When he started work in Senegal and The Gambia, Bakary Cham was the first ophthalmic technician in West Africa. A few others have joined the small group since, but he remains one of the only specialists in the region who can fix the advanced equipment needed for eye surgery.
Fifteen years ago, Bakary went through an extensive training program in Nigeria???the first of its kind in the region. Supported by the West African Health Organization, he learned the essential technical skills for repairing and maintaining these tools.
He has seen the remarkable growth in The Gambia’s eye program since he started work during its infancy. At the time, the program was young, but today it has grown to become one of the country’s leading public health priorities.
Bakary Cham with his son, 10-year-old Paousman.
The Gambia’s success in eye care forged an example others in the region now look to replicate. And when it comes to sustainability of those programs, Bakary’s role is hardly insignificant.
For years, the only solution to broken microscopes was to ship them from West Africa to the UK for repair. The shipment costs were high. The costs of delays for hospitals were even higher. Microscopes of all kinds???essential tools for eye surgery???routinely needed maintenance, and when no one was available to do it locally, they had to ship them overseas, limiting their ability to deliver care in the process.
When Bakary arrived, that all changed.
Bakary Cham outside his repair workshop.
Since the recent expansion of eye care work began in The Gambia, Bakary has been the key link to ensuring the machines function smoothly. On surgery days, he inspects the microscopes before operations to ensure no bulbs are about to burn out or parts need to be replaced, then mans a generator that provides backup power to the operating theater in case of an electrical outage.
On other days, he visits remote eye care units on equipment inspections, fixes microscopes in his workshop or conducts repair sessions over the phone with staff in the field. Regardless of where he is, his work ensures that the hospital can run seamlessly without the inevitable delays caused by maintenance headaches.
Eye care is now a family endeavor for Bakary as well. His son spends many afternoons studying in his father’s workshop after school, and his daughter will begin studying soon to be an optometrist at the same hospital.
"We worked very hard to have this program," he told us.
Bakary is a walking example of the incredible effort it takes behind the scenes to run a hospital. For him, though, it’s a labor of love and a part of the campaign for sight in The Gambia.
Bakary inspects machinery in the operating theater.