 2018, to see CBM’s sight-saving work first hand – and there he met an amazing woman called Violet. This is the story of their encounter.
What is your most valuable possession? I often embarrass my family, not intentionally you understand. It’s worse than that, they get embarrassed by just who I am and the way I sometimes behave! Out of lockdown, just before each Christmas we visit Harrods. It’s become a bit of a tradition. In recent years I have introduced a game: ‘Guess The Price.’ In short, it involves entering Graff Diamonds, a store within the store and asking the staff to help us identify the largest, most expensive, sparkling piece on display. (The staff humour me now, remembering my annual visit, they are ready for the game, once I have reassembled the rest of the family who have scattered across the Ground Floor as they know what is coming). The game never disappoints. Three years ago the Chief Member of Staff kindly put on white gloves, disconnected the cabinet’s alarm system, before placing a tiara on the head of my youngest daughter. Her neck muscles visibly stiffened as she was told that she had £6.2 million worth of jewellery sitting on her shoulders!
Some of the most precious gems in the world are to be found in Southern Africa (sadly, as we know, those that mine them are poorly rewarded and only a tiny percentage of the profits are filtered into the local economy). It was in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe to be precise, just one month before that tiara experience in Harrods that I met an even more beautiful diamond. 87-year-old Violet. As is the case with most gems at source, the beauty can easily be missed, at least at first glance. In Violet’s case, her life has been covered by the ‘soil’ of poverty, and the daily grind to carve out an existence in a country that has experienced acute political and societal upheaval and one that has had its economic heart ripped out. Throw on more muddy layers of extraordinary personal loss (Violet has lost 11 of her 14 children in adulthood) and Violet’s story of resilience becomes even more dazzling.
I met Violet one day after her second cataract surgery at Norton Eye Hospital, west of Harare. I had been transported in a 4x4, having been picked up from my hotel that morning. Violet’s journey to that shady spot where we talked, had been somewhat different!
“Around 5 years ago my sight in both eyes started to get bad, quite suddenly. It got so bad that I couldn’t look after the goat, do chores around the house, collect water from the village well, care for my grandchildren who totally depend on me. I became very down. My role in life – the only one I had ever known, caring – was taken away from me. I wasn’t just losing my sight, I was losing my identity! I had to learn to allow others, friends from my church, to help me. I found that hard, but worst of all I couldn’t see the faces of my grandchildren.”
For four years, Violet’s deteriorating eyesight meant she depended on others to help. Until, one day a person in the village told her about the treatment available at Norton. Great news! Or so you might think. But this is where the stranglehold of poverty, especially upon the lives of the most vulnerable, tightens its grip. How on earth was Violet going to make the 6 hour journey? Who was going to bring the small amount of income into the home while she was gone? Who was going to be there, care for, love her grandchildren while she was away? And even if she could arrange care, how was she going to afford the bus journey? Having to address such obstacles is commonplace for millions of people trapped in the cycle of poverty and disability, even when solutions appear to be within reach.
Thankfully some friends rallied round, and plans were made for Violet to be examined and receive treatment at CBM Partner hospital, Norton Eye Hospital.
It didn’t take long for Dr Ute and her staff to identify the issue – cataracts in both eyes. The right eye was worse, and was operated on the following day with a strong recommendation that Violet should return within the year to have surgery on the left eye.
Four years later (yes, four years!), Violet and I are meeting for the first time, waiting in a queue for a bandage over her left eye to be removed. I naively ask her why it has taken her so long to come back for surgery on her other eye. Her answer is understandable, but very difficult to hear.
“When I could see more clearly in my right eye, I somehow managed to resume my duties and responsibilities back home and in the village. My grandchildren needed me. I knew I needed surgery, but I couldn’t afford the time or the money to come back. I am an old woman, the needs of my grandchildren are more important. Without me there would no money. Without money, they wouldn’t eat. It was only when l I could no longer see anything out of my left eye, I realised that for all our sakes I needed to come back. Of course I realised that my sight was important, but it wasn’t until I lost it, I realised how precious it was, not only to me but to those whom I love.”
I sat there, having heard what Violet had just said to me. Trying to imagine the implications of what she had said. Forcing myself to go to a place in my imagination, where it was Violet who was asking the questions and me that had felt that I was putting aside the needs of my children to meet my own. As I did so – and I’m not ashamed to admit it – tears began to run down my face. Nobody noticed, except for Violet. She took my hand into hers and as Forrest Gump would say, “and that’s all I have to say about that.”
Then it was Violet’s turn! With care but with little ceremony the bandage over Violet’s left eye was removed. First momentary silence….then
“Oh my, oh my! I can see, I can see! Praise God. Thank you! Do you hear me? I can see!”
Later, after watching a spontaneous, celebratory dance by Violet she takes me again by the hand and looks at me, this time with both eyes.
“Please say thank you to the people who have made this possible. May God bless them, for giving me my sight back.”
On the train back from our visit to London and our family game at Harrods, I stare out of the window and reflect on those two experiences, and I think to myself as beautiful as my daughter looked, you can keep all the tiaras and diamonds in the world, there can’t be many things in life more precious than giving someone their sight back.
You can help restore sight and Light up Lives for more people like Violet living in the world’s poorest communities. Until 20th May 2021, every £1 you donate to CBM’s Light up Lives appeal will be DOUBLED by the UK government. Find out more.
Together we can bring eye health services closer to people living in rural communities and ensure no one is living needlessly blind.