Some of us know cataracts from our grandparents. They see badly, then worse, and the assembled kinsfolk mumble something about a cataract self-pityingly. This creeping, gradual worsening of vision, the cataract, has a dramatic name for good reason.
As the cataract worsens it’s like looking through a glass which was full of water at first but where milk is slowly added. The water turns increasingly milky white until it’s completely opaque. In the beginning you have a perfectly clear glass (the natural lens of your eyes) through which you see clearly and which lets you look at the world in all its usual colours and contours. Then your eyesight turns cloudy. The more the glass fills with milk the more indistinct, unclear, what is happening in front of you becomes. You can only just make out vague outlines. Finally the glass fills up further with milk until you can’t see anything through it anymore. You can only see on one side and eventually the second eye also clouds over even more until you find yourself in complete darkness (these are the normal stages of the condition: first the one eye goes blind and then the second – in the case of a double cataract).
Then the sun stops rising for you altogether and, especially true if your home is in Africa, you will never see the unbelievable blue of the sky ever again in its endless splendour – it’s so magnificent there that it almost literally bowls inhabitants of the northern hemisphere over the first time they see it. You do not see the brown earth, nor the green or the brown-green of the barren steppe plants or the rich dark green of the rainforest; the bewildering variety of brightly-coloured printed fabrics, the red lips of the women and the glossy, glowing, bright mirrors of giant dark-brown eyes vanish. Your world is grey, it’s dark, it’s lost. Gone.
Most people contract cataracts in old age but they can also occur earlier in life, brought about by injury or infection, or the condition can be inherited. In the Western world, a complete clouding of the lens is very rare, the condition is usually recognised in its early stages and then corrected immediately with simple surgery, the most common surgical operation of all. If the cataract is treated in its early stages it poses no major problems. But because in poverty stricken regions all over the world, including Kenya, there are not enough ophthalmologists and the population is also insufficiently informed, cataracts go untreated and worsen in most cases. It eventually reaches its end stage, meaning total blindness. This is the fate of about 18 million people around the world. They have been completely blinded by cataracts.
These are numbers that hurt. The condition is comparatively simple to cure: cataracts can be removed with an operation that barely takes 15 minutes and does not cost more than 35 USD.