Tanzania is a beautiful country indeed. There are gorgeous salt lakes, Lake Victoria at the source of the Nile, the incredible Great Rift Valley, an active volcano, and Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and one of the most accessible mountaintops in the world.
It’s a shame then that so many Tanzanians who struggle to afford basic eye care just can’t see any of it.
That’s where a team of Canadian optometrists stepped in late last year. Wife and husband duo Drs. Kim Bugera and Peter Laansoo has been taking such trips all over the world ever since they graduated two decades ago. Co-ordinated through Calgary-based charity Canadian Vision Care, they bring their tools, some professional colleagues, some volunteers, and more eyeglasses than you’ve ever seen in your life outside of a retail store.
“We recognized that we’re very lucky in Canada. We came from great families with good opportunities. We said right from day one that we wanted to give back,” Bugera said.
They had their very first adventure in Dominica in 1999 and they’ve aspired to do one every year ever since. Either separately or together, they’ve been to the Philippines, Kenya, “all over the Caribbean,” Peru, and Guyana, among other destinations.
“We’ve done lots of trips. We did the Kenya trip two years ago and that really hit home with us. There was such a huge need there. We went into the Maasai communities. None of the children at the schools that we went to see had ever had their eyes examined. In any population, at least 14 per cent of kids need glasses. Obviously, it’s critical for learning. You can’t have a good education if you can’t see. That’s part and parcel of why we do the trips.”
Speaking of education, they took their children Keira, 10, and Jackson, 12, out of school for a few weeks so that they could help out. After all, there are just some things that you can’t learn in a classroom.
“We made the decision to go back to Africa to show them how lucky they were,” Bugera said.
They travelled mostly with donated glasses through the Lions Recycle for Sight program that also collects secondhand hearing aids. In its existence, it has helped recycle nearly five million pairs of eyeglasses back into circulation and with people who desperately need them. There are eight such recycling receptacles in St. Albert, all of which can be found at the Canadian Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center’s website at www.clerc.ca.
They also brought along several hundred pairs of sunglasses that were donated by a company in Ontario.
A field trip takes planning
Through their clinics at Capital Vision Care, Bugera and Laansoo collected their patients’ donated secondhand eyeglasses. They had a group of students from Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Sir George Simpson schools prepare them first. They taught them how to read the glasses, clean them, change the screws and temples, and otherwise do whatever was needed to make them satisfactory to be given to someone else.
“They did that for half an afternoon. It was just so amazing to see how excited they were about it to be involved in the volunteering process, to be a part of it,” she said. “My children understood more about what was going to happen on the trip so they could help more. We didn’t want them to just be around for the ride. We wanted them to actually learn about giving back.”
She added that a lot of kids brought their own glasses, which they tried to track once in Tanzania.
“It gets kind of chaotic when you get there so we never did. It was a good idea but it didn’t happen. That’s just how it started: a way to get the kids understanding what the process was.”
Some of those kids became part of the Tanzania expedition of 17 people. They became fast friends with each other and with those in the eastern African country.
“They were playing duck-duck-goose with the elementary kids. We said to them, ‘You know, they speak Kiswahili.’”
It wasn’t all fun and games though. They were there to work too. Jackson and Keira, along with the three others, were tasked with duties like guiding people through the triage-style clinics, going through the acuity test, to the ocular health and then to the dispensary and referral areas.
“It was cool for my children. They would guide the patients so that the flow would go well. They helped us in finding glasses. They learned how to adjust the glasses. They did a really good job of it – all of them.”
The Tanzanian patients were given the option of accepting secondhand glasses with a closely matched prescription immediately or waiting for new ones to be made. For most, the choice was easy.
“A lot of times they would be really ecstatic right at that moment to get a pair of eyes where they could see. They’d be like, ‘I don’t want to wait. I’m so happy.’ We’d see them wearing them around the village.”
Keira Laansoo recounted some of her experiences on a blog called Vision Trip 2017, which can be found at cvcafrica.wordpress.com. On Dec. 14, she wrote about the last day of clinics, which took place on Chole Island. The team saw 141 people, eight of whom were albinos.
