Nelspruit, South Africa — When Anthony Ngwamba saw the light for the first time in years he leapt to his feet and sang songs of praise to God and the ancestors.
Ngwamba (77) of Tonga near Malelane in Mpumalanga battled blindness for five years before doctors from the non-governmental organisation the Bureau for Prevention of Blindness (BPB) cut out the cataract clouding his left eye last week.
The operation was relatively painless and the following morning a nurse arrived at Ngwamba's bedside to remove the cotton padding protecting his eye.
"I opened my eyes and saw the clouds in the sky outside," he said with smile. "I asked everyone in the ward to pray with me and thank God."
Ngwamba and other rural residents throughout the country were operated on free of charge as part of world sight day last Thursday.
The service runs until Saturday, October 20, and the BPB expects to operate on about 40 people a day.
BPB co-coordinator Letty Mabena said about 160 000 South Africans are blind because of cataracts.
A cataract is an opaque area in the eye lens that causes blurred vision but can be cut out if it is caught in time.
Mabena said the bureau visited five hospitals in Mpumalanga twice a year to perform operations at a cost of R70 and used local radio stations and media to advertise their service.
"We also rely on clinics to tell people when we are going to be visiting their area," Mabena said.
Before the operation Ngwamba said he had visited several doctors in Malelane but to no avail.
"They told me I'd be blind in the left eye for the rest of my life."
Ngwamba refused to give up hope, however, and when he heard that the Phelophepa (clean health) train was visiting his area he hopped on board.
The train is funded by the private sector and visits deep rural areas to offer basic health care services ranging from dentistry to psychiatry.
"When I saw those doctors I hoped they would help me regain my sight but they just gave me eye drops and a pair of glasses," Ngwamba said.
Some time later he overheard people on the street talking about an eye clinic being run at Tonga hospital.
He visited the hospital several times before the nurses told him to pack his bags and prepare for an operation at Rob Ferreira Hospital in Nelspruit.
"My son was so worried and other elderly patients from my community refused to go for the operation because they thought they would die," he said.
Ngwamba is an ex mineworker who makes clothes for a living.
"I used to struggle to thread a needle and had to ask my grandchildren for help," he said. "Now I'm happy because I'm going to be able to do it for myself."