An eye surgeon in the rainforest of Congo

“The UWC movement is about more than just our students’ time at their school, college or programme. A UWC education is transformational and the start of a lifelong journey. Most alumni apply their commitment to UWC values throughout their lives, so that the benefits to the individual of a UWC education spread to whole communities. Almost 40,000 students have graduated from UWC since the first college, UWC Atlantic College was founded in 1962. UWC alumni work in a diverse range of fields– in medicine, education, international relations, nongovernmental organisations, business, politics, arts and the media – and they all share a determination to make a difference.”  (uwc.org)

On Wednesday we had the chance to meet an alumna from UWC Atlantic College, who touched and inspired all of us with her story: Joyce Samoutou-Wong. She is originally from Hong Kong and studied medicine in Edinburgh, now being a general practitioner with post-graduate degrees in family medicine, tropical medicine, obstetrics & gynaecology. During her two-years at Atlantic college, it was the time of the Bosnian conflict and the genocide in Rwanda. To her it was more than just newspaper reports, as friends and relatives of her co-years were affected. In her fifth year of university she made one of her childhood dreams come true and went to Africa, starting her adventure in Gabon.

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“And there I was, a selfish and spoiled brat who couldn’t iron a shirt and who freaked, out over snakes and spiders, in the middle of the African rainforest. I was an only child and didn’t like things to be difficult or inconvenient. I liked things fast and efficient. I loved my airconditioner.”, Joyce said.

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She told us about her struggle with herself, how her faith allowed her to overcome it and about the almost-movie like romantic encounter with her husband Henri: he only spoke a few words in English when they met, she didn’t speak much French. Henri is originally from Gabon. He is a superior ophthalmic technician with cataract surgical skills and was the director for the eye project in Gabon that was funded by Christian Blind Mission. He successfully performed thousands of consultations as well as over 1500 cataract operations. After only two weeks together they were separated for four years and only kept contact through letters before getting married after this time, as there were no computers available where he lived. Today, Joyce and Henri have three beautiful children together: aged 8, 5 and 3. They moved to Leeds in northern England, where they started working at a local hospital, though their hearts never left Africa. When they learned there wasn’t even one eye clinic in the Republic of Congo, they decided to establish New Sight, an eye centre with surgery service in Impfondo, capital of the Likouala Region in Congo.

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Congo’s Pioneer Christian Hospital is providing Joyce and her husband with a general clinic room to start with, but they had to ship their own equipment. The story of the hospital’s beginning was astonishing: shipping the the equipment worth hundreds of thousands dollars, that was mostly donated to them with, took more than 9 months. Joyce told us about all the unexpected things she encountered when traveling to Impfondo. Going there from Congo’s capital Brazzaville is only possible by two ways: airplane or a two week long ferry. Sometimes the airplanes do not fly for several weeks, resulting in her spending weeks in the capital. Impfondo itself is a very remote area, with electricity only twice a week. She told us anecdotes from her experiences with her children, who are filled with such a positivity that it touched us all: her son embracing the long stays in the capital Brazzaville through ice cream or her little daughter raising enough money for an eye operation. Joyce’s and her husband’s aim is to help the blind and visually impaired. She told us how four in five people in the world who are blind need not be blind because their causes of blindness are either preventable or treatable. Half of these blind people can see again through a simple cataract operation that costs as little as 50 pounds or just even receiving glasses.

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We got to know a few of her patients though pictures: a man that after 20 years of blindness was able to see his wife again, the first thing he said after the operation being “Oh, honey, you aged!”. Joyce’s experiences made us laugh, think, cry. Right now New Sight Congo is training local nurses and eyesurgeons, working hard at finding funding, equipment, medication and other consumable surgical items, optical aids and shipment. The aim is to expand the hospital, set up its own building and become an operating theatre for ophthalmology.

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It was absolutely inspiring and eye opening to hear Joyce’s story and how she dealt with the hardships she encountered. One message she surely gave us that even if often, the enormity of tasks might overwhelm us, and at least trying to do what seems impossible and not giving up is important.

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If you want to find out more about New Sight Congo, read about the history of the hospital and opportunities there, click here. Every donation would make a big difference!