The students and teachers are from the Malawi School of Optometry, where the Brien Holden Vision Institute and Mzuzu University, with funding support from Optometry Giving Sight, have developed and implemented curricula to enable the training of degree-qualified optometrists via a four-year program.
Lens kits, ophthalmoscopes, retinoscopes and other instruments were carefully laid out on the tables. For some of these optometry students, this was to be the first time they would use instruments on actual patients. Almost 300 school children had lined up for eye examinations outside; likewise, this was to be the first time most of them had ever had their eyes examined. From there, an assembly line process ensued, from documenting each child, through the examination and treatment, if it was needed. The morning was set-aside for the schoolchildren; the afternoon for parents and teachers.
"These are kids that still have the same problems here as they have in the developed world, except these kids haven't been treated," said Sanchia Jogessar, who manages the Optometry Department of Mzuzu University.
Sanchia moved to Malawi from South Africa three years ago, expecting to stay for six months. "I fell in love with the place and ended up staying," she said. "This is a beautiful country and there is so much that can be done here. There is such a great need for eye care services and research."
Her entire faculty was present at the mobile clinic; three instructors and 28 students. According to Sanchia, these students are the future of optometry in Malawi. "What was happening in the past was people [foreign optometrists] came in and would do a general screening like this, but if there was a need for follow-up there was no one here."
Pointing to the students at work in the clinic she said, "Now with these guys being here it creates someone for people to come back to, and not have to rely on external aid all the time."
One of those students is Stella. In her second year of optometry studies, Stella spent the morning conducting visual acuity tests. "It helps us to learn the relevance of what we are learning in class, as in the theory," she said. "So it helps us to really even know what it means because some of the theory you can't understand it until you get into clinic and you practice it."
Stella is Malawian. When she graduates in two years she will be one of only thirty Malawian optometrists in the country. The first five students graduated from Mzuzu University's Optometry program in 2012, and are presently in internships. They are to be the country's first ever optometrists. When Stella graduates she will be among the first three Malawian women qualified to practice.
Training native Malawian optometrists like Stella is crucial to the country's development, according to Dr. Luigi Bilotto, the Brien Holden Vision Institute's Director of Global Human Resource Development.
"In order to create ongoing services, it's fundamental that we empower local people to do what they need to do to help themselves," he said. "Training local Malawians is part of a fundamental philosophy so that they can become empowered to provide the services and eyecare that is needed for their own people."
Training those Malawian optometrists is not an easy task in a country with limited resources. Malawi is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and infrastructure problems abound. University classrooms are often overcrowded; students have only limited access to one eye-testing clinic at a local hospital.
That's why World Sight Day 2012 was especially important to the optometry school at Mzuzu University. The keys to a new optometry training centre were handed over to the school at a ceremony on the hospital grounds. Though the facility was not yet stocked with equipment or furniture, the excitement was palpable as students and teachers toured the facility.
Money to build the training facility came from Optometry Giving Sight through donations from Canadian optometrist, Dr. Allan Jones and the eye care charity, Canadian Vision Care. For almost thirty years Dr. Jones has travelled in the developing world conducting optometry volunteer outreach clinics.
Using the proverbial analogy of feeding someone for either a day or a lifetime, Dr. Jones described those volunteer outreach clinics as examples of "giving people fish". In comparison, he believes that funding the construction of the eyesight training facility, and facilitating the training of local optometrists will help to "teach people to fish".
Having seen the new training facility and meeting some of the students, Dr. Jones said he had been swept up in their enthusiasm.
"When people ask if it's a good thing to donate to Optometry Giving Sight, I'd have to say I can't think of anything better to donate to."
Clive Miller, Global CEO of Optometry Giving Sight praised the generosity of Dr Jones.
"His passion and commitment to support the training of local Optometrists in Malawi has been remarkable and we have been delighted to work with him to facilitate the construction of the Academic Vision Centre," he said. "His support is greatly appreciated by Optometry Giving Sight, the Brien Holden Vision Institute, Mzuzu University – and of course the students."