“Where there’s still life, there’s still hope.” –Louis Zamperini
Whenever we face the surgeon’s knife, we are confronted with possibilities. It could be improved health or devastating consequences. This was made real to me recently during a mission to assess the state of learning in schools within Nairobi County.
On this day, I didn’t join in the communal transport. I drove directly to the host school instead, knowing I’d be needing to go straight to another engagement after the visit. I arrived early and parked in the school compound. The parking lot is separated from the front playground by a newly painted picket fence, so I had a pretty clear view of the children playing, bubbling with energy. Tiny ones, tall ones, boys and girls. In a few years, they will be the ones serving me at the restaurant, the airline, at the bank, in parliament, the judiciary. Hope of the Kenyan nation.
Simon & Garfunkel’s classic 1970 song, Bridge Over Troubled Water, was playing softly as the silver Toyota Sienna van parked a few metres away. Not long ago, I had been chatting with a friend, a sound engineer from Durban, South Africa, when he shared this song with me so I can appreciate the outsize drama of the track. I loved the lyrics.
I caught myself humming the tune as I stepped out of the car to join the team who had already disembarked from the van.
Our attention shifted to the right as we entered the playground. Close to the lone giant Muhugu tree next to the first block of classrooms was this beautiful chocolate brown girl, probably nine years old, her mid-night black hair plaited in curved cornrows. She held a cane in her right hand. Her teacher, with a flawless oval face and elevated arch-shaped eyebrows, walked by her side, giving instructions in low tone. The girl found her way with a quiet manner and graceful motions.
“Meet Olivia,” Miss Toshi, the instructor said in her calm demeanor.
“Hi Olivia,” our team leader greeted, rubbing her shoulders.
“Hi there,” Olivia’s quietly voice echoed back, with a cheer to boot.
We watched her get around the rugged terrain, down the stairs, round a bend, through the corridor.
“Permanent visual impairment,” Miss Toshi continued.
“Medical misadventure. A malfunctioning electrosurgical tool.”
“She was barely three months old when it happened,” the teacher explained.
We listened, in silence.
Our conversation with Olivia picked up again. Then I realized how much I had to scrap my mental thesaurus trying to find descriptive words that could communicate the same thing I was seeing and saying.
We arrived at Olivia’s class, in the last block on the east end of the school compound, close to the sports grounds. Compassion effused the four teachers as they talked about the two pupils in their care that day. Two stories. Different paths.
“We try to provide an environment in which our pupils can develop confidence to live successfully at home and in the community,” Teacher Sue explained.
“Olivia may have lost her sight, but she’s unbroken.”
I thought of the reckless doctor who altered Olivia’s life, permanently. I found myself grappling with questions. Was he still practicing? Perhaps still raking millions? Does he even remember the girl whose eyesight he wrecked through professional negligence?
Driving back to the office later that afternoon, I remembered Helen Keller’s story. Born mid-1880 in Alabama, USA, she became blind, deaf and mute at nineteen months. At 7 years, she got help from Anne Sullivan who became her private tutor. Together, they toiled for 25 years to help Helen learn to speak so that other people could understand her. Helen went on to graduate from university, became a prolific author, a political activist, lecturer and fundraiser. Helen Keller died at 88 years, having lived a remarkable life.
My mind went back to Olivia. And the words of her teacher, “Olivia may have lost her sight, but she’s unbroken.”
I replayed Bridge Over Troubled Water, wanting to hear the first part of the last stanza again: