For those who may be concerned, I am safe and well here in Mali. I will not write about the obvious today.
What I would like to write about, is a trip we made with Sightsavers International on Tuesday. We travelled to a village about an hour outside of Bamako to view the projects that Sightsavers were running there. The village has a high number of blind people on account of ‘river blindness’, a disease caused by a parasite carried by flies by the river, that causes infection and leads to visual impairments and blindness. Fortunately, Sightsavers embarked on a programme to reduce the number of flies by the river, whilst at the same time vaccinating villagers annually, which is cutting the incidence of river blindness in the village.
It is a common sight in downtown Bamako to witness blind individuals begging by the traffic lights. It is upsetting to witness them at the car window, mumbling in Bambara and holding out their hands to request money, eyes glowing white in the centre.
The gentleman from Sightsavers who showed us round explained that in the past, people travelled from the villages into Bamako to beg for food and money to survive. In the village, the NGO has establish an agricultural project that enables blind people and their families to grow crops for self-subsistence and to sell for cash. Each individual is given a small plot of land and equipment to farm with. They are taught farming methods that take their visual impairments into account. For example, sticks and ropes are used to space out rows and seeds correctly. Each family contributes 100CFA per month (about 11p) towards a maintenance fund that is used for up-keep of the site, although during times of hardship people can withdraw cash from the kitty and repay at a low interest rate. The site has a number of wells, including one that has been adapted for use for blind individuals and wheelchair users. If any of the blind farmers pass away at any time, their families may continue to farm the land to continue to provide for the family.
After visiting the agricultural site, we took a walk into the village where we viewed an adapted communal toilet that Sightsavers had put in place. Usually in Mali, village toilets here are holes in the ground over a cesspit. This meant that visually impaired individuals had to feel around on the ground to find the hole, which is clearly unhygienic. Sightsavers instead fitted raised toilet seats, similar to western toilets, which makes the toilet easier to find.
Finally, we visited a fisherman who had caught river-blindness and lost his sight. Sightsavers taught the gentleman techniques to enable him to continue to fish despite his blindness. We watched him weave his own nets, before he took us down to the river, about 150m away, using his white stick, and we watched him fish. He cast his net into the tranquil waters three or four times, and caught around five fish. He said that in the evening, the best time to fish, he usually catches 4-5kg a day!
Something that struck me during the village tour on Tuesday, was the apparent lack of wealth of the population in comparison to Bamako. People here were dirty, their clothes were dirty, worn and torn, and homes were built from mud. It was a poignant reminder that Mali is the 5th poorest country in the world, a country that is facing an extreme food shortage in the north according to OXFAM, which will lead to famine if not addressed immediately by the international community.
It was wonderful to see the Sightsavers project giving people back their independence and livelihoods. In the UK, we often see adverts by charities such as Sightsavers asking for donations. To come out here to a developing West African country and see exactly how donations are being spent lifted my spirits. Given that Sightsavers also fund child places at UMAV, I am reassured that it is an NGO who spends its supporters’ money in great ways. I so admire the work undertaken by the Sightsavers, that I would like to set-up a monthly payment to on my return.