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Self-positivity: I lost eyesight, but not my vision

 Eric Ngondi, who lost both eyes in two separate incidents.(Courtesy)

If you meet Eric Ngondi, you will be struck by his positive attitude despite everything he has been through. He lost both eyes in two completely unrelated incidents, with the second incident leaving him completely blind.

On the morning of December 5, 2009, he and eight of his friends went hiking in Ngong hills. There were many other people on the same path, so they were not worried about their safety. But soon, things went awry.

 “Suddenly, three men jumped out of the bushes, armed with pangas and rungus. We all scampered in different directions,” he says.

Eric got away, but then he looked back and saw that one of his friends had been captured and was getting battered, and couldn’t continue running. 

“I had to go back, at least try and negotiate with them,” he says.

This gesture saved his friend, but it cost him greatly.

“I think they felt threatened and thought I was going to attack them. I remember one of them saying, ‘Huyu tutammaliza leo. (This one will die today).’”

So he started running. On his path was a young girl, the youngest of their hiking party, and she was too tired to continue fleeing.

“She was in Standard Six, and I couldn’t leave her, so I was trying to help her along, the thugs caught up with us. I gave them all the valuables on me, and then they began talks of raping the girl before one of them hit me on the head.”

Somehow, the rod gouged his entire eye out, and his eyeball was hanging from its socket by a thread.

“I could feel it on my cheek and some viscous fluid was coming out of my eye. But surprisingly, I felt no pain. I wasn’t worried; I figured that a good doctor would fix me up. I just wanted to get us safely out of there,” he says.

The sight of his wrecked eye stunned even his assailants, so much so that they let them go. A police statement and a hospital visit later, Eric’s eye was deemed unsalvageable.

 “I started researching how one-eyed people live. I was also worried about going back to work. Worried about the stares I would get. But it wasn’t that bad.”

He quickly adjusted to his new visual challenges but in a seemingly improbable and impossibly unfair stroke by fate, he lost his other eye in a similar, but unrelated incident. That was in June 25, 2011.

 “We were travelling home from Namanga with my dad when at about 10pm, we heard a loud bang. We drove on for around 200 metres before getting out of the vehicle to check out.

“We found that we had a tyre burst and just as we were about to finish changing it, thugs emerged from the bushes and attacked us.”

One of them swung a sharp object at him, which sliced right through his right eye.

“At first, I didn’t realise that I couldn’t see a thing until the thugs had stolen their valuables and left. But again I thought it would be all fine.”

Police arrived a few minutes later, possibly notified by a passerby, and took them to Kajiado hospital, and afterwards he was transferred to Aga Khan Hospital.

“I remember telling the doctor not to mishandle my left eye. That I didn’t want to lose my sight. I was hopeful,” he says.

Unfortunately, the eye was so damaged that there was nothing they could do about it.

 “That was when I started descending into a state of hopelessness. How would I live a full life anymore? I wondered if I could possibly work at all. Would I have to move upcountry now that I was totally blind?” he says.

When it happened, he and his then fiancé Mukami were planning to get married.

“At some point I even told her that from the stories that I had heard in the past, maybe it would be good for her to look elsewhere. Not in a bad way but so that she would have the choice, because this is not what she had bargained for or was looking for,” he says.

Dr Charity Waithima, a clinical psychologist, says that you may not be able to control the thoughts that crop up in your head or the moods you get in such a situation or in everyday life when you wake up feeling sad, but you can control how you handle them. Sometimes we cannot control what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” reads a quote from Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, survivor of the Holocaust.

After Eric’s right eye was taken, a friend from church who knew about Kenya Society for the Blind told him about it.

“I didn’t know where to go next, so he directed me there. It’s an institution that helps people who just became, are in the process of, or who have a possibility of becoming blind. I went there and spent the first three months cultivating the positive mindset that it can actually be done. There were people who were blind and thriving in life,” he says.

