Acid victim's loss of sight opened the eyes of many

"The blind will see", a biblical promise, though often spoken of in a spiritual or metaphysical sense regarding the condition of spiritual blindness. There are, however, miracles recorded where physical sight was given.

It was hope in this promise that carried Ms Namale Allen to Singapore, on the first plane ride of her life. The truth is that it is the same hope we all had, whether through medical intervention or a miracle, that the "blind would see".

I confess I have been the doubter all along. I am one of the few who have seen her eyes since they were burned. I remember the first day I met Ms Allen, and she grabbed my hand and said: "Please, please pray for me to get my sight back."

Always she would tell me "when I see again" and every time, I felt like, somehow, I was lying to her or withholding information by not telling her that she would never see. But every time, I remained silent. She knew the facts as well as I, but she believed where I did not.

At times, I think back and wonder what it was that made me pursue this dream of sight for her with such passion, yet I wanted her to have sight more almost than I wanted breath. I wanted to hope, and I wanted her to hope.

More than anything, I wanted to be there the day that she saw her beloved baby girl, whom she had never seen. I wanted to see the look of awe as she was given back just one thing that was cruelly stripped from her on the horrible day someone decided to take her life.

And make no mistake, they did try and take her life. Indeed, for a time, they succeeded. Ms Allen lost her life that day, though she has continued breathing. But that was not to be the end of the story. Life would be found again, and it would be found in the most unlikely of places, in the most unlikely of circumstances, without her having ever regained her vision.

Through an unlikely series of events, I began corresponding with eye surgeons in Singapore regarding her case. I was given just a little hope, a sliver perhaps, but for me, that is all I needed.

 

For the first time, I shared her picture publicly. My goal was to raise US$10,000 (S$14,000) to get her to Singapore and have her evaluated to see if surgery was possible.

Within the first day after I shared the picture, it had gone viral. Thousands of people had shared about her and, suddenly, the world knew Ms Allen, and the world, like me, hoped.

Singapore welcomed us with open arms. We had no time for jet lag, no time for getting used to a new place, we were here for a purpose. We were an unlikely and strange-looking crew: two dark-skinned Africans, one who was horribly disfigured, and a very white American, often accompanied by our Singaporean friends.

But all of our hopes and dreams were dashed one morning in the office of the ophthalmologist when he said: "There is nothing that can be done."

Early that morning, preparing for the appointment, I had already hardened my heart. I knew the chances that the day was going to bear bad news were high. I knew I had to be the strong one, I had to still be able to talk to the surgeons and doctors professionally, and I needed to be able to tell Ms Allen that life would keep going.

But as I watched her shoulders shake, heard the wailing of a woman who has lost all, heard her wish for even death, my heart was crushed. I kept it together, for that was my job, my time to grieve would be later.

I confess that, in my private grief and anger, I wondered why we had come to Singapore. How could there be purpose in this? I had known that this may be the outcome, yet I believed in hope, I believed that every cent we put into the opportunity would be worth it, because Ms Allen is worth it. But here we were, all hope gone, and I did not know what was happening.

My grief was as much for the loss of her sight and the horrific pain she had endured as it was for the fact that I had been counting on a miracle. The pain and suffering I had experienced over the years, with the many "Allens" in my life, had taken its toll on my faith, and I needed a miracle as much for her as I did for myself.

But the thing about miracles is that they do not always come the way we think or look the way we think they would.

Over the past few weeks since we received the diagnosis, I have witnessed a miracle. I have witnessed that what was meant for death has turned to life, and I have witnessed love; an outpouring of love so great that it has to be greater than us, for it takes only a visit to the front page of any news outlet to see that love is not a concept which our world is currently embracing.

But here, love moved thousands of Singaporeans to selflessly give to a woman they have never met. To hope with us, even though the situation was bleak. To stand with us, when we could barely stand ourselves.

And it was through this love that I saw death turn to life. Ms Allen did not have physical sight, but the eyes of her heart were being opened. She was beginning to see, for the first time in her life, truly see.

And the eyes of the world opened. Through one blind woman from East Africa, I have seen hearts softened, eyes opened, and lives changed.

I saw people, who normally do not think outside the safe bubble of Singaporean life, begin to see the world as it is, and want to do something about it. To no longer be all right with the suffering happening outside its borders.

I saw normal, everyday people who have lived mostly untouched by the pain of the world go out of their way to be part of Ms Allen's life, even when they received no recognition and no word of thanks.

From almost every walk of life, the well known and the unknown offering to pay for hospital bills. Doctors, counsellors, restaurant staff and cleaners all going out of their way to lend a hand - like the two taxi drivers who refused to charge us for our trips.

I watched as people begin to see, even while Ms Allen could not.

No doubt we will never know how many people have been impacted by her story, nor will we ever be able to know how many have given to her in some way behind the scenes, but we have felt it.

And so we keep fighting, fighting to make her life and the lives of others like her better. But I know now that we no longer fight alone. There are so many people behind us, with eyes no longer afraid to see the suffering that so many in our world face, ready to make a difference.


•Lynsay Lewis has been working with Ugandan acid attack victim Namale Allen since she was attacked. She is co-founder of the organisation Upasuaji Africa, whose goal is to provide quality surgical education as well as advocates for complex patients throughout East Africa.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Acid victim's loss of sight opened the eyes of many'. Print Edition | Subscribe