“Albinos are not very common in North America, but there are 20, on an island with a population of 1,000. My job was putting eye drops in, which was sad, because all the kids started crying. I also used the autorefractor, which is a machine that roughly estimates a person’s prescription, and makes it easier for the doctors to check their prescription. At the end of the day I fit, and gave away sunglasses, and reading glasses. Soon people started flocking in and asking for sunglasses, and I mean hundreds of people! I’m pretty sure some people came back twice, or even three times, but we were trying to get rid of sunglasses, so they all got what they wanted. It was a pretty good last day of clinic,” Keira said on the blog.
Bugera explained that Tanzania has a higher incidence of albinism than the rest of the world. That bit of trivia means big trouble for those who don’t have full pigmentation in their skin and eyes. It is associated with a lot of vision defects.
“The trouble is that, one, they’re in a really sunny location and they have significant eye problems related to being albinos,” Bugera continued. “None of them really have access to care. There’s some odd beliefs where sometimes they will actually go after albino kids and cut off their limbs. It’s almost like a witchcraft thing where they believe that they have power. A lot of them live in hiding. To get out into the actual public to even be seen is pretty tough. We saw a lot of these kids.”
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling because you see them and they’re a -8 or a -12. That’s high. They’re not seeing much past the tip of their nose. Then you put the eyeglasses on and they can see the eye chart behind you and they’re stunned. It’s a pretty amazing thing when you haven’t seen your whole life and then suddenly you can. We had a lot of those kinds of cases where you’re just so overwhelmed with emotion because you know how much good you’re doing because they’re not going to be able to get that care if someone doesn’t come and actually provide it. It was pretty cool.”
A lot of the patients needed sunglasses as well because they live so close to the equator but don’t wear hats. You can’t change their culture but if you can at least get them wearing sunglasses with UV protection then you can still fight the problem.
A lot of the people had severely sun-damaged eyes, Bugera said, and there was nothing that they could do about it.
“They’re already permanently damaged but at least if we can protect them from the sun, it gets rid of some of their pain and discomfort and prevents further damage and injury.”
Reading glasses is a big thing as well because it’s often difficult for people to find them. The problem is amplified for Maasai women, especially the ones who have been widowed. In their culture, if their spouse dies, they can’t own property, leaving them essentially with nothing. All that they can do to survive is to find a way of making money.
“The only way they can really make a go of it is to do beading and sell their beading. Anybody over 40 needs reading glasses to see up close so if they don’t have that it’s incredibly hard for them to make any kind of living. Just giving someone a pair of reading glasses just to do basic work… is a pretty amazing thing and they’re not very expensive.”
Priorities in focus
The Canadian Vision Care team’s main objective was to help kids but that was just the starting point.
“We try to see mostly kids but we’ll see anyone who needs help,” Bugera said.
The team attended to approximately 1,300 people over a total of six clinic days. One day, they saw 700 kids come through but they didn’t come first.
“It was crazy. We try to do 80 per cent kids and 20 per cent adults but it doesn’t always work out that way. That was a bit of an issue on this project because, culturally in Africa, seniors are respected. To put a child in front of a senior can actually be offensive. We just had to see the adults first and then see the kids even though our focus is to see as many kids as we can. If we can get them seeing for their education then that’s just better for everybody.”
The team dealt with the full range of eye prescriptions and a wide variety of other problems including glaucoma and trachoma (a very infectious eye disease), and made many referrals for surgeries for such things as cataracts and retinal problems.
There was also the problems caused by the thorny acacia trees. Bugera said that the Maasai suffer these traumatic wounds when they run into the bush and get stuck in their eyes. The injured included babies who are frequently carried on their mother’s backs.
Some things can’t be changed but they left behind as much knowledge as they could. At one point, they stayed at a convent where one of the sisters was studying optometry.
“We did some teaching for her, which was really great so she can continue to help her own people. She actually made the glasses there that we didn’t have with us, so it helped their country as well. I love those trips a lot better than when we just come in and do the eye exams. You need to do both.”
Drs. Bugera and Laansoo are working toward another trip to Malawi in November and then Cambodia in 2019. Even while they’re looking ahead, they are still reflecting on the recent past success that they can even see in their own children. They were so fantastically helpful in Tanzania, she said, suggesting that some days they even did better than their parents.
“We went right before Christmas. What I appreciated was that when they came back, they sure didn’t have as much emphasis on presents and commercial things. It was more about ‘Wow, we’re really lucky where we are.’ They definitely want to do it again. We have another one planned and we’re not taking them because it’s expensive. They’re pretty miffed that they’re not going with us,” Bugera said.