Mali, Africa, 1 March 2018: Drissa Coulibaly is one of a kind. He is one of the initial graduating Optometric Technicians from the first intake of students enrolled in the inaugural school of optometry at the Institut Ophtalmologique Tropical d'Afrique (IOTA) in Mali. That is a whole lot of firsts – and Drissa did not stop there…
He knew studying for his Master’s degree would better his capability to work as a lecturer at IOTA and become a critical part of the emerging faculty. So, late in 2016 Drissa flew away from his Mali home, his pregnant wife and baby son, to Canada to take up an opportunity to study his Master’s in visual sciences at l’École d’optométrie de l’université de Montréal.
Drissa’s words at the time echoed both his gratefulness and willingness to accept the responsibility of being the first Malian to walk this pioneering pathway. “This great opportunity has come about after two long years of campaigning to get here and thanks to the support of various organisations and individuals, my dream has finally become a reality. I am very proud and grateful to gain this chance and hopefully become part of the emerging optometry program as faculty, as I understand the greater impact of how optometry can change the face of eye care in Mali.”
The dramatic change in weather; Mali’s temperatures range from 20-35 degrees Celsius to Montreal where the temperatures can reach minus 25 degrees or lower; not to mention the associated culture-shock and separation from his young family; seemed insignificant compared to the learning curve Drissa had to navigate through his post-graduate studies over the next 12 months.
We spoke to Drissa in September 2017 for a progress update. He offered much insight and reflection.
“At the optometry school, my first difficulty was how the courses were delivered here in Canada which was very different from my country, the language used, accent and assumed knowledge. The course that particularly challenged me was ocular health. It was a first for me to have such an advanced course in eye health which highlights the high level of the training in Canada. The remarkable availability and patience of the professors helped me overcome most of the difficulties.”
“Another challenge for me was to conform to this new level of practice, the working environment, the instruments, patient records, and time pressures, the new types of patients, their philosophies, and the industry’s philosophy.”
Mid-year Drissa returned to Mali briefly for the birth of his daughter. “I had a very good moment with my family. My wife gave birth to our baby girl on August 10 and my return to Montreal was the very next day on August 11. I was very happy to spend time with them, especially my two year old son, but I have to admit the return was much more difficult than my first arrival in Montreal.”
Drissa’s dedication to his work showed further still by him using his precious home time to visit IOTA.
“Visiting IOTA allowed me to renew with my reality with fresh eyes. In short, Mali needs more knowledge of diagnostic techniques, ocular health and pharmacology in order to expand our scope of practice. I discussed with my IOTA managers the optometry program in Montréal in comparison with our program in Mali, and they were very happy to receive my suggestions. Another important part was the exchanges with the current optometry students, motivating them to study well, do upskilling courses and strive to further their professional career paths.”
Following the completion of his Master degree and eager for more knowledge, about binocular vision and visual therapy and binocular vision, Drissa pursued a short additional one-month traineeship at the practice a dedicated supporter in Montreal, Dr. Carole Melancon. Carole and her husband provided Drissa with ongoing assistance during his stay in Canada.
“I thank Carole Melançon and Jean-Marie Desroches, as well as Luigi Bilotto and his family, who offered many gifts to my family for the birth of my daughter. I also thank them for their kindness and all that they have done and continue to do, but also Brien Holden Vision Institute, l’École d’optométrie de l’université de Montréal., and the donors such as Optometry Giving Sight, Lions Club International Foundation, l’Université de Montréal, the Australian Government who have contributed financially to my journey.”
We hear now from Drissa after his auspicious return to Mali in early 2018.
“After a year far away from my home, my return was an event never to forget. The return of a father for my children, a husband for my wife, a son for my mother, a brother for my sister and my friends. For IOTA, it is the return of hope for the development of optometry and the well-being of the population.
I will never be able to thank the people enough who have come from far or near to contribute to this project,” he said.