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From growing up “Spoilt” in Hong Kong to giving the gift of sight in Africa, Joyce Samoutou-Wong shares her journey.

joyce samoutou wong new sight congo african village
Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life

It’s a long way from the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the rainforests of Congo, and Joyce Samoutou-Wong sure has had an extraordinary journey to get there!

It takes a pretty special woman to pack up a comfortable life in the UK to move to Central Africa (with three young kids in tow no less!). Hong Kong-born Joyce Samoutou-Wong, founder of Congo-based NGO, New Sight is one of them. If you were lucky enough to catch her TEDx talk back in 2019 you may be familiar with her story; it’s what made us turn to her for homeschooling advice when the pandemic took hold! We caught up with her to find out what it was like experiencing the pandemic in a developing nation and what bold new projects are on the horizon.

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joyce samoutou wong new sight congo baby

Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in Hong Kong?

Oh, I loved it! I am very close to my family — I am an only child and was the youngest in my extended Big Fat Chinese family for many years. They spoiled me and I loved it! I made great friends and have wonderful memories from my days at my high school (Diocesan Girls’ School), at the Summer Program for High Achievers (Hong Kong International School in collaboration with John Hopkins University), inter-school activities (mostly through Hong Kong Outstanding Students’ Association), as well as with the United World College (UWC) family.

joyce samoutou wong new sight congo school days

“Nowadays our family looks back and laughs about the first bread I baked that was hard as stone and the ‘experimental’ crocodile congee, but those inedible food attempts were not so funny at the time for my hungry children in Africa!”

I was very involved in drama, debating and music. I was terrible at sports and disastrous at home economics — I could follow recipes as if I was doing science experiments until it asked to do something like ‘add according to taste’, then I would become totally lost. It was a huge challenge for me to move and raise a family in an African rainforest, where I had to learn to cook everything from scratch and where very few recipes could be followed because of the very limited ingredients available locally.

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joyce samoutou wong new sight congo

Many Hongkongers would struggle to find Congo on a map! What brought you to Africa?

For as long as I could remember, I had a dream of missions in Africa. It certainly was not because of any affinity for animals, nature or adventures.

“In fact, I would say that if you had known me in my younger days, you would not be able to imagine me visiting, let alone living, in Congo!”

I had the privilege of attending the UWC of Atlantic in the UK on a full scholarship. There, I had the honour to live amongst more than 300 students from over 100 countries. Before that, I had lived a sheltered Hong Kong life and it was really at UWC, that TV and newspapers ceased to be mere words and headlines. They became real people with real needs.

“People suffering from poverty, natural disasters and political unrest were no longer still images, they were now my friends, my friends’ families and the sense of connection to the wider world grew. My eyes were opened. My heart was touched.”

The spirit of idealism and diversity of the UWC staff and students gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone. Studying medicine seemed to be the most useful tool to make a real, impactful difference in the world. When I was in Edinburgh Medical School, I took the first chance I had to go to Africa, applying to do my elective placement at a missionary hospital in Gabon, Central Africa in 2000. I was not very good at geography — I too had to look up the country on a map as well!

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joyce samoutou wong new sight congo family

It’s a bold move, leaving the familiarity of home to set up in a foreign country with three young kids in tow. How did you and your husband decide to make the move?

When we got married in 2004, we settled in the UK for me to complete my post-graduate medical training, while my husband took a sabbatical from ophthalmology and learnt English. We’ve always known that the need for medical care was great in Africa. So, in 2005, we went back to Gabon where we developed a non-profit eye surgical centre.

When the centre became self-sufficient, we understood that Gabon no longer needed us while there were many other countries still in need of eye care. The eye centre in Gabon continues to thrive and to this day serves over 6000 patients a year!

“According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of those who are blind or visually impaired are suffering needlessly because we have proven cost-effective treatment and prevention solutions.”

Then we heard that the Republic of Congo had never had a non-profit eye surgical centre. The problem is that these solutions are not accessible to much of the population. As a result, many people suffered from eye problems because of inadequate access to eye care, especially in the poorest and most remote villages deep in the rainforests.

In 2010, Henri went to Congo on an exploratory tour (I was pregnant with our third child and could not travel at the time).

“On the first day, 6 patients came to ask for help, the second day, there were 12, and on the third day, more than 60 patients came! How could we not go to Congo?”

In 2012, we moved our young family to the northern part of Congo and established New Sight.

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joyce samoutou wong new sight congo eye test

Can you share a little bit about your charity, New Sight?

New Sight serves in the Republic of Congo to restore and protect sight, transforming lives and communities in the region. Our vision is for a world where no one is needlessly blind. Four in five people in the world who are blind or visually impaired suffer from preventable or treatable causes of blindness. We are committed to eliminating all reversible and preventable causes of blindness and severe visual impairment. We do this by providing comprehensive and accessible eye care, empowering the local community through skills training, and advocating eye health by partnering with the government, health authorities and schools to provide health education.

“Our greatest joy is when patients’ lives, their family’s lives and the communities are changed because they can see again.”

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What was the biggest challenge?

We are medics and had no idea how to fundraise, start or run a charity.

“We normally help patients quietly behind closed doors, and now we had to tell everyone about what we are doing!”

