Our blind veterans take part in an exchange to South Africa

26 October 2018 16:00

Project Gemini is our exchange program for British and American former Armed Forces personnel who have lost their sight. Since 2014 we have extended the trip to include South African blind veterans too, which provided a great excuse for a trip to South Africa earlier this month!

British blind veteran, and President of our charity, Colin Williamson who has led Project Gemini from the beginning, says:

"We wanted to initiate the project based around the idea of extending the co-operation we show on the battlefield. We fight together and it’s only right that we should heal together."
Project Gemini members in South Africa

Blind veteran Richard, 65 and ex-Army, served in the Royal Artillery.  After training at Sandhurst he served in the UK, Germany, Belize, the Gulf and Northern Ireland and on leaving the Army joined St John’s Ambulance.

He lost his sight through glaucoma, first noticing his sight loss while playing golf.  Initially he says: 

"I was so angry, more so than fear.  I believed that timely operations would have saved my sight.  Instead I have been left with just a tiny bit of sight out of the bottom corner of my left eye and about ten per cent vison in my right eye so it is like looking through a very dirty net curtain all the time.  However, with that very limited sight, I am still able to assist those who have no sight at all both as a physical guide and to ‘paint a picture’ of where we are and what is around us."

Richard continued, “The god send was being introduced to Blind Veterans UK and within six months I was in there as a member”.

He has recently returned from South Africa, travelling with the charity as part of our Project Gemini.

This September Richard, Colin and three other intrepid blind veteran explorers left these shores and embarked on what Richard described as “an amazing adventure” to visit our sister organisation, St. Dunstans, in Cape Town, accompanied by three of our staff members.

Arriving at their hotel for the stay they had their first taste of Castle Draught, the flagship draught beer of South African Breweries, and “an excellent pint it is too” was the verdict!

During a visit to the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, the impressive bastion fort dating to the seventeenth century and the oldest surviving building in South Africa, they were given a tour by a very knowledgeable and humorous tour guide who kept them entertained with anecdotes and historical facts and at one stage locked them in the ammunition cellar to experience how dark it was; much to the amusement of our totally blind veterans….

Getting ready for the dragon boat race

Other activities included dragon boat racing in the placid waters of the lagoon and a mini-safari at Buffelsfontein Wildlife Reserve followed by dinner that evening where the menu included most of the animals seen at the game reserve including crocodile, kudo, warthog and ostrich.

While on-board the cabin cruiser for their sunset dinner cruise around the Cape Peninsular, one of our blind veterans commented that the BBQ smelled nice but unfortunately it wasn't the BBQ.  It was in fact the ship that had caught fire and had to be doused with several fire extinguishers!   Funny sense of smell these Blind Veterans UK guys, was the general view.

Richard said Table Mountain was the highlight of the trip. The cable cars revolve 360 degrees when ascending the mountain. Richard was just able to make out the urban sprawl of Cape Town and a brown blob in the blue sea which he was reliably informed was Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

Richard teaching in SA
Richard (far right standing) sharing technology knowledge with South African members

During ‘down time’ when they weren’t out and about time was spent chatting with the South African blind veterans, sharing knowledge, talking about some of the coping strategies used by our blind veterans in their daily lives and generally getting to understand their needs and frustrations in order to try and make their lives a little easier. True comradeship in every sense.

Richard face painting in SA
Richard getting into the spirit of South Africa

The trip concluded with us presenting St. Dunstans CEO, Gareth Morgan, with two framed photographs taken in 1946 depicting members of St. Dunstans South Africa producing their in-house magazine ‘The Tembani Times’. Richard spoke on behalf of our charity, thanking our hosts 

"for the generosity of spirit of St. Dunstans and especially thanking the four ladies who staff their office and worked so tirelessly to ensure our members enjoyed their stay."

Richard presented their Chairman, Brian Figaji, with a beautiful wood carving from his native North Yorkshire as a token of our appreciation for what had been an amazing week, and everyone was given their Project Gemini bespoke coin and badge.

Richard summarized the trip as:

"An experience that will be indelibly marked in my memory. Our South African peers have all lost their sight through trauma, yet they are positive in their outlook and are amazing people. They made my journey to sight loss seem insignificant and I felt humble in their company."