Improved Eyesight Gives Patients a New Lease on Life in Ruhiira / by Natalia Mroz

Published in: Millennium Villages Project

One day in July, 2011, Mzee Rwebituzi Stephen, an 82 year old farmer from Ruhiira Millennium Village in Uganda, opened his eyes and was surprised to be able to see. He had been completely blind for four years.

“I could not move [more than] a few steps by myself,” remembers Mzee Rwebituzi. “My grandson would drag me, holding onto a stick. I would recognize people including my family members by voice. It started way back in the 1990’s when I had difficulties with reading. I managed to get reading glasses. The condition kept on worsening and later I failed to see absolutely. I was unable to move. I was unable to work in my gardens. It was a sad situation because I could not even see the faces of my grandchildren”.

Thanks to an annual eye care initiative launched in 2011 in Ruhiira by the Millennium Villages Project in partnership with the Tommy Hilfiger Foundation, villagers like Mzee Rwebituzi are able to regain their sight and their lives.

For Mzee Rwebituzi, a father of eight, the biggest benefit has been getting to finally see his many grandchildren.

“I was very happy with the services. I was able to see the faces of my family members. I resumed my work especially weeding my banana plantation and picking coffee seeds from my garden,” he says smiling.

Once a year, the sleepy health clinic of Nyakitunda Health centre in Ruhiira becomes a hive of activity with people coming from all over the district to receive care for eye defects. The atmosphere is festive, men and women arrive in their Sunday best and chat to neighbors and friends. Many carry walking sticks, having traveled up to 15 kilometers to get there.

“On an average day, some 100 patients visit the health center,” says Alex Kakama, Community Health Worker Manager at the Ruhiira Millennium Villages Project, “but on the 7th of June 2012, more than 350 people passed through its doors for an opportunity to have their eyes tested during the second annual eye care day. In 2011, a total of 850 people were treated in four dedicated locations.”

The yearly reduction in attendees is a good sign, says Kakama, since many people who were treated for the first time last year are now doing well.

The Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation provides funds for specialists, equipment, corrective glasses and medicines to be made available annually at four health centers in Ruhiira. Clinic staff are trained to be able to support eye treatment and diagnosis. In addition, all proceeds from the sale of Tommy Hilfiger Promise Collection sunglasses went toward supporting the initiative.

Previously, the closest facility providing eye care services was 60 kilometers away – beyond the reach of most patients, particularly the elderly who suffer most from eye problems and cannot walk that far across Ruhiira’s hilly terrain. Most of Ruhiira’s residents simply suffered in silence, their eyes slowly deteriorating alongside their capacity to perform even the simplest tasks.

“The most common eye problems include conjunctivitis, degenerative cataracts, corneal ulcers and scars and glaucoma. These are easily treatable problems, which can have debilitating consequences if left unchecked. During eye care day, people are able to receive treatment including reading glasses, eye drops for conjunctivitis and other ailments, and surgery.”

For serious problems patients are referred to Ruhaaro Hospital in Mbarara town, about 60 kilometers from Ruhiira.

Mr. Denis Byakatonda is one such patient. “My left eye was blind and squinted for more than 10 years, following a hit by a rubber string that suddenly broke while tying merchandise on the bicycle as I was getting ready to travel to the market,” explains Mr. Byakatonda, now 34 and a father of three, “It was very painful. It healed but I could not see.”

“When I heard about the eye care day I rode my bicycle to the health center where the general screening was taking place. I was among those whose eye condition required surgery. The MVP provided transport for us to Ruhaaro Hospital, and took care of the costs and up keep.”

Prior to the surgery, Mr. Byakatonda had suffered greatly. “I would put on shades to cover my face. It affected my sight and self-esteem having a blind, squinted eye. As a young man, I would not feel comfortable looking straight in peoples’ eyes when conversing. At times, I would feel pain and feel strained when seeing through strong sun shine.”

Mr. Byakatonda is now able to face the world without sunglasses and better conduct his work as a market vendor.