In September 2017, Praxides Ahavi, then aged 12, left her parents’ home in Majimazuri village, Navakholo Constituency for school. She was in perfect health and was preparing for the next Social Studies class late morning when something strange happened.
“I was reading. Suddenly there was pain in my eyes. All I could see was a white fog. When I told my teacher and my classmates about it, they laughed it off,” she says. The pain persisted and became unbearable. Then, as suddenly as it started, the fog dissolved into darkness.
Praxides had just lost her sight. She tried to tell everyone around her that she could not see. At this point, her teacher became concerned and called the girl’s parents to school. “They (teacher and classmates) struggled to understand how one could go blind so suddenly and so mysteriously. They only took me seriously when I told them I could not see,” she recounts.
Praxides’ mother Rosemary Nafula took her to Kakamega County General Hospital, but doctors referred mother and daughter to Sabatia Eye Hospital in the neighbouring Vihiga County. An assessment at the eye hospital showed that Praxides was permanently blind. They were stunned.
“I never thought the condition could be permanent. There was no way I could be blind. A solution had to be found,” says Praxides. “The doctor said my daughter would never see again, and that there was nothing they could do. It was painful,” says Nafula, amid sobs. That was in 2017.
A year later, and before the mother of seven could recover from the shock of her first daughter’s sudden blindness, it happened again. This time it was the family’s third-born Sharon Natecho.
Like Praxides, Natecho had just turned 12, and in a bizarre repeat of fate, she suddenly became half-blind. The family was baffled. At Sabatia Eye Hospital, initial tests could not show the cause of Natecho’s sudden loss of sight and medics only gave her pain killers.
“They said they did not know what was wrong with my eyes, and that the symptoms were strange,” says Sharon. Despite all the odds against her daughters, Nafula remained optimistic that they could be treated, if not in Kenya, then across the border in Uganda.
“Since there was no money for specialised treatment, I convinced my husband to sell three acres to facilitate our daughters’ treatment,” says Nafula. A month after coming from St Benedictine Eye Hospital in Tororo, Uganda, the girls’ situation worsened. The family gave up.
Not even the spiritual world was able to return their daughters’ sight. “A friend told me that my misfortunes were not normal and that they were spiritual. I fasted for three days at a local hill hoping to get a breakthrough, but failed,” says Robert Kilo.
Three years since Praxides lost her sight; and two since Sharon became half-blind, the family is still struggling to understand what hit them. Praxides, now 16, terms the diagnosis the lowest moment in her life, and a blow to her dream of becoming a doctor. Though her parents enrolled her in Koyanzo Special School, where she took close to a year learning how to read through braille.
She still hopes and prays that one day she and her sister will regain their sight. “Every day I ask God to send someone to save me from this darkness. I also pray that my sister’s case does not degenerate,” she says. The sight of the two sisters now prodding their way around their home with bamboo canes is heart-wrenching.
They walk stealthily, steps calculated, their unseeing eyes staring across the compound, looking for somewhere to sit. Although Praxides still dreams of becoming a doctor, she might have to learn to navigate her way through the darkness to her dream, also bearing in mind that experts said she would not be able to see again.
Dr John Akoko diagnosed Praxides with retinitis pigmentosa, which is a rare genetic condition. Kennedy Otieno, an optician in Kisumu, says the girls might have to learn to live with lack of vision for the rest of their lives. “It has no cure and patients can only be counselled to prevent them from sinking into depression,” says Dr Otieno. “Very little can be done to save the patients’ vision once they are diagnosed with this condition,” he added.