Enniscorthy optician John Paul Moran and his fiancee Aine Quinn recently travelled to Kenya and saw Third World problems up close.
TALK ABOUT a busman's holiday! When optician John Paul Moran turns up for work in Enniscorthy, he can expect to see maybe 20 customers in the back room of the shop at Market Square in the course of a day. On tour in Kenya recently, the Blessington man gazed into at least 180 pairs of eyes daily and did so without complaint.
The story of how John Paul and his fiancée Aine Quinn ended up putting in some cruelly long shifts in rural East Africa dates back to an encounter between his Carlow based boss Bernard Jennings and a shrewd and remarkable woman called Goretti Fortune. A nun with the Mercy order, she called in to have her vision checked.
As well as looking at the test cards, she saw an opportunity to bring professional assistance to her parishioners in Kenya. She persuaded Bernard to come calling, with all his optometrist paraphernalia and expertise. She lined up the local people to be tested and he made the trip several years in a row.
However, the senior man decided that the 2012 expedition should be manned by his subordinate. Young John Paul found himself fund raising to support the venture, which was undertaken with Miriam Kilgarriff from Tuam, a veteran of such trips and with Aine. The party was completed by businessman Ian Pierce and travel journalist Brendan Harding.
They flew via Amsterdam to Nairobi where the contrast between First and Third Worlds was quickly apparent. John Paul, found himself an obvious target for beggars and hustlers of ain a city ringed by some of the most notorious shanty towns in the world: 'People are coming up to you all the time because your are white – they presume you have money. It is never ending – you cannot go for a leisurely walk.'
This first taste of an Africa with slums on one hand and security gates five-star hotels on the other came something of a shock to the Wicklow man. The itinerary laid on for the Irish party ensured that the contrast was underlined. It is a long way from the refinements of Blessington to the squalor of an AIDS clinic in one of the poorer quarters of a city with at least five million inhabitants.
At that rate, the five hour drive to Mutomo came as something of a relief, two hours of travel on tarmac followed by three hours of bouncing around on dirt track bringing eye squad deep into Kenya's Eastern Province. They arrived in an area that has been affected by the recent shortage of rain in the region.
'It is arid enough,' recalls John Paul with his talent for under-statement. 'Everywhere you look is red rock.' The market town of Mutomo with its scattering of shops and couple of bars provided a base much less frenetic than Nairobi. Billeted in the nuns' hostel at the Mercy hospital, they were quickly put to work tackling the long queues of patients arranged by Sister Goretti and her colleagues.
For three days, the three opticians operated flat out, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., or however long the daylight permitted. Then they repeated the dose at outlying clinics – one day in Ikutha, the next in Ikamba. The word had been put out at Masses that the Irish were coming and the response was impressive. Everything was laid on to ensure that no minute of the working days was wasted, with interpreters on hand to translate between English and Swahili.
'Kenyan eyes are the same as Irish eyes,' says John Paul Moran, before adding that eye care in East Africa, of necessity, comes in a more basic package. Diagnosing slight cataracts, for example, is a waste of time because there is no prospect of follow-up care to deal with such problems. Advice on basic care such as washing in sterilised, clean boiled water is sometimes a waste of time in a land troubled by drought. Poverty is endemic.
'They live hand to mouth. The general population does not have money – if you have a donkey, you are considered wealthy because the donkey will carry your water for you,' muses John Paul. 'They are lovely quiet people.' He has no illusion about the impact of the clinics he participated in: 'AIDS is the big problem. Survival is the problem. Getting your eyes tested is down the line.'
Nevertheless, he believes that the 250 pairs of reading glasses dispensed on the spot to long sighted clients found good homes.
The 200 short sighted customers had slightly longer to wait while their prescriptions were made up by a professional colleague in Nairobi.
Such spectacles can change the lives of those who are offered the gift of proper vision.
'I will be going back,' vows John Paul, who found the going tough but worthwhile. 'You hope that you are doing some good. Kenya is a beautiful country. The scenery around the Rift Valley would take your breath away.'
He and Aine – also a qualified optometrist, though now working as a primary teacher in Kilmacanogue – hope to marry next year. So, they have 2014 earmarked for a return visit.