5 December 2018

Namibia: BBC Shines Light On Ndume

Namibian ophthalmologist Helena Ndume was placed 66th on the BBC's 100 Women list last month.

The series - 100 Women - is a BBC multi-format established in 2013 that examines the role of women in the 21st century. It looks at women who use passion to spark real change in the world around them.

The Namibian yesterday visited the 58-year-old eye specialist at the Windhoek Central Hospital, where she heads the eye department on the fifth floor, and there was a long queue of patients - young and old.

Ndume, sporting heels, a polka dot skirt, white shirt and her hair in neat curls, sat in a room at the end of the corridor.

It was a busy time for her as her patients had come in from the regions to consult her. Before the interview began, Ndume quickly examined a patient.

She addressed the patient in his mother tongue to make their communication easier, and then moved to a room where another patient lay on the table, ready to have an operation performed on her.

Percen"It will only take 20 minutes," she said to this writer, adding that the patient had pterygium, which is caused by spending too much time outdoors and being exposed to the sun.

Ndume said she was very humbled when she was approached to be featured on the list, adding that she is glad the world is noticing the work that she and her team are doing in the prevention of blindness.

Her line of work inspires her, especially with the difference she brings to patients' lives.

"You are changing their lives. People who have been blind, and suddenly they can see. You give them freedom. You make them independent," she beamed.

She added that when the patients return to her with complimentary remarks after operations, it pushes her to continue her work with zeal.

"Doctor, I am going to see my grandchildren, doctor I am going to see my pension money now, nobody will squander my pension money anymore. It's just so beautiful," she said.

Ndume explained that she performs operations on pensioners free of charge, while the rest of the people pay N$30 for her services.

"If people can't pay, we don't send them away - that is the policy of the government," she said while she directed the patient in Oshiwambo which way to look during the procedure.

In 10 years or so, she hopes to see many young ophthalmologists coming up. That is the legacy she wants to leave, as well as seeing a decrease in blindness in the country.

"Young people must follow their hearts, nothing good comes easy, and you have to work hard. When you are focused, you will find out this is what I want, and you chase it," she urged.

She also encouraged the youth not to focus on get-rich-quick schemes such as tenders, as it would make them lazy.

After she completed the operation, Ndume walked from room to room, assisting patients and advising the medical officers.

In one of the rooms, she advised a patient not to drink again after he was stabbed with a sharp object close to the eye during the weekend.

The man responds in Otjiherero that he had seen the doctor on television, and promised that he will take her advice.

HER LIFE

Dr Ndume was born at Tsumeb, and left the country for exile at age 15. She lived in Zambia, Gambia (where she completed secondary school) and Angola, before being sent to a medical school in Germany.

She returned to Namibia in 1989, completed her internship at the Katutura and Windhoek Central hospitals, and with the encouragement of Dr Libertina Amathila (former deputy prime minister), Ndume was off again to Germany where she specialised in ophthalmology at the University of Leipzig.

In August 1997, with the help of ophthalmic medical assistant Flashman Anyolo, Ndume organised Namibia's first eye camp at Rundu.

Over the years, she has performed sight-restoring surgeries on 35 000 Namibians free of charge.

Her other awards include the United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize in 2015, which honours one man and one woman who have dedicated their lives to serving others.

In 2004, the government honoured her with a Grand Commander of the Order of Namibia, First Class award. She was also a winner at the New African Award 2017, which recognises African women who have had exceptional impact and influenced change in their countries or communities over the preceding 12 months.

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