“I was impressed by a friend of mine called Zack. He would ride a bike in the compound yet he was totally blind! Another one, Sam Waweru, was just joining campus and realising that people were going to school, riding bikes, everyone in the institution was doing everything gave me the hope, the spirit and feeling that I could do it.”

With a renewed mindset and spirit, he became determined to live a full life again. He was now approaching life with a positive mindset.

“A positive mindset comes from a positive outlook on life. A positive mindset is also a growth mindset, because if you don’t have a positive mindset, you regress. A positive mindset focuses on the bright side of life even when life feels very negative. When one approaches life with a positive mindset, then there is hope that there will come something positive, that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Dr Waithima.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Waithima helped people who had lost almost everything  move from high income to low income residential areas.

“They lost jobs and loved ones but a positive mindset helped them to bounce back. Someone had a job or a business in the hospitality industry when many hotels were closed. But they would wake up and say, ‘Now I just need food, clothing and shelter.’ And they set up a kibanda, when they used to own a 3-star hotel. That is a very positive mindset. In a positive mindset you work towards self improvement. There is no giving up,” she says.

Eric did something similar.

“I spent three months recuperating and three months learning about adaptive computer, which is simply using computers with a screen reader and a software, learning braille and acclimating to the situation,” says Eric.

Conversely, Dr  Waithima says that if you do not embrace a positive mindset when you go through tough situations, you are likely to suffer from mental health conditions.

“Because you become hopeless, you become helpless, life becomes gloomy and eventually that leads to depression and even suicide. It can also trigger anxiety, sleep problems and physical health problems. During  the pandemic we had others who we had to admit for depression, and one or two were suicidal,” she says.

Eric has also had friends who became blind but could not cope with it mentally. “They took time to join the institution but just gave up and died. They thought, ‘How can I ever live without seeing?’”

How, indeed? It is about embracing optimism and an attitude of gratitude, according to Dr Waithima. “‘I may not afford to drive my car but I don’t have cancer’. That’s an attitude of gratitude which helps with a positive mindset, and that will keep you moving,” says Dr Waithima.

You also need to accept things as they are in the here and now, which Dr Waithima says calls for mindfulness, being aware of your present environment and of yourself.

“Being true to yourself. ‘I have this, this is the only thing I can afford.’ That gives a positive outlook because my child will not only pass exams when they go to school in Makini. They can pass even in a public primary school. Don’t feel like you are lesser because you have to do lesser things than you were used to, like taking a matatu to work instead of driving,” she says.

“When you learn how to get out of your comfort zone, you learn that you don’t always has to drive a certain type of car or even any car. Someone with a growth mindset would say, ‘It’s even healthy for me to walk to the bus stop. I won’t need to go to the gym!’ A negative mindset would say, ‘Now I will be getting to the office dirty,’ – that is regression and leads to depression.”

Developing resilience helps you to bounce back when things go very wrong. Setbacks are part of human life.

“They can be used as a stepping stone to sharpen your survival skills. We need not stay where we have been beaten by life but to try and move forward. Such that if you have lost your job, you need to look at 2024 as it begins and ask yourself, ‘Do I remain there ruminating or do I think of what else I can do?’ Those setbacks should sharpen our survival skills if we are taking them positively,” says Dr Waithima.

She and her peers also encourage people to sometimes create humour out of that situation. A smile can reverse the outlook of a bad situation.

Eric jokes that there are advantages to blindness.

“Well, I sin less, because I can’t see tempting sights!” he says. Sometimes his wife Mukami will ask him if he has seen her keys (and sometimes he knows where they are!), or “Can’t you see that?”

“Also, motivating those around you and engaging with positive people will create a positive mindset for 2024 because people who join those who are very negative end up having a very negative mindset,” says Dr Waithima.

Eric’s message to everyone for 2024? “It starts with self-positivity. You just have to be you to make it work. You have to have a positive mindset.”

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