Heart of Treasure Valley

Sierra Leone exchange student seeing ‘better days’ after surgery

Ever since he was a baby, Joseph Sesay has been blind.

“My mother explained to me that I used to play with other kids. Around age 3 or 4, she discovered that I don’t have my sight. She had to take special care of me. Ever since I grew up, I don’t remember me having my normal vision,” he said.

The lack of sight, however, hasn’t hindered his aspirations. In August, he arrived in Boise as a foreign exchange student from Sierra Leone. His host father is Tony Boatman.

“One thing I found out very quickly when he came here is that Joseph does not like to be told what he probably can’t do. He likes challenges,” Boatman said.

Take his studies: As early as first grade, Joseph decided he was going to be the top student in Sierra Leone’s Milton Margai School for the Blind. He came in third. The next year, second. But in third grade, he was ranked first, where he has remained through high school.

And there’s more. In junior high school, Joseph took his Braille stylus and Braille typewriter and moved to a school for sighted students.

“They were almost not going to accept me because I was blind; they thought I could not cope in that school,” Joseph said. “I went there (and) again, I was the first person in my class. I was the best person there. So they started having confidence in me.”

Such confidence, in fact, that in 2013, Joseph was named Young Disabled Academic of the Year for all of Sierra Leone.

“I want to be a teacher. I want to be a president in Sierra Leone,” he said. “I can be both. … I want to do things for my country.”

And now, he is attending 11th grade at Boise High School.

• • • 

Joseph’s year in the United States almost didn’t happen. A year ago, three days before he and seven other students were to leave Sierra Leone, they received word that the program had been postponed for six months.

“I saw those six months like somebody had said, ‘Let us wait 10 years,’” he recalled. “When (six months) came and we were still not able to go, that was more stress and disappointment.”

In 2014, Sierra Leone was the epicenter for the deadly ebola virus. No one was allowed to leave the country; even travel within the country was restricted. Public gatherings were not allowed; school was canceled for nine months. If anyone came to visit Joseph’s village, they had to go through a security and health checkpoint.

“Being there was scary as can be,” Sesay said.

Joseph’s host father in Boise waited, too. In Sierra Leone, it was too risky to travel to the city to check email because of ebola, so communication was tenuous.

“I thought about it all last year. Here are these kids who have been let down and they’re surrounded by people who are dying,” Boatman said. “It turned out to be about 1 percent of the population, but still, that was too many when it’s your friends, schoolmates, maybe some of your family members.

“A lot can happen in six months in a normal situation. But when you’ve got a country in the throes of an epidemic, six months seems like forever.”

Joseph and his family remained healthy, and in August this year — one year delayed — the Sierra Leone students were allowed to travel. Joseph is at Boise High School. Another young girl is in Payette, and the rest are in other states, placed by AFS-USA, the international high school exchange program.

“Finally, I am thankful to God that I am now here,” Joseph said.

• • • 

Tony Boatman retired as executive director of the Boise Philharmonic in 2010. Now that his own son is in college, Boatman jokes that he’s like a family with a bunch of kids, except his are all from overseas: Joseph is his eighth foreign exchange student.

“I’ve always been an internationalist,” he explained. “I majored in history in college, not music; I went overseas in the Peace Corps (in Cameroon) for three years. … Unfortunately, I cannot afford to travel as much as I would like to — or I’d be on the road all the time — so I decided if I can’t go to the world, I’m going to bring the world here.”

When Joseph arrived, Boatman discovered that he had never seen an eye doctor, so Boatman arranged an appointment. The diagnosis: congenital cataracts.

“They’re more difficult to remove than regular cataracts, but they are removable,” Boatman said.

“I always say I wish I could see … because I want to do everything my colleagues do,” Joseph said. “A teacher would draw something or ask the students to draw; well, they would be drawing but since I cannot see, I will not draw.

“Me sitting alone without doing what the others are doing, I feel a bit segregated or isolated. I feel alone. Also people watch movies. … I know I can listen but I also want to see the action.”

“I would be really happy to try and see the faces of people that I have been talking to all along. Also, if my vision would be as good as the reading point, even with glasses, I would love to be reading this” —Joseph hefts a braille copy of “The Crucible,” a book they’re reading in class, on the table. It’s probably 8 inches thick — “normal print.”

