National Geographic : 2016 Sep
52 national geographic • September 2016 replacing the cloudy natural lens with a clear artificial lens, do a post-op checkup. In devel- oping countries, treatment usually costs $15 to $100. Yet it reaches few who need it. Working with Namibia and other African gov- ernments and the nonprofit SEE International, Ndume is trying to fix this by running “cataract camps.” At these gatherings in underserved ar- eas, Ndume and other surgeons operate on up to 500 people a week. The United Nations last year recognized Ndume’s “service to humanity” with its inaugural Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. It’s a fitting honor for someone who 41 years ago, as a girl of 15, left a different kind of dark- ness when she fled the apartheid that the South African government had imposed on Namibia. With three friends she made her way to a camp in Angola run by the Namibian resistance move- ment SWAPO; survived a machine gun attack soon after she arrived; braved hippo-infested rivers and hostile helicopter patrols to find safe- ty in Zambia; told SWAPO she’d like to go to fashion school but was sent instead to medical school in Leipzig, Germany; and there married a countryman who soon after was killed in Ango- la. She bore their baby alone, finished her oph- thalmology training, rejoiced when Namibia won its independence in 1990, and returned for good in 1996 with her child, her education, and a determination to help those who could not see. MY FAVORITE NDUME STORY is about a woman she treated in the first year of the camps, at a clin- ic in Rundu, on Namibia’s northern border. More than 200 patients had signed up. Only 82 came, because so many were scared of having their eyes cut open. This woman was one of the brave ones. When Ndume held the camp at Rundu the next year, the same woman came in, exultant. She wanted to show the doctor her farm, which she’d been able to vastly expand: “I make so many crops now!” she told Ndume. But first she pulled Ndume by the hand to the clinic door. “I brought some of my friends,” the woman said. Outside were scores of people eager for the surgery after seeing what it did for others. “They talk of it like a miracle,” the woman said. Ndume treated hundreds that week. As her colleague Sven Obholzer put it, patients “walked in with their hands on the shoulders of the people in front of them and walked out on their own.” The UN honor was a great boost. Yet despite Ndume’s work and others’, some 20 million peo- ple worldwide remain blind from cataracts. Treat them all, and you’ve cured half of all blindness. Doing that, however, will require not just camps but also permanent infrastructure to make treat- ment routine. This is one reason former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo built a hospital in his Blindness is prevalent on the remote islands of India’s Sundarbans region. Determined to help, Asim Sil collects patients by boat and takes them to a hospital for surgery. Watch a video of his story at ngm.com/Sep2016.