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Doors and Eyes Open Again - Part 1

There’s nothing quite like being waved into the diplomatic line when you enter a foreign country. Stepping off the red-eye flight from London into Nairobi airport I wasn’t sure if I was still dreaming but, as our queuing time vanished, I blinked the sleep dust away and remembered… this is Kenya.

Four of SeeKenya Trustees at Nairobi airport

As dawn broke and the illusion of being treated like an ambassador or UN delegate faded away (opening the line was more of a pragmatic move by Kenyan border officials) a beam of joy lit me up like a ray of sunshine - SeeKenya was finally in Kenya again!

Andy Heald (pictured far right) with the rest of the 2019 SeeKenya team

When I waved goodbye in 2019, at the end of an intense two-week clinic, I wondered if I would ever return to this land of welcoming people and nature’s wonders. I had left a piece of my heart here and its soil would never leave my shoes. A year later, mere days after our team returned from another clinic trip, the spread of Covid-19 closed the country’s doors behind them, and we wondered if we would ever run a clinic here again…

… So it was with great excitement that I and my fellow trustees stepped out into Nairobi’s misty dawn, ready to embrace whatever awaited us.

Our hopes for this visit were high, we had a lot to accomplish. Covid-19 and the societal restrictions it brought stopped us from helping people see better. And while we used our Zoom calls and socially distanced walks to devise new ways of improving personal eye-care in place over 4,000 miles away, no number of remote clinics or eye health adverts will help a child that’s losing their sight to undiagnosed glaucoma. While we paced and prayed for the pandemic to pass, potential patients waited in pain and suffering for nearly two and a half years for the eye care they desperately needed.

Our agenda for the week was crammed: spend time with our local partners and dear friends from Edfri International, praying and planning for the next pop-up clinic; review the permanent clinic building, to begin its redevelopment; seek out new partners to grow the clinical services we can offer, such as cataract operations. Oh yes, and follow-up in person with a few patients that we’ve been in contact with throughout the pandemic. But it didn’t turn out quite like that...

‘We can make our plans but the Lord determines our steps’. Proverbs 16:9. The older I get, the more real this statement seems to become – even more so when our trustees visit Kenya. As with every trip to the place that some of our team call their second home, our hosts went above and beyond to make us feel welcome, loved, valued, safe and catered for. Joining the congregation at Kambakia Christian Centre for their Sunday morning service is core to every trip and on our second day in country we were part of the church family once again. The reason for our presence was, as usual, explained – including the unexpected announcement that we would be running a full-service clinic!

I think, in our hearts, we all knew that this was a possibility – even a hope - but we’d not dreamed we’d be able to pull it off, in part because one reason for our trip was to assess how we would run a clinic with Covid-prevention measures in place. In June 2022, Kenya’s approach to handling the spread of the virus was still quite different to the UK. With (an estimated) less than 20% of the population vaccinated, we were obliged to wear masks in all public places, including the plane. So, in true SeeKenya style, our team of UK specialists and local partners rose to the occasion, and we established a pop-up clinic in the church building (rather than our usual location). Instead of seeing the 20 or so existing patients that we had envisaged, we treated over 100 people across two days, giving full examinations, prescribing medicine and making up nearly 100 pairs of glasses!

SeeKenya Trustee and Optometrist Maria providing an eye health check in her PPE

It was exhausting but worth it. As I watched our optometrists, all dolled up in their PPE finery, work non-stop, I saw the faces of each patient. Each face tells a different story, but they have a common theme. Hope. This area of Kenya still lacks the eye care that many people need; care that improves their quality of life, sometimes beyond recognition. I watched as people walked into our makeshift clinic, some in pain, many with assistance, each one suffering in some way but all with the hope that we could help them somehow. And I saw their faces change as they were examined and treated, their hopes becoming reality as their sight was improved in some way, be it with a pair of glasses, simple medication or something else. Pride can be a dangerous thing but my heart swelled with it as I watched our amazing team give people a new lease of life. Sorrow turned to joy. Frowns turned to smiles.

Violet receiving a new pair of glasses

Our desire is to help ‘open eyes to a better life’ and seeing SeeKenya’s small but effective operation in action again re-opened mine. Seeing the impact it has on people’s lives and the change that can bring to communities is astonishing. As the doors to the country are open once more so are the possibilities for the future. Running our pop-up clinics make a difference but they’re not enough. Helping people in person has reinforced the need for a permanent clinic here and the transformation that can bring to countless lives.

But, as our week unfolded, it wasn’t just the country’s doors that were opening up…

Written by Andy Heald - SeeKenya Trustee


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