Emmanuel Ntigirinzigo sits in pale blue medical overalls outside the operation room with an eye patch. His one eye is fixed on a sign that hangs on the wall opposite him. It reads “Chinese Medical Team”. A female doctor comes out to check him over. His eye now moves around the room, but he sees nothing. He has seen next-to-nothing from this eye for over 20 years.
In a few minutes, Emmanuel will undergo an eye operation that will change his life.
When we first met Emmanuel in the waiting room of Prince Régent Charles Hospital in Bujumbura, he was being led through the crowds of people by his younger brother. His left eye, which was this hazy pale blue, was constantly circling in its socket.
“I was almost 10 years old when I first got my eye problem,” he told me. “I was always scared that I may one day go completely blind.”
Blindness for Emmanuel, his wife and three young children, was an ever-increasing reality that they would have to deal with. His life had already been a struggle and Emmanuel worried about being able to provide for his family.
“I always had a dream of working as a driver but I couldn’t do it because of my blindness. The second thing is that I was not able to read the Bible,” Emmanuel said.
But in Emmanuel’s family, he was not alone in suffering from this eye problem. Emmanuel’s father, Shadrack Simbakwira, had also long-suffered from the disease. Cataracts is the principal cause of blindness in the world, and approximately half the cases in Africa are due to cataracts.
Shadrack’s issue had meant that for these last few years, he had been unable to do anything for himself instead, spending time in the family home alone. When we spoke to him, he told us of how Emmanuel first lost his sight.
“When Emmanuel was young, he went to play with other children and they kicked a ball in his face – that is when the eye problems began.”
The entire waiting room of Prince Régent Charles Hospital was filled with people with various eye issues. All had come because of The Brightness Campaign, a Chinese project launched in 2016 to treat people with cataract disease for free.
Those selected for further treatment underwent a number of check-ups to see how best the doctors could treat their issue. Emmanuel and his father were both selected for surgery. We caught up with him when he found out the news that he would be treated.
“After I heal from this disease I want to be able to read the Bible again, and be able to support my family financially,” he said.
Emmanuel and his brother accompanied his father to the operation room, and waited for him right outside the theatre. They were always a tight knit family, the problems they had long-faced had brought them closer.
After a successful surgery, it was now Emmanuel’s turn. He had agreed for us to follow him through the process.
A doctor gently held Emmanuel’s hand and led him through to the operation room. The room was incredibly bright. Two doctors and three nurses hovered around a chair, preparing equipment. Emmanuel was given one last dose of liquid anaesthetic to his eye, and was prepared for surgery.
He looked to us, our camera, before they covered his face with a hood. It would only take 10 minutes, but Emmanuel would leave that chair with his sight intact, his life transformed.
The lights dimmed as the curtains were closed, the doctor’s light fell onto Emmanuel’s eye now stretched wide open. For the first time, his eye remained still – and you could see the thick veins that led from the pupil to the back of his eye. The doctor carefully pulled a knife closer to his eye. This was an incredibly delicate situation, the fragility of a human eye being met with the sharp blade of a knife. Who knows what Emmanuel was thinking as his failing eye could just make out the blur of a blade falling closer and closer.
The doctor made an incision and proceeded to use his instruments to remove the cataracts.
After 10 minutes – it was over. In one day, Emmanuel’s sight would be completely restored. As he was led out of the operation room, we managed to speak to him.
“I am feeling so happy, because now I can see very well,” he told me. “I was a little scared when they were putting me in the hospital gown. But now, I am not scared anymore.”
Emmanuel was greeted by his brother, Salome, who told me: “In our family, the reason why we are now very happy is because we had two blind people and now we have none”
To say thank you to Emmanuel and his family for allowing us to film, we bought him something that he had long-wanted to read – The Bible.
As he sat on the front steps of the hospital to read his Bible, he looked like a different man.
“I will go back home to my family and tell them where I was and how it was. That I got lucky and met people who helped me.
“I want to thank the Chinese doctors, and ask them to keep doing these kind of operations. Because there are a lot of people from different areas of the country who were not lucky to get this opportunity this time.”
We had seen first hand the impact that these projects could have on people. Emmanuel, a man whose entire life had been a struggle, was now able to return home to his family and see his children clearly.
Thanks to the Brightness Campaign, he was able to do the things in his life that he had always wanted.