Blind School Blog Pt 1: Visit to the blind school in Wa

October 2014
A few months ago I heard from a colleague that upon visiting the blind school in South Ghana he noticed that quite a few children could be helped by simple cataract surgery. There are only two blind schools in Ghana, one of them in Wa, “close” to Tamale. So I decided to organize a trip there to see if there are any children who could be helped by cataract surgery, glasses or by other means. I have been an ophthalmologist for 26 years and I have never been to a blind school, so this seemed like a good opportunity. I also thought of writing an article about the blind school to the Ghana medical journal. So this is the first of my blog series of visit to the Wa Methodist school for the blind.

I recruited my two favorite optometrists, Dr Collins and dr Nicholas, whom I have been working with for over a year. Wa is the regional capital of the most deprived region of Ghana, the Upper West. It has 100 000 inhabitants and only one traffic light. It is 5 hours from Tamale by private car, much longer with public transportation. We requested a car from the hospital, as I did not feel like sitting in a tro-tro with someone’s fat thigh pushing on my side for 7-8 hours. After about twenty phone-calls, e-mails, snail-mail and several personal visits, the transport has been approved. I turned out to be a large bus taking nursing students to the funeral of one of their classmates to a village close to Wa. It is a custom in Ghana that hundreds of people attend funerals and they go to extremes, might travel even for days for this. For Westerners it does not make sense but it is a way for them to show their compassion and solidarity. When I asked what happened to the young man who “passed” (Not “passed away” as we say it), the answer was the standard “he fell sick and died. “ I do not think I have ever heard any other explanation for death here, except if it was an accident.

The bus arrived to our hospital in Tamale around 1pm, about 1/3 full. I was happy we’ll have so much space, but it was too early to rejoice. We toured around Tamale for about 1 ½ more hours to collect more students until the bus was totally full. Then we waited another 30 min for just one person, sitting in the heat, sweating profusely. This would have been inconceivable in any Western country. The patience of Ghanaians is unbelievable. Finally we left and arrived a mere 6 hours later to Wa.

The blind school was established in 1958 by the Methodist Church but now is run mainly by the government. There are 220 students and 72 staff, half of them teachers. The students learn the same curriculum as the regular students, just in Braille, and in addition some receives vocational training, like basket weaving. The students speak many different languages, lots of them do not speak English and some have no common language with the staff. This, in addition to their mental and physical disabilities makes teaching them a real challenge. In spite of this, some still continue to university and became teachers themselves.

We got to our lodging and started work the next morning. We had preprinted sheets, and the teachers were filling in the names, the vision and the history. About 15 students filed into the room, were examined and sent out, then the next batch came. It was very interesting that most children walked around as if they were seeing perfectly well, even the totally blind ones. In the beginning the screening went slowly, but by early afternoon we improved on the system and speeded up. At the end of the first day we examined 150 students and identified 15 who could be helped.

At night we were returning from town when we saw a man walking home. We said hello and he told us he was one of the teachers there. From the way he moved I was pretty sure he was sighted but then I noticed he had dark glasses on. He said he was completely blind, his eyes were removed as a child. He attended this school and later he returned as a teacher of math and moral studies. We asked him how he could get around being blind, he laughed and said he just knew the place. When we got near to his house, he turned and walked home. He could hear his radio and that is how he knew where to turn. Later I left our lodging to take some leftover food to the fridge of the main building, which was about 3 min walk, and I got totally lost as the dark was disorienting even that I had a light. I felt like an idiot and was hoping I would not need to ask a blind person for directions.  (Finally I found my way.)

The next day we continued the screening and examined another 70 students, 5 of whom could be helped. About ¼th of the students were completely blind, the rest of them partially sighted. About half were born blind, the others lost their sight in childhood. We saw all kinds of amazing pathology – genetic diseases, accidents, eye perforations from measles, all kinds of cataracts and botched surgeries, albinos, etc. Probably the sight of about half of the children could have been saved in the Western world.

The children in the blind school were extremely well behaved, calm and cooperative. They seemed to be happy and satisfied, almost serene. According to the teachers, they do not fight. They were walking around the campus as if they were sighted, the partially sighted ones holding the hand of the totally blind. The teachers of the blind school seemed dedicated and they knew all the children personally. They were mainly middle-aged women and they complained a bit about the lack of resources and difficult working environment. I asked them why they do not try to solicit help from the Western World, or even from Ghana, but then I remembered that they are computer illiterate and inundated with work. I tried to get the e-mail or even phone number of some staff who are young, motivated and have e-mail, thinking that I’d try to link them up with a Western organization, but all I got was two names and a promise that they’d text it to me later. It was a maddening thought to remember all what we spend on in the Western world, and how much good a little money could do here….. I have these thoughts constantly since I moved here but I do not voice them any more.

We asked the teachers if the families come and visit, and they said no, never, not any of them. The reason they gave was mainly poverty, and also that “the families do not want trouble”. During vacation some children stay behind in the blind school as they have no money for the fare to return to their village.

Founder of the Blind school in Wa.
Benjamin Kwaku Awumee, founder and first Headmaster of the Wa Methodist School for the Blind.

After we finished work we asked to see the lunchroom, the sleeping quarters and the classrooms of the school. One of the large halls burned down a few months ago so they were using the same hall for lunch and assemblies. A bell signaled the time for lunch, but the students were already gathering in front of the hall about 10 minutes early, even though they did not have watches. Inside there were simple wooden tables and benches, and a blind girl was carrying a bench nearly hitting a few others, not noticing it was broken. There were metal dishes and plates, and the children were served food by their “house mothers”. These ladies take care of all tasks a mother usually has, and there were 5 for the 220 students in the whole blind school. They must be exceptional women. The children got rice and an egg. They hardly ever eat meet and never fruit, as these are too expensive. The scene reminded me of a prison canteen, though the students were calm and patient. There was a brief silence as they stood up and prayed before the meal. It was an uplifting moment and even that I am not a sentimental person, it was extremely difficult to resist the urge to cry. I was mortified by the thought that they would notice and would think I feel sorry for them. A few seconds later I remembered they would not see it anyway.