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Light and Life

Habitat homes and vocational training open new possibilities for the blind in Cote d'Ivoire

Words by Phillip Jordan

Photos by Chris Mattle

Published on Aug. 28, 2012

 Blind since 2004, Amani Yao, left, also participates in a local Habitat partnership that provides training in Braille and teaches ways for him to be an active farmer in the fields of his family's cocoa farm.

Even with moonlight breaking through crumbling mud walls and a shredded scraptin roof, Amani Yao couldn’t see the rodents that scurried across his dirt floor each evening. He didn’t see the malaria spreading mosquitoes either, before they descended stinger-first.

"I was frustrated in the old house, but I feel at ease here. I can feel the glow." — Amani Yao

The 54-year-old Ivorian has been blind since 2004, the result of too many bites from the black flies that swarm the banks of the nearby Bandama River. Without vaccination, an accumulation of bites from infected flies over a long period of time can lead to a parasitic infection. Doctors call the resulting condition onchocerciasis. River blindness. People in Amani’s village of Beriaboukro call it man konin. Scratching.

“He was itching all the time,” Vincent Yao says of his brother. “He would say, ‘My eyes are paining me.’ But I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t know what happened.”

More than 100 of the town’s 1,500 residents have watched the world slowly disappear due to the disease. Amani knows he will likely never see that world as he did before. But he is still thankful for the light, a sensation that he says returned more fully to his life in 2007. That’s when Habitat for Humanity Cote d’Ivoire entered his village with a plan to build houses and improve the lives of people living with river blindness.

The “Healthy Homes” initiative is part of Habitat Cote d’Ivoire’s larger Orphans and Vulnerable Groups program, which builds subsidized housing for orphans, leprosy patients, disabled adults and other vulnerable people. Through partnerships with other aid organizations, families also receive ventilated latrines, insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, health education and livelihood training for the blinded.

“We are serving the need of those who might not get any help otherwise,” says Richard Yao, Habitat Cote d’Ivoire’s national director. “We are also bringing different people together to work as one, to build better communities to live in.”

It has been five years since Amani, Vincent and five other relatives moved out of the darkness of a cramped, windowless home and into a house with a concrete floor, sun-soaked windows and secure doors. To Amani, it’s more than a safe, comfortable place to sleep at night.

“I may be blind,” Amani says, “but I can tell when there’s light. I can feel the difference in me. I was frustrated in the old house, but I feel at ease here. I can feel the warmth. I feel the glow.”

River fears

That such a vindictive disease could come from the inviting waters of the Bandama seems particularly cruel. The river flows like a vein through central Cote d’Ivoire, widening as it passes Beriaboukro, situated up a steep slope from the river’s eastern edge. Tall, wispy-leafed trees provide shade near the shore. Kids race downhill, past rubber trees, trying to be the first to reach a long log that makes an ideal platform for showy leaps into the water.

Fathers and their sons fish in the river, using nets to catch carp and shrimp. Teenaged boys toss their younger brothers in the water here when it’s time for them to learn to swim. Mothers paddle in a dugout canoe to reach the river’s western bank, where they sell their crops or barter for other goods.

Where the women walk ashore on the western side of the Bandama is just to the north of a much broader swath of cleared brush: a river exit lane cleared by hippopotamuses. The giant creatures swim far south along the river during the day but always return to dry land opposite Beriaboukro each evening. Everyone living along the river knows not to cross here near dusk.

But on the Bandama, everyone is learning that the biggest river danger comes in a much smaller size.

Life rebuilt

As part of Habitat’s holistic response here, advocacy efforts have encouraged the government to more regularly provide pills that can easily and effectively inoculate residents against the blinding effects of the Bandama’s blackflies. Habitat Cote d’Ivoire also partners with a nonprofit training center here called Fraiche Rosee, which teaches vocational skills to those who have already lost their sight.

For Amani Yao, that training means he is learning how to read and write in Braille. He has also relearned something he has known nearly since birth: farming. Amani and Vincent’s father left them a cocoa farm when he died. Since Amani went blind, Vincent has had to tend the crop largely by himself. Now, agriculture specialists are teaching Amani to recognize herbs and crops by feel, to navigate rows of turned soil, and to physically do the work of a farmer.

Amani’s agricultural training brings hope that he can help in the fields again soon. In the meantime, Vincent continues to serve as his younger brother’s guide and protector, leading Amani around the village by hand.

“We used to work together at the farm, to do everything together,” Amani says. “So I’m thankful that we can continue to live and work together. My brother has done things for me I will never be able to pay him back.”

Vincent now has peace of mind to visit the fields each day, knowing that his brother is safe and comfortable at home. Vincent says their house — along with Amani’s training — has given his brother renewed confidence. And that in itself has taught their community a lesson, too.

“(My village is) learning that being blind is not the end of the world,” Vincent says. “Life is not finished.”