Anyone who has applied for a tourist or a professional visa in their life may be familiar with the minefield of processes and the often great lengths involved. Recently, visa delays nearly cost Ethiopian Fellows, optometrists and good friends, Haile and Alemayehu from Gondar University their dream trip to Australia to attend an optometry education course at Brien Holden Vision Institute thanks to an Australian Leadership Awards (ALA) Fellowship program, funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).
Haile and Alemayehu travelled 700km to lodge their visa applications in time to start the program and their Australian adventure.
Mission accomplished, the Ethiopians joined 23 ALA Fellows in Sydney for the three week education course aimed at faculty development and establishment of professional ties for a new generation of global leaders in eye care, hailing from China, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Ethiopia.
It wasn’t all work and no play. The Fellows dabbled in some local sightseeing. Coming from a landlocked country, the friends were at a loss for words after experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the very first time.
“One of the issues in Ethiopia is about awareness of optometry. It isn’t a profession that is out in front, well known or highly regarded yet. Currently, there isn’t an NGO who supports optometry; most NGOs are working with ophthalmologists. We need greater awareness amongst policy makers to provide them with a better understanding about optometry,” said Alemayehu.
Ethiopia, is in East Africa west of Somalia and has approximately 90 *registered optometrists and only two schools of optometry for a population of 93, 815, 992 (estimate, July 2012). The University of Gondar was the first to start an optometry department in 2005 and is the oldest medical school in Ethiopia, established in 1954. Ophthalmology has been regarded as the more popular profession, however, optometric eye care services have begun to gain new ground in Ethiopia. On August 2011, Professor Kovin Naidoo, Global Program Director of the Institute, along with other experts from the eye care industry met for discussions with the Ethiopian Optometrists’ Association and the Optometry Department of the University at Gonder, in a bid to advance eye care practice in Ethiopia.
ALA Fellowship guest lecturer, Professor Naidoo, expressed his support for the program. “A fundamental barrier in the development of optometry in underserved communities has been the lack of educational infrastructure for optometrists and other eye care personnel. The only thing we want to see in return from these Fellows, is that they pass this knowledge on within their own communities and continue the process of learning and implementing.”
The Institute has been working to establish links with Gondor University where support had been requested around the areas of curriculum and faculty development. Additionally, the Institute is assisting the University in reviewing their Masters of Optometry syllabus, which Haile and Alemayehu are currently undertaking. To assist in improving their research capacity, the Institute is facilitating Gondor University to align with other Institutions in Africa, such as the African Vision Research Institute to help strengthen eye care.
There was one thing that both Haile and Alemayehu felt all Fellows understood equally - the language of optometry and vision care. “We may have had some problems understanding one another at first but we did understand ourselves perfectly well when discussing optometry and vision care. It’s been a great experience meeting all the other Fellows and learning about optometry in different countries.” said Alemayehu.
It was an inspiring experience for all those involved, as well as a diverse cultural exchange of nationalities, personalities and beliefs. “I was super impressed with the level of optometry in Australia. It is so advanced here. It has been fantastic experience to see firsthand and to learn about Australian clinical set ups. In our country, we aren’t expected to do research but as optometrists I understand we are responsible for vision care as well as clinical research. I learnt that from this program. Both Alemayehu and I cannot wait to get back home to implement some of the clinical methods. It’s very exciting for us to be able to take this knowledge home,” said Haile.
“In my view, a good way to make training and knowledge sustainable and to increase capacity building in Ethiopia or in any country... is to share the knowledge, exchange the knowledge. This program allowed a diverse group of eye care professionals to meet and learn from one another. It provided a good learning platform to compare and exchange knowledge, methods and ideas,” said Alemayehu.