Reader's Digest, March 2008 PDF Print E-mail

Seeing the Kalahari

Reaching out to the people of the desert was an eye-opener for this couple.

By Roxanne Reid


During a trip to the Kalahari in September 2006, we started talking to people about how we could help the local communities. Our investigations revealed that there had been no eye clinics in the area for nearly a decade.

As an optometrist for 28 years, Keith had previously been involved in clinics for underprivileged communities on the Cape Flats and knew only too well what a difference free eye care could make to people’s lives. And there we had our inspiration. 



 Christine du Plessis, People & Conservation Officer at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, knows the surrounding communities, so we asked her to identify some of the villages in need. With her help, we began a flurry of phone calls that would set up a week of clinics in the area: three days at Askham and one at Andriesvale – both about 200 kilometres north of Upington – and another in the tiny hamlet of Welkom some 70 kilometres further north. We also contacted the headmasters of two primary schools in our target areas – JJ Adams Primary School at Askham and Welkom School.


Although these weren’t the only rural communities in need, they were the most easily accessible, though “easy” is a relative term in the Kalahari. The plan was to use them as a starting point and to return later to other communities such as Groot Mier, Klein Mier and Philandersbron, even Rietfontein on the border with Namibia.

I’m a writer, not an optometrist, so my job would be mainly as administrator and record keeper, as well as to help people choose frames that fitted them properly. Keith also taught me how to screen children’s vision so I could help him at the school clinics. All this gave me a chance to chat to the patients and to learn about the difficulties of living so far from facilities we usually take for granted.

Soon we had persuaded Ebony Optical to supply spectacle frames and Hoya Hill Optics to supply lenses – all at no cost to the patients. We’d found a locum to look after Keith’s practice in Cape Town and excitedly packed our Land Rover with all the equipment we needed. Then in April 2007 we set off on a round trip of 2400 kilometres to the middle of nowhere, a place we’d come to think of as our spiritual “home”, to help some of the Kalahari’s people to see clearly again.

Many older folk needed reading glasses. We also helped a 90-year-old man who had had a cataract operation ten years earlier, but the glasses he'd been given were useless. With his new lenses, everything came into focus again and a bright smile lit up his face.

Such small triumphs were a regular part of our clinics. Some patients had to wait in the desert heat for many hours to be seen, but they weren’t impatient. They sat in the shade and the sand, chatting to friends and neighbours, and the days were rich with laughing and teasing.

A sense of community was an essential part of the process of choosing frames too. “How does this one look?” a woman turned to ask her friends, sporting a frame that was the height of style in urban Cape Town. They shook their heads, eager and generous with their fashion advice. “Nuh-uh, rather try that lekker fancy gold one . . . Ja, now you look ve-ery clever.”

The only permanent clinic in the area is the tin-roofed one at Askham from which Sister Gladys Britz travels to the outlying communities. She’s a gentle woman with the enormous responsibility of running one clinic and visiting four more on a regular basis. These clinics cater for more than 2 500 people in the area. She may travel up to 100 kilometres along rough gravel roads to reach a weekly clinic in a schoolroom or a dilapidated old army tent under a camelthorn tree.

“There are always lots of patients needing my care. They might be pregnant, or have diabetes, high blood pressure or infections,” she says. There are so many of them that sometimes she will begin the long journey home only as night is closing in. The day we were at Andriesvale, she was called away on an emergency and her patients would have to wait another week for her to return.

Such uncomplaining acceptance is not uncommon in these parts. When we reached Welkom one sizzling afternoon, things were strangely quiet at the tiny school that had promised to clear out a classroom for us to set up our temporary clinic. A spot of miscommunication meant that they had expected us earlier in the day and when we didn’t come the patients all simply went home again. But once word got around that the “eye doctor” had arrived it took just ten minutes for them to gather again.

It is at Welkom’s primary school that Zelda Titus is a trainee kindergarten teacher. Determined to succeed despite the odds stacked against her, she had broken her glasses nearly four months earlier. “I’m really battling to see anything without them,” she admitted. In fact, her vision was so poor that reading a book – standard behaviour for students and teachers – was virtually impossible.

Not surprisingly, she was suffering badly from eyestrain and headaches, but she soldiered on. “I can’t afford new glasses or the taxi fare to take me to Upington to get them,” she said. When she heard that replacement spectacles would arrive on her doorstep at no cost to her – we would return to the Kalahari to deliver them – a grateful smile fluttered across her face. “Thank you so much for what you are doing for us,” she said.

When it came to screening children at the two schools in the area, I pitched in as well in order to move things along more quickly. If I suspected a problem – in other words, if children didn’t seem to be able to read from the eye chart what they should be able to – I passed them on to Keith to be examined more thoroughly.

Whether they were quietly polite or rambunctious, we enjoyed our time with them, even if we were all melting in the desert heat and some 14- and 15-year-olds still weren’t too sure of their alphabet. Later, when we chatted to a 12-year-old who sold us a handmade necklace at a roadside craft stall along the dirt road to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, we discovered at least one possible reason why. She told us she was in Grade Five at one of the schools we’d visited, but admitted that she hadn’t been to school for a while.

Teacher Christina Beukes shed light on another possible reason when she talked about some of the difficulties these out-of-the-way schools experience. “Once a storm came and blew the roof off a school where I was working and the place was flooded,” she said. “All the books were lost or destroyed and it took many long months to get them replaced.”

By the time we set up at the second school at Welkom later in the week, we used the illiterate E-chart from the start to avoid confusion over whether the problem lay with a child’s vision or literacy. No need for knowing A, B or C, just lots of Es pointing up, down or sideways. Soon things were humming along nicely, helped by the warm and friendly Betty Cloete, one of the school moms, who kept the kids in line and whispered hints about those who were struggling with their schoolwork.

Many of the youngsters at this school had irregular astigmatism, which leads to distorted vision that even spectacles may not be able to correct. The prime suspect is the drinking water that comes from a borehole in the area. Many of the settlement’s inhabitants also have brown, rotten teeth, and this seems to confirm an underlying problem. Sadly, it’s unlikely to find a solution in a water-scarce, impoverished area.

In five days we saw 400 children and more than 200 of their parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. We plan to return in April 2008 to service other rural communities we didn’t reach last year.  

Reader’s Digest, March 2008



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