Chamber in Review
Banishing Blindness in Congo
Banishing Blindness in Congo

Banishing Blindness in Congo

Banishing Blindness in Congo

Banishing Blindness in Congo

The story of how a self-confessed “spoilt brat” from Hong Kong ended up dedicating her life to saving the eyesight of people in a remote corner of Africa captivated members at a WEC-YEC Network and Learn event on 18 April.

Dr Joyce Samoutou-Wong and her husband Henri Samotou, a nurse specialising in eye treatment, set up the New Sight clinic in Impfondo, a small town in Congo’s northeastern jungle, where they settled with their three children. The couple are currently in Hong Kong fundraising to establish a new eye hospital in the country.

Samoutou-Wong studied medicine in Edinburgh, then went to a missionary hospital in Gabon for what was intended to be a short trip to Africa. An only child, her plan was to return to Hong Kong to live, work and find a nice Chinese boy to marry, she said.

She confessed that she did not enjoy this introduction to Africa. She described the missionary doctors from the United States that she met when she arrived.

“They were superheroes doing super feats in the middle of nowhere. But I was miserable,” she said. “I was a spoilt brat from Hong Kong. I like lists; I like people being on time. I like a nice room and air conditioning. And I want everything fast.”

But despite all this, she made the decision – aided by meeting her now husband – that she would return to Africa. “I’m passionate about helping people see,” she said. “Because when people can see, their lives change.”

After a spell in the U.K., the couple returned to Gabon where they developed a non-profit eye centre that is now self-running. They then decided to go to the Republic of Congo.

Why Congo? “The reason is very simple. Until I went there, there had never been any non-profit eye care. So eye care is something that is inaccessible to most of the population.”

Samoutou-Wong explained that 80% of blindness and visual impairment is avoidable. So providing eye-care services is a cost-effective way to help the whole community, as people can return to work or school. They also train nurses to carry out treatment and surgeries. “Empowering the local community is at the heart of everything we do,” she said.

According to the United Nations’ definition, 54% of Congolese people live in absolute poverty.

Samoutou-Wong gave some stark examples of what this means in practice. At the markets in Impfondo, salt is sold by the teaspoon and pasta by the handful, because the local people cannot afford any more. 

Another example was when they treated a village that had conjunctivitis. She was reciting the standard advice on avoiding the spread of this contagious disease – don’t share towels, wash your hands often – when suddenly she realised that these people have no soap or towels, or even clean water.

Life in Congo also means contending with snakes, spiders and disease outbreaks. The family made the difficult decision to stay during an Ebola outbreak nearby.

“We realised afterwards that the community trusted us more because we stayed. One of the things that make us different is we are here for the long term.” 

But she denied that she is brave and said she worries about her children. “I’m a tiger mum in the jungle,” she said. They are home-schooled, but their experience gives them depth beyond academic comprehension. For example: “They know that they need to do science so the generator works.”

New Sight has chosen Ouesso for its new eye hospital. This town is relatively well connected, so they will be able to treat more people, and it will be easier to attract medical professionals. 

The most emotional moment during the talk for Samoutou-Wong came when the event host, Chamber CEO Shirley Yuen, asked what her parents thought of her decision. Through tears, she said that her parents had made the biggest sacrifice of all – as had her husband’s parents while they were still alive. 

But it is hard to imagine any daughter giving her parents more reason to be proud than Samoutou-Wong, whose selfless actions and passion to serve are having such a tremendous impact on a community in need. 

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