Without sight, with hindsight: Mahomed’s ICS experience as a blind volunteer in Zambia
At 16, Mahomed lost his sight from retinal detachments in both his eyes. He was forced to quickly learn to cope with a life without vision – and all the challenges that suddenly came with it.
Now 26, ten years later, he’s climbed Kilimanjaro, skydived, represents England in blind cricket, and recently took a leap of faith by travelling to Zambia to volunteer with Challenges Worldwide ICS.
It was a challenge which took Mahomed out of his comfort zone, forcing him to live with a host family for three months in a city where getting around as a blind person presented extra difficulties.
But Mahomed thrived under the pressure of the situation, helping to grow businesses for the local entrepreneurs he was working with, making lifelong friends, and learning more about himself.
Back in the UK, he’s now an ambassador for Guide Dogs for the Blind, championing young blind people to follow their dreams and not be intimidated by the scale of the challenge of volunteering.
In this blog, Mahomed explains to ICS what it was like to lose his sight, why he’s been inspired to grasp every opportunity and learning how some challenges are simply universal.
Shock to the system
“Initially becoming blind was very, very tough because it was a shock to my system,” said Mahomed.
“You miss the things you didn’t appreciate before – simple things, like chucking your shoes in the corner and losing them, or looking for something on a worktop and knocking a glass over – there’s all those frustrations and dangers that surround it.
“Things like that make you feel pretty low. I couldn’t go to school any more, and at 16, you’re very conscious of the fact you’re having to hold someone’s elbow. You do feel a bit crap.
“But now I don’t care. That’s because of two things: firstly, age, and secondly, and more importantly, is that I just don’t care about looking different. I make less of a fool of myself if I accept help.”
People don’t know I’m any different
It was after being given a guide dog while still a teenager that Mahomed found a passion for grasping every opportunity presented to him.
“I’m quite lucky that I’ve only lost my eyesight,” he said.
If someone walks into my house they won’t know I’m any different to them. And I see that reflected in my CV too. I’ve gone to uni, got good grades, worked different jobs – people wouldn’t ever think I have a disability.
“It hit home that I had more of a life to live. From getting a guide dog at 17, I found very few Muslims have guide dogs, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to support them, because having my dog helped me a lot and I believe it will help other Muslims and blind people as well.
“From there I progressed. The dog helped with my independence and living alone, but what I realised from finishing university was that I’d missed out on joining a lot of societies.
“It came to the end and I remember thinking ‘apart from a degree, what else have I got?’ All I did was work and make friends. That’s when I signed up to climb Kilimanjaro.
“Five years before I would never have done that.”
Being pushed to go away
It was Mahomed’s experience climbing Africa’s highest peak that persuaded him to apply for ICS. The gruelling 6,000m climb – without his guide dog Vargo – forced him to rely on the support of other young people and mountain guides to reach the top of the mountain.
“Ultimately that’s what led me to do ICS,” he said.
I just thought ICS is another incredible opportunity. As I get older, I’ve realised that with age these opportunities become fewer and fewer.
“I applied, got a call back and we had a discussion, but even then I was hesitant. But with the pushing from the ICS team it made me realise that they will actually support me.
“Practically, I knew I wasn’t going to be very good at building a well. I needed to be placed with a programme that could meet my skills and physical ability – and so I was paired with Challenges.”
First experience of blindness
Working on their business development programme, Mahomed was paired up with a group of young entrepreneurs in the Zambian capital of Lusaka to help grow their businesses.
For many of those who Mahomed came into contact with in his 11 weeks in Lusaka, this was their first ever interaction with a blind person – and it was a huge learning experience for them.
“I know for a fact I had a huge impact on my host family and the people I worked with. And I’d had a big impact on people here in the UK who heard what I’d done,” he said.
Living as an Indian Muslim in an African host home was always going to be a challenge – especially during Ramadan. But for me the highlight was my host dad telling me that I’d changed his opinions.
“Now I’m in regular contact with them. I just don’t think I would have had the same impact on them if I wasn’t blind.”
Putting my trust in people
In an unfamiliar country, there was no choice for Mahomed than to put his trust in the UK and in-country volunteers and staff who he was working with on placement.
Speaking about the need to rely on the public in the UK to help while out of the house, investing trust in strangers is something that Mahomed had plenty of experience of before ICS.
“Generally, people feel empathy. But most people don’t have much experience of interacting with a blind person. They’re scared of how to help you, but that empathy overrides it,” he explained.
“The thing that helps me more is that I’m a chatty guy, I made friends quickly, and I’m willing to give my trust to a stranger. For me, if I don’t have my dog, I let them guide me, I put my trust in them.
“On ICS, everyone is very friendly, knows they’re in the same boat, everyone helps each other. Out of that I’ve made a few very close friends who I see often.”
“The experience is something I really treasure. My old prejudices have been removed. I was never disposed to being prejudiced, but I certainly don’t feel any now,” said Mahomed.
People are just human beings – they talk differently, eat differently, but at the heart are still the same core emotions.
I can go anywhere
Heading to India in January for the Blind Cricket World Cup, Mahomed is looking forward to an exciting 2017 filled with new opportunities and challenges.
“I’m very lucky,” he added.
“Instead of travelling, ICS was an experience working, being immersed in a culture I wouldn’t have had any other opportunity to be engaged with. How else could I have lived in Zambia?
“I don’t know if I was lucky or adaptable – but probably just a mix of both.
“I thought I would be defenceless in a country I didn’t know. But I had a safety net of great people and great support. What I realise now is I can go anywhere.”
Every year ICS supports many young disabled people like Mahomed to go overseas and volunteer in one of 22 countries. Read more from Mahomed about his experience volunteering.