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Thursday, 11 November, 1999, 22:19 GMT
Blind leading the blind
The blind in Kokore have achieved much that many in the West still strive for
BBC reporter Gary O'Donoghue, who is himself blind, finds a victim of river blindness in Ghana who is an impressive example to others.

The waters of White Volta River in northern Ghana teem with fish, the land along its banks is fertile. But it is also the breeding ground for the black fly - carrier of Onchocyciasis or river blindness - and it has infected more than 17m Africans.

I came to Ghana to find out what life is like for those for whom medical science came too late to save them from river blindness - which was for many years a scourge of West Africa.

Just an hour's journey from the river is the village of Kokore where one in five people have been blinded by the bite of the fly.

And there I met one blind man who was successfully running a farm who helped me to understand how a rural community with such a high level of disability could survive.

A difficult transition

As I followed Robert Assar, recording his daily life, I was struck by the ease with which he coped with the physical demands of life as a farmer.

But gradually I became aware that accepting his blindness over the past 16 years had been difficult and painful.

Robert Asser: Now a respected member of the community
The pain made worse by a community where blindness was seen as a punishment. Sharing these beliefs himself Robert shut himself away for two years.

"They said because of my bad deeds and wickedness that is why I am blind. When I thought of my previous situation I wanted to kill myself," Robert told me.

The stigma attached to blindness was felt by all of the Assar family, and Robert's wife was urged by neighbours to run away.

Yet those early days of despair passed and the family continued to grow.

Local respect

Robert and his wife were helped by my guide Sarko Sullah and other members of a rehabilitation project called BARB.

Blind people have become active members of the community
Sarko Sullah says that BARB got in touch with Robert and persuaded him to accept his situation and understand he was not on his own.

Food for Robert and his family is not now a problem.

But the ability of the community to adapt and find new skills is crucial to its survival.

Robert has learnt to weave and make chairs for sale with training from the BARB organisation. He now teaches other blind people.

And he commands respect as one of the most successful farmers in the village.

Envy of the village

He helped to set up a blind farming group which is now in the process of buying a pair of bullocks with a loan from BARB. It will make them the envy of the village.

"We sat down as a group, six of us and thought that as we are poor and blind we should form a group," Robert said.

" We went to the charity to help us so that we can cultivate more. When we can farm we can sell the proceeds and repay the loan."

Gary O'Donoghue: On a personal quest as much as a professional assignment
For Sarko one of the main aims of his organisation has been to bring blind people fully into the community.

"People now interact with them, people now see them as members of society who can also render service to them," he said.

Robert Assar told me he is happy and can now afford to eat. "I use the animals to trade, to feed my children, send them to school, buy them clothes, feed them," he said.

" After talking it through I no longer have the bad thoughts, the bad intentions. I am now happy and leave everything to almighty God."

The dilemma for me in interviewing these blind farmers has been that as a news reporter I am tempted to describe what's been achieved here as a miracle, as a triumph and all those other cliches.

But as a blind person I know that in their position I would do precisely the same. In order to be productive and to be accepted and to feed families.

However, what I think is extraordinary about what's been achieved is that Robert and the other blind farmers have gained a level of acceptance, a level of usefulness in their community which many disabled people in the developed world, including myself, are still striving for.

Gary O'Donoghue reports for BBC2's Correspondent on his trip to Ghana
See also:

08 Feb 99 | Africa
18 Feb 99 | Africa
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