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No money can pay for the joy of a blind person who can now see – Dr. Ndume

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No money can pay for the joy of a blind person who can now see – Dr. Ndume

Franck Kuwonu
Helena Ndume receiving the inaugural United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Helena Ndume, on the right, receiving the inaugural United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Dr. Helena Ndume, a Namibian ophtalmologist and Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, are the first ever winners of the United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. The prize is an honorary award presented once every five years to recognize two individuals (one female and one male) who have dedicated their lives to the service of humanity by promoting the purposes and principles of the UN while honouring and paying homage to Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life and legacy of reconciliation, political transition and social transformation. Bo Li and Franck Kuwonu of Africa Renewal spoke to Dr. Ndume on the eve of the award ceremony.

First of all, Africa Renewal would like to congratulate you for winning the Nelson Mandela Prize. Where were you and what were you doing when you heard the news? What was your first reaction?
Because of my busy schedule, I hardly read my emails every day. That Saturday I went to the salon to have my hair done. While there I asked for the Friday newspaper. They told me a client took the only copy that was available, so I read my emails instead. I looked at an email sent on Thursday. When I read the first three sentences, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Am I seeing right or not? I asked myself. I just stood up while my hair was still being dried but the hairdresser wanted me to wait. I said I couldn’t, I needed to step outside to read a message. I went numb and my legs could barely carry me. Should I believe this? Is this a joke? It was unbelievable. I then called my brother and my sister about the news but requested them to keep it to themselves while I confirmed it with SEE International.*

You and President Sampaio are the first winners of the Mandela Prize for your outstanding achievements and contributions to the service of humanity. How does it feel to be a trailblazer, a pioneer?
It’s very humbling, especially for me, I’m just an ordinary eye doctor. Winning this prize with someone who has been president of a country and who has done so much for his country and internationally is very, very humbling.

But you must have been aware that your name was put forward, so this shouldn’t have been a surprise? Or were you thinking there are better qualified people?
Exactly! I said to myself ‘there must be more qualified people’. I just couldn’t believe I would win. I even forgot my name was submitted for nomination.

You have been helping restore vision to thousands of men, women and children over the past two decades. How significant is this for you now that your work is being recognized?
It is very important in the sense that now people can see the work that we are doing, especially in our part of the world where blindness is accepted as a normal thing. It is accepted that when you are old, you go blind and that’s the end of it. When you visit a homestead and ask, ‘Who is here?’ the answer is always ‘there is no one, only the blind one’. For example, when I went for my first eye camp in the northern part of Namibia at the border with Angola, we screened more than 500 patients and booked 200 of them to be operated on. When we went back two weeks later, we only operated on 82 people because the rest of them had ran away.

Why did they run away?
They didn’t believe eye surgery was possible and were afraid we would further damage their eyes. The following day, when we took out the eye pads from the ones we had operated on and they could see again, they were jumping with joy. The message spread like bushfire into the villages. When we returned the following year, thousands came. I remember that day being so tired after screening a lot of patients and going outside to see how many more were still waiting. One old woman came running.  She lifted me up and said: ‘My daughter, I came for an operation on the second eye. I have even brought more women who are blind like me. Since the last operation on my one eye last year, I have been able to work on my land. I have tilled the fields. I harvested so much this year.’ These were very moving stories. And when you hear them, you want to keep on going.

People expect a practicing surgeon to make a living out of it, yet you do not charge any money for the more than 30,000 people you have operated on. How is that possible?
It is possible because my whole education was never paid for by my parents. There is no way my parents could have afforded to pay for my education because it was during the apartheid time and we had to flee the country and seek shelter in refugee camps in Zambia and Angola. And through SWAPO [South West African People''s Organisation, Namibia’s liberation movement], NGOs, the UN, the Commonwealth and African governments helped us to go to countries like The Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria to complete our education. People have helped us to be where we are today, that is why we have to give back to communities.

So being involved in charitable work is a way of giving back what you have received?
Exactly, that is why I even go to some of these countries to help in the fight against preventable blindness.

Growing up, you wanted to be a fashion designer. Becoming a doctor wasn’t really what you dreamed of. Eventually you were persuaded to change your mind. How did that happen?
Yes, I wanted to be a fashion designer, and the SWAPO secretary of education in our refugee camp said: ‘No way! We don’t need fashion designers in an independent Namibia. What are they going to do? We need doctors, and I want you to be a doctor.’

So they made the decision for you?
Yes. It was not even my second choice but they said ‘you have to go into medicine’, so that’s what I did. I went to Germany to do medicine then returned to an independent Namibia to do my internship. I wanted to do occupational medicine but one doctor in the refugee camp who had been like a mother to me during the struggle for liberation told me, ‘With these little hands, you must go for ophthalmology.’ So I went back to Germany and did ophthalmology, even though it was not really what I had wanted. And today when I look back I say: ‘Thank God I had these guiding angels that have enabled me to give back to the poor today’

It looks like you have always had well-intentioned and visionary people to guide you around.  Any regrets, nonetheless?
There’s nothing I regret. I just say thank God they were there to guide me in the right direction, sometimes when you are young you think you know it all. But at least now, I´m happy I listened, and that I ended up giving back to my people.

Recently you were in the Democratic Republic of Congo to operate on more than 100 patients in just five days. You were also expected to return to Namibia to operate on hundreds more. You’ve been described by one of your colleagues as “inexhaustible”. What keeps you going?
The joy of the patients keeps me going. No money in this world can pay for the joy of someone who had been blind for 10 years and then suddenly they start seeing again. I have tears of joy when I look at a patient who is seeing their six-month old baby for the first time whom she hadn’t seen since delivery because of cataracts.

These patients can only hear your voice before the surgery, but can see you after. What are some of the first things they tell you after their vision is restored?
They say ‘Oh my god! She is so small. We thought she was a big person. Is this the little one who is doing the wonders like Jesus used to do? This is just a miracle (laughs) Oh yeah I can see!’ The joy is amazing.

You brought international doctors and groups like SEE and Seeing Without Borders to Namibia. What is it like to collaborate with these partners?
It is very important to collaborate with different partners, because our governments can’t do it alone. For example, in countries like Namibia, you have the HIV/AIDS pandemic. You have to fight it at the same time also fighting malaria. It requires a lot of money. And then you have blindness prevention programmes. That’s why you need these partners to come in and help. My government has always been very supportive of the blindness prevention programme. The ministry of defence gives us the planes to transport medicine and equipment when we go into the rural areas. The ministry of health provides the medication, accommodation and transport for the patients. The nurses and other staff are also paid by the ministry of health, which runs the programme.

What, if anything, would change in your work and your life now that you have won this prize?
I don’t think there’s anything that is going to change. But I hope it will change in the way we get donations so we can expand our fight against preventable blindness.

* Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International is an NGO that connects and provides free sight-restoring surgeries in poor communities around the world. It is the organization that nominated Dr. Ndume for the Mandela prize.