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Dr. Alessandra Intili travels to Rwanda to help lead an assessment of preventable blindness

After 22 hours of traveling, I finally made it to Kigali.
The airport was beautiful, with a modernity that offered to dispel any
preconceived notions of a nation undeveloped.
After acquiring a visa at the entry gate, I made my way to baggage
claim. A soft spoken woman with a big smile approached me and asked, “Are you
Alessandra?”  I nodded yes, and was
delighted to find out that she was the primary investigator of the study for
which I came to take part. After months of emailing, I was finally face to face
with Dr. Ciku Methange. Serendipity had placed us on the same flight from Doha,
though we had not known it.

Shortly after our meeting we were off together toward the capital
city of Kigali, where I spent the evening in a simple, comfortable guesthouse.
The next morning, we began our training for the Rapid Assessment of Avoidable
Blindness. The training site was about 90 minutes away, to the east of the
capital, a district called Rwamagana. There were about twenty people all
together, with various backgrounds.  The
first thing that struck me about the participants and investigators of this
study was that they were nearly all Rwandan. So many studies performed in
developing nations are initiated by foreign organizations. It is a foreigner that
is asking the question, organizing the way to find the answer, and funding the
logistics. For the RAAB, it was entirely rooted in the Rwandans’ drive to seek
answers to the their own questions:  to
identify the major causes of blindness in their communities, to acquire
evidence on how to best allocate their resources, and ultimately how to improve
the quality of life for the people of Rwanda through prevention and treatment
of avoidable blindness. Each of the people who participated in the RAAB needed
to be fully present and committed; all would spend greater than a month away
from their families and professions.
This huge sacrifice on behalf of scientific curiosity, not to mention
the greater good, was inspiring.  Another
notable observation was how young the investigators were. I was one of four
ophthalmologists here to participate. The three Rwandan ophthalmologists had
completed their training just one or two years ago. Each had to leave their
home country to train; each had chosen to return despite the call of opportunities
elsewhere that would have translated into greater personal gain.  It’s quite a unique experience to strike up a
conversation with a stranger who has lived a life full of experiences on the
opposite side of the spectrum from your own, on the opposite side of the world,
only to realize by the end of that conversation that you are, in fact, opposite
sides of the very same coin.  Our childhood
memories were different, our educational hurdles were not the same, we had
different first languages. But the language we had come to speak through our
training was identical, and the passion we had found for ophthalmology was one
and the same.