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Pastoralists endure torturous journey with trachoma

02 October 2014, 10:59

Nairobi - Kenya's Francis Mumeita treasures the dawn of a new day, having endured torment since the age of 13 when a trachoma infection almost threw his childhood dreams into the abyss.

The 48-year-old cattle herder and traditional chief from Kajiado County had a close blush with blindness when trachoma attacked him and no respite was forthcoming.

Mumeita had scant knowledge of trachoma while growing up in the scenic plains of Kajiado where pastoralists mingle with wild animals with ease.

"Trachoma was a mystery to me until the disease struck while I was in primary school. I endured hardships and numerous visits to traditional healers were futile," Mumeita told Xinhua in an interview in Nairobi on Wednesday.

He was among trachoma victims who attended the launch of a government-led initiative to eliminate the disease on Wednesday. The son of illiterate pastoralists had cherished formal education since his childhood days.

"I knew it was only through education that I would be able to break the yoke of poverty that weighed heavily on my extended family. Unfortunately, trachoma darkened the horizons," Mumeita told policymakers and advocates.

He narrated how his elderly parents applied herbal concoctions in the trachoma infected eyes to no avail.

He managed to pursue his education through hardships and was crowned as a traditional chief after marrying his childhood flame.

In 2008, Mumeita got a reprieve from his long suffering when doctors from the Africa Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) conducted a surgery in his eyes.

"After the operation, my eyes healed within two months and am able to read without any hassle. The visits to hospitals are currently few," said Mumeita.

Though he retains scars on his left eye, Mumeita is unbowed as he pursues a vocation that is highly coveted in his pastoralist community.

He is among an estimated 7 million Kenyans suffering from trachoma in twelve endemic counties. Government officials regretted that trachoma has drained national coffers and worsened poverty in the arid and semi arid regions.

"Trachoma is endemic in 12 counties, some of which are already facing the burden of adverse climatic conditions, rampant poverty and bouts of insecurity," remarked the Cabinet Secretary for Health James Macharia.

He emphasized that innovative strategies and political goodwill are crucial to eliminate trachoma in the country.

Trachoma has become synonymous with pastoral communities while women and children have borne the brunt of the bacterial infection.

Kadoko Salaash, a 36 year old pastoralist and weaver from Kajiado County is textbook example of strength in adversity.

Salaash was infected by trachoma when she was eighteen years old and at some point, the disease made her immobile.

"Trachoma infected me when I was quite advanced in age yet my knowledge about its causes and cure was limited. My parents consulted witchdoctors who only offered herbal medicine that failed to work," Salaash said.

Like millions of girls in pastoral areas, Salaash found it hard to break through cultural barriers and pursue formal education. She recalled harsh reprimand from community elders when she joined primary school.

"Our role as girls was dictated by the community and it was impossible to defy established norms. My parents partially gave in to my persistent demands to acquire a basic education," Salaash told Xinhua.

Compared to her peers, Salaash is literate and has a basic understanding of modern dynamics.

"My little education exposed me to people who could assist me get a cure for trachoma. I learnt through friends that doctors from a charity organization were conducting a free eye clinic and I gave it a shot," Salaash said.

She had a free eye surgery that ended her eighteen years of misery with trachoma.

Also read: Police blamed for harassing pastoralists
"Currently, I am a goodwill ambassador for trachoma, having known its devastating impacts from an early age. My mission is to empower women and girls and save them from trachoma infection," Salaash said.

The Kenyan pastoralists have borne the brunt of trachoma infections due to poor hygiene, ignorance and limited access to modern healthcare facilities.

The CEO of Sightsavers Caroline Harper stressed that eliminating trachoma will boost livelihoods in the remote counties.

"Kenya should focus on interventions that work at the local level to buffer pastoral communities from diseases that cause blindness. Improved sanitation, supply of clean water and anti- biotics is a worthwhile investment," Harper said.

 - Xinhua

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