Eyes of the Beholder

When a fashion designer goes blind in Africa, who takes care of him?

It’s rainy season in Congo and Marcel’s backyard is a muddy mess. He has seated himself on the only dry ground with one stack of sketches in his lap and another at his feet. Marcel, 60, comments that he has never liked having his photo taken, but he poses like a seasoned professional. As he holds up each sketch, his enthusiasm suggests that it’s been a while since someone has asked him to discuss his designs. In fact, it’s been a while since he’s seen them himself.

Five years ago, Marcel was at the peak of his career. He had earned his place as a respected designer and tailor among Congo’s elite. He was seeing six or seven clients per day in his shop in Pointe Noire. Marcel met the sartorial needs of high society; through his doors came businessmen, oil executives, and government officials, even the city’s Mayor. Anyone who was anyone was wearing Marcel.

Marcel’s creations were art. After studying fashion and tailoring in Brazzaville, Congo’s capital, he returned to Pointe Noire to outfit the residents of his hometown. As he made a name for himself, Marcel built a business and a family. He and his wife lived in the house behind his shop. Life was good, but underneath the fabric bolts and tape measures, Marcel had a secret: he was going blind.

The plucky 55-year-old carried on working anyway. Within the next year, his vision deteriorated into milky-white blindness from cataracts. He kept his shop open until the day he realized he had been sewing suit pockets on backwards. It was time, he decided. Marcel closed his doors.

Marcel wasn’t unique in his condition — cataracts are the leading cause of reversible blindness in sub-Saharan Africa. (source: World Health Organization) Under different circumstances, a man as persistent as Marcel might have been able to access and afford the treatment he needed. But in central West Africa, the treatment that was available was out of his reach. He had no options but to learn to live in unnecessary blindness. After a career spent dressing the powerful, Marcel found himself powerless. He grieved his vision, his independence, his livelihood, and his art.

In the fall of 2013, Marcel’s wife, Philomene, saw a poster in Pointe Noire. It advertised an organization called Mercy Ships that offered free cataract surgeries. She wrote down the information and went home to Marcel with the news. It seemed too good to be true. At his appointment, Marcel was assessed by a Mercy Ships volunteer ophthalmologist and scheduled for eye surgery on the Africa Mercy.

Today, Marcel can see again. When he talks about the eye surgery that restored his vision, he’s talking about a 30-minute outpatient procedure which was sponsored by a donor for $250. The cost is not insignificant, but when considering all the ways the surgery has restored his life, it seems small.

As for fashion, Marcel is picking up right where he left off. He plans to re-open the shop next to his house, and he is already conceptualizing the garments he will create. The news that Marcel’s vision has been restored has been widely celebrated in town. “My community is worshiping God,” he says. Soon, he hopes his shop will be busy again with the familiar faces of his dapper clientele.

Today in Marcel’s dreary backyard, one might struggle to find inspiration — but Marcel says he finds exceptional beauty in the ordinary. He sees with new eyes, taking nothing for granted. In fact, his current muse is a chicken. He considers the feathers of a chicken to be so elegant that he is inspired to create a masterpiece, but Philomene says his first order of business is to make something especially for her. Marcel knows better than to disagree.

Philomene, Marcel, and two of their grandchildren.
While Marcel was blind, he became a grandfather for the 5th time.

Rainy season is almost over, and, when the sun comes out, Congo’s gorgeous landscape will bloom. Between his work, grandchildren, and yard of inspirational poultry, Marcel can look forward to a beautiful future.

Years ago, it was a different Marcel who wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

I know a Marcel in Congo who understands this in ways most of us never will.

About Mercy Ships: Mercy Ships is a non-profit that has operated hospital ships in the developing world since 1978. www.mercyships.org @mercyships

About the author: Catherine Clarke Murphy is a Writer and Photographer for Mercy Ships. She shares stories from Africa about the patients she meets along the way. To read more, visit www.clarkemurphy.wordpress.com @clarkemurphy