He jokes:

“Braille could make you at times even fear to read books because they are very large.”

Joseph has some vision through his cataracts, but it’s cloudy. He can see shadows and shapes and some colors. He’s learned to ride a bike.

“I have a basketball hoop over the garage door; he hits about 10 percent,” Boatman said. “Better than the Los Angeles Lakers.”

But to be able to really see…

“I was not expecting this really. If I had that expectation, maybe this would have been just 1 or 2 percent. I know I am just here to learn. If anything like that was to come up, I considered it just as a total gift from the Americans,” Joseph said.

The Moran Eye Institute in Salt Lake City waived a considerable amount of the cost, but the surgery would still cost about $7,500. Boatman and teachers at Boise High School started a GoFundMe account on a Thursday. By Saturday, they had reached the goal.

“(From) people of all ages — people in their 80s, high school kids. One of the words (the students) had to learn for the SAT exam that they all took (recently) was ‘altruism,’” Boatman said. “This is a really good lesson in altruism for everybody, because they gave from their hearts.

“There were a couple contributions of $200, but by (and) large, we made that goal with gifts of $20, $25, $50,” he added.

“It really makes me feel that I am being loved by the people in the United States, that they have concern for me,” Joseph said.

• • • 

On Oct. 30, Joseph successfully had surgery to remove the cataracts. It was the beginning of a new phase of Joseph’s life.

“I refer to these days as being ‘better days’ … because of what I can now see, because of the improvements of the visions. That’s better days,” he said.

The first thing Joseph noticed when he opened his eyes after the surgery was light — all the light; way too much light. He had to wear sunglasses for a few weeks. The surgery, as miraculous as it is, is not a miracle. Joseph can see, but he now has to learn to recognize what he sees.

“Joseph obviously reads and writes braille fluently. … He can sit down at the computer and in a flash type, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,’” Boatman said. “But if you ask him to take a pencil in his hand and write it on a piece of paper, he doesn’t know how to form the letters.”

“It would be like the reverse situation of somebody being struck totally deaf and they had to learn how to read lips. That’s a skill you don’t have to develop unless you need it.”

Joseph goes to occupational therapy to learn eye-hand coordination — understanding, for instance, if a balloon is coming toward him or away from him — and he’s getting special reading help at school. Already he can navigate the halls without his cane and go through the cafeteria line alone. He can watch movies or his beloved Manchester United soccer team live. He attended his first high school basketball game and watched the action.

He can see faces, although not to recognize yet; that’s a learned skill. He’s marveled at the lines on roads and street signs, at details on his computer mouse and the texture in his bedroom ceiling. And snow. He saw his first snow.

“All of these I was not able to see before,” Joseph said. “For the first time, I was able to see them. I was really happy.”

Joseph is in Boise until June. He’s a fast learner and he’s learning fast, but Boatman worries a little about when he returns to Sierra Leone, now a sighted young man.

“He’s still in the process of realizing how much this means to him. If I were in his situation, I would be extremely frustrated, because I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone,” he said. “We grew up with all these visual triggers that a blind person does not have. They develop others — hearing, (for instance). Joseph hasn’t lost any of those. … But this is something that will take days, weeks, years. This will be a process of learning because, in a lot of ways, he’s 18 years old but he’s 17 years behind.”

“And people’s expectations for you change,” Boatman added. “‘You can see now; why can’t you do this?’ Or internalizing: ‘I can see now; why can’t I do this?’”

Joseph wrote and performed a thank you song for Boise High School:

“ … I want to thank my God for the love and courage and the friends he gives me throughout America.

“I want to thank all teachers, all parents and students, for their tremendous effort in rebuilding my life.”

The surgery was five days before Joseph’s 18th birthday, so he considers it a really fine birthday present. And Christmas present.

“Even a New Year’s present. … Things don’t go backward. Every day they get better.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, kjones@idahostatesman.com, @IDS_Photography


Although the GoFundMe reached its goal, Joseph has had expenses beyond the original calculations. In addition, anything over what Joseph needs will be donated to the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Sierra Leone.

“The eagerness to learn (at the School for the Blind) and the eagerness to teach are there, but the funds to acquire things like these Braille books and Braille writers and computers that will talk to you (is beyond them),” Boatman said. “People aren’t paid enough to be able to afford the tools they need for learning.”