Rite to Site Expedition: Seeing is Believing

On expedition, trying to plot the details of your route on a small-print paper map in the low light of your canvas tent has you squinting and then reaching for your reading glasses. Sight is something we so take for granted: need a pair of readers – pop into a pharmacy, pick your strength on the eye chart, even choose the colour and a spectacle case – and Voila! You can see. But for millions around Africa, it’s not that easy. According to the World Health Organisation, 246 million people are estimated to have low vision worldwide and about 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries.

The Kingsley Holgate Foundation’s Rite to Sight campaign started more than a decade ago by Mashozi (Gill Holgate), supplies poor sighted people in remote areas with spectacles. To date, supported by 4x4MegaWorld, it has distributed over 130,000 pairs throughout Africa. So in keeping with using adventure to improve lives, we’ve just completed a dedicated ‘Rite to Sight’ Expedition through South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and to the lakeshore villages of Lake Tanganyika (Africa’s largest freshwater lake) in Tanzania; the aim being to improve the quality of sight and life for elderly people in remote communities.

“The instant gratitude from the Rite to Sight recipients and the immediate difference itmakes in their lives is heart-warming,” says Ross Holgate who leads all expedition logistics. “It’s all about improving people’s quality of life – allowing them to again weave a basket, thread a needle, do beadwork, bait a fishing hook, read a newspaper or book and see the numbers on a small cell phone screen.”

The expedition began in South Africa’s North West province, where, as part of a celebration of the Barokologadi community’s hand-over of 10,000ha of land to expand Madikwe Game Reserve and create more space for Madikwe’s thriving elephant herds, the expedition team distributed reading glasses to elderly residents.

It was an incredible humanitarian journey. From Madikwe, doing Rite to Sight work as we travelled, the Landies took us across Botswana into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip (where we were supported by Livingstone Camp), on to Barotseland and then north through Zambia following Africa’s Great Rift Valley to drop down to the shores of the longest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. Our Rite to Sight partners on the lake were Chris and Louise Horsfall, the delightful owners of Lake Shore Lodge who have assisted us with humanitarian work in the past. Here, we exchanged Land Rover travel for the ‘Lake Shore Wanderer’, a 15m-long specially equipped motorised dhow, ideal for taking the Rite to Sight programme to remote lakeshore villages where there are no roads and little or no regular health services. With a Swahili-speaking team, the lake journey of almost 1,000Km had us travelling through wild storms and high winds, sleeping on board or camping on village beaches.

Going from village to village, it was a huge privilege to be able to improve the quality of lives for so many mostly elderly community residents. We conducted the Rite to Sight work under trees, next to fishing nets drying on the lakeshore or at a good anchorage, beneficiaries climbed on board. The dedication of our crew members for this work was inspiring; our skipper Captain Kapezi manoeuvred the ‘Wanderer’ into countless village anchorages, between rocky outcrops, onto sandy beaches and through reeded river mouths Nordryk did a great job of interpreting and even Hasani the cook pitched in to help. . The Mwenyekitis (village Chairmen) rallied round to assist with the recording of each person’s name, age and reading glass strength. It’s satisfying but demanding work – the level of concentration and patience needed for each person is intense. But what was special was the gratitude from the mostly elderly recipients who literally, after ten minutes or so of eye testing, could see clearly again to read, write, thread a needle, see numbers on their small cell phone screens, weave a net, basket or mat and bait a fishing hook.

A highlight of the journey was reaching the north turning point at the Livingstone Memorial in Ujiji. This ancient town was once a terminus for the horrific slave trade, from where tens of thousands of Africans were marched to Bagamoyo and Zanzibar on the east coast – a trade that Dr Livingstone despised, calling it, ‘The open sore of the world’. It was here that Henry Morton Stanley found him on 27 October 1871 and immortalised the words, ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’
The retired 68-year old curator Kassim Govola Mbingo was there to meet us. ‘Mr Kings-Ali Holgate!’ he exclaimed with a toothy grin below his Swahili fez. ‘1993 – I remember! You camped under the mango trees while on a journey in those red balloon boats on your way from Cape Town to Cairo. Look – the Visitor’s Book shows it.’ He pulled out a dusty old ledger and sure enough, there were all the names of the Cape to Cairo expedition members and the date: 2 August 1993.

There were already over 100 poor-sighted people waiting. And so, in this symbolic place, next to the Livingstone Memorial in the shade of the descendants of the original mango trees, we got to work. Elderly women dressed Swahili-style in colourful headscarves and kangas and men in traditional robes waited patiently for their turn to receive a pair of reading glasses – you can see the turbulent history of this region written in theirfaces. Papa Kassim and his colleague Calvin from the museum pitched in to help with translation. Each person was seated and asked their age – from which we deduct 35 and divide the answer by 10: that generally gives the starting eyeglass strength. Then onto the eye-tests: charts with different sized words and symbols, a Swahili newspaper, a needle and thread and cell phones are some of the tools we use. The change in the recipients is visible and instantaneous once the perfect spectacle strength is found.

It was a great moment: the polite dignity of the Rite to Sight recipients, their laughter and shy smiles of gratitude; we’ll always remember the gentleman who hadn’t been able to read a newspaper for three years and wandered off with our Swahili newspaper engrossed in a story, the old mamas who could thread a needle again and the many who longer need to screw up their eyes and hold their cell phones at arm’s length to try and read messages from their children and grandchildren. The hours flew by; to be doing Rite to Sight in such a historic place – the atmosphere and the deep appreciation – was incredibly humbling.

Back in the Landies and across into Zambia, a sandy track – the elephant grass taller than the Disco – took us to the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. All night we heard the roar of cascading water and in the morning, stood at the very lip of the Kalambo Falls, said to be the 2nd highest waterfall in Africa and more than twice the height of Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Victoria Falls. It’s a breathtaking sight – a spectacular jet of water plunging 221m into a thickly forested gorge and onto Lake Tanganyika. Local legend has it that many years ago, a young woman with her baby strapped to her back, threw herself over the Kalambo Falls rather than fall into the hands of advancing slave traders.

At the bustling, buzzing Zambian port of Mpulungu we said ‘Kwaheri’ and goodbye to the lake that’s been our home for several weeks. And so, in the knowledge that this dedicated Rite to Sight expedition has been a great success and with the Rite to Sight spectacle containers now empty, a mound of dirty clothes and a near-empty grub box, we headed south and home.

4×4 Mega World – we salute you; another great humanitarian expedition completed.

Siyabonga and Thanks.

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