Every day at dawn, Fatmata puts her daughter Aicha onto her back and begins the early morning commute to the local market where she sells oranges. Around them, discarded fruit peels lay scattered on the ground in muted browns and orange. Swaths of dyed fabric brush past their faces. Blackened rice bags filled with straw, lean haphazardly on top of broken-down cars. It’s a hectic world of color and life — but two-year-old Aicha can see none of it. Her sight is stolen by the milky white cataracts in her eyes. Aicha’s condition is worsened with the mockery she faces from those around her, such as the other ladies in the market who call the little girl a witch.
Aicha was three months old when her parents started noticing there was something wrong with her vision. She wasn’t moving or looking around the same way her two older siblings had at her age. By the time she was starting to crawl, it was obvious that she could hardly see what was around her.
Fatmata and her husband, Mohamed, were nervous to trust strangers with their daughter’s eyesight, but they decided to bring Aicha to a Mercy Ships eye screening. While they waited for Aicha’s appointment, they passed a group of patients who were having their eye patches removed after surgery. As Fatmata watched them celebrate their restored vision, a sliver of hope stirred inside.When they met with the screening team, it was unsure whether there was hope for Aicha’s eyesight. Having her cataracts from such a young age could mean that her vision had stopped developing — making her permanently blind. But, as they shone a flashlight in the baby’s eyes, all tension broke. A toothy grin spread across Aicha’s face; she grabbed the flashlight closer, her eyes not leaving its beam.
“It amazed me that something so small like seeing light was worth smiling about in her world of darkness,” Ophthalmic Clinical Technician Larina Brink (USA) said. “I knew that the surgery would turn out well because of her being able to follow the light as I moved it around. My heart was filled with joy to be able to offer her a surgery that would open the world up to her.”The morning after Aicha’s surgery, an expectant crowd gathered down in the wards of the Africa Mercy. There was a breathless hush before the eye patches were removed; a wave of nervous hope. Aicha — her tiny hands wrapped in diapers resembling boxing gloves to keep her from peeling off her eye patches — didn’t know what was going on at first. But as the surgeon set her on the ground and encouraged her to start walking, Aicha’s eyes grew wide. She looked around, her signature smile slowly dawning. She couldn’t drink in her surroundings fast enough.Aicha, aware she had a captive audience, began to make her way back and forth through the crowd. She ran back to Fatmata’s legs and buried her face in them, looking up at her mother for the first time.“When they removed the bandages, I saw my daughter as a woman for the first time,” Fatmata said. “I saw that everything people said about her was wrong. She was like a new person. She was dancing and laughing.”
At that moment Aicha’s world was growing, bigger than it had ever been before — and a world of possibility grew alongside it.
One week after her surgery, Fatmata and Aicha returned to selling fruit. Now that Aicha can see, she tries to grab hold of every colorful item around her: the orange handed to her; the red cap of a water bottle; her mother’s dangling earrings. There’s joy and excitement in the air, and Aicha’s no longer the recipient of strangers’ jokes. Instead, she’s a little miracle.“People in the market say, ‘Aicha is a new person now; her witchcraft is gone; it’s unbelievable,’” Fatmata said. “They say it’s magic — but it was no magic. She was sick and now she is healed. I have no words to express how happy I am.”