'Just because they are living in isolation does not give us the right to let them down.' This simple principle drives Friar Richard Hardi, an ophthalmologist based in Mbuji Mayi in the centre of the DR Congo, to venture into some of the remotest parts the country to treat people with preventable and treatable conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma and river blindness. Friar Hardi is a member of the Community of the Beatitudes, a community with the Charismatic Renewal movement, which was founded in France in 1973, and he has been working in the country since 1995 when it was still called Zaire, under the long-term rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. In his almost 20 years of working in Congo the doctor has seen a fair amount of upheaval, weathering the civil war and the instability that followed. Doctor Hardi takes his clinic to the people rather than expecting them to come to him. Many people in the remoter parts of the country have no means of transport to make their way to the larger cities since basic infrastructure such as paved roads and rail tracks are often a memory from the pre-independence era. As long as he is able to find a structure which he can isolate enough to create a sterile environment, Dr Hardi is able to provide the rest to be able to operate. When heading out to remote communities he packs a portable microscope, a laser, a sterilisation kit, lens implants, a generator for electricity, a box of old Hungarian glasses and a hand made operating table.
Dr Hardi's trips are announced by the most primitive means in a part of the country where there is no mobile phone reception. Community workers cycle around telling school masters, priests and village leaders that he will be passing their communities. People travelling between villages pass the news on by word of mouth and soon blind people, often led by a stick by a family member, start assembling at appointed locations to have their eyes looked at and possibly operated on.
The doctor has more than just the conditions themselves to fight against. River blindness, for example, is a disease transmitted through bites of black flies, can easily be treated with a number of drugs but superstition and the lack of suitable medication in remote areas can cause the parasitic disease to spread through the body and cause irreversible blindness. Hardi is able to perform dozens of surgeries on patients during his trips and some, like a cataract operation where a new lens is implanted into the eye, can be as quick as 10 minutes.
Dr Hardi's work is supported by Light for the World, an NGO which works to save eyesight and help people with disabilities in the underprivileged regions of the world. Dieter Telemans travelled with Dr Hardi to a number of villages along the Sankuru River. A full text is available on request.