We are so thankful for the many supporters who have come alongside us to donate their time, money and skills. We just could not have done it without them, and the only way to continue our work is for all of us to partner together on the field and off the field.

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joyce samoutou wong new sight congo eye surgery

What have been some of the biggest milestones and hopes for the future?

We have been so blessed, and New Sight just celebrated its 10th anniversary last year! I would say these are some of the highlights for the team:

  • Pioneered the first Surgical Eye Centre for the north of the Republic of Congo in Impfondo (2012)
  • Set up the Clinical Training Program in Impfondo (2014) and Ouesso (2019)
  • Commenced Community Health Program and Screening Campaigns in Likouala region (2012) and La Sangha region (2021)
  • Opened the Interim Eye Centre in Ouesso (2019)
  • Set up the country’s first Optical Workshop to manufacture prescription glasses (2021)
  • Opened the Interim Surgical Centre in Ouesso (2022)
  • Created the country’s first children’s magazine (2020) – we are now working with more than 30 schools to keep our readership of 18,000 and growing!
  • Construction of the new Ouesso Eye Hospital (expected to be completed 2023)

The construction of our new comprehensive eye teaching hospital has started and the clinical block is due to be completed this year. It is very exciting! With the new facilities, we will be able to deliver more and better care as we continue to empower the local community through training and creating important job opportunities.

“We would love people to see how weak, spoilt, and ordinary people like me can make a difference and they can too!”

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joyce samoutou wong new sight congo waiting room

What was the pandemic like in Congo and how did this impact your work?

Africa was the last continent to be hit by the pandemic and it was very scary at first. We watched with horror from afar as developed countries struggled that had much better healthcare provision and incomparably more resources and economic reserves.

“It was like seeing fancy 4-wheel drives struggle on the road, and we were in a rusty car that was falling apart waiting for our turn to crash!”

New Sight had to temporarily pause our training and screening programs, adapted our practice and reduced our services to emergencies only, especially since Covid was transmissible through the eye. 

Our supply chain was severely affected and we had to postpone the start of our construction project. When the global economy suffers, it is always the poorest who suffer the most. The needs of the community became more desperate than ever.

However, with the increasing needs also came new opportunities. For example, we were invited by the governor to be on the commission to fight against Covid. With the support of a special Covid fund, New Sight was able to help with health education and the provision of supplies such as masks, medical equipment and portable hand-washing systems.

joyce samoutou wong new sight congo school

“Our children started a kids’ magazine to encourage the local children to continue to learn despite school closure. That magazine has since grown exponentially!”

Another opportunity came when the schools were shut and nobody in our community had access to online learning. In fact, most children had no books or any kind of learning materials at home.

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What can we do as parents to encourage and empower our kids to impact social change?

Our kids are the ones who set up Project Two Front Teeth, which is all about kids seeing the needs of the world and acting on their ideas to create social impact. We believe in cultivating a culture where children “SEE”.

  • S – SEE the needs of the world
  • E – EXERCISE what is already in their hands to make a difference
  • E – EQUIP themselves to make an even bigger difference

When we empower them to start with little things, they realise that they can make a difference, and learning will become meaningful, driven by purpose and passion! I would say the principles behind “SEE” was the best thing I have done as a homeschool mother (all three children are now on scholarships in the UK).

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Do you get back to Hong Kong and what do you miss most?

Not as often as I’d like! It’s very difficult for us to be away given our commitments to running a busy eye surgical centre (with the only facilities in the country to manufacture prescription glasses) and overseeing the construction, fit-out and preparation of a new hospital.

Not to mention the schools we work with, the publication of children’s educational magazines and screening and health education programs. Henri is the only surgeon here at the moment and we also run a nursing school to train local students, so hopefully, they can do more without our supervision in the future. As you can see, our plates are very full!

We really miss home in Hong Kong, and we want to meet up with our supporters, family and friends and celebrate all that we have been able to do together!

Is there anything you do regularly with your kids to remind them of their Hong Kong heritage?

When I am really angry, my Chinese comes out in full force!

“Our son once drew a straight line on a graph with the level of Mother’s anger on the x-axis proportional to the amount of Cantonese spoken on the y-axis!”

Also, when they were homeschooled in Congo, they were always adamant that we should have days off school to celebrate all the Chinese festivals!

Seriously though, we watch documentaries on Hong Kong and Chinese culture, we listen and sing along to Cantonese songs, and we are so glad to finally have internet, albeit limited, to keep in touch as much as we can.

Any last comments you’d like to add?

The late Sir Jack Cater was the donor of my full scholarship with United World College. Without him, my life would have been very different. It’s very powerful to have someone believe in you and I am forever grateful to him, his family and the UWC who worked tirelessly to invest in people like me.

If you come from a family of athletes, sport is likely to be a way of life. If you come from a family of musicians, music is likely to be a way of life.

“If you come from a family of passionate people from all over the world committed to making our world a better place, that world vision is likely to be a way of life.”

I am immensely proud of and thankful for the privilege of growing up in the UWC family. The UWC culture has given me the courage to dare to care and do it scared, the confidence to break out of my small-mindedness, and the craziness to live the dream.

Sassy Mamas can support New Sight by donating directly to the cause and getting your children involved in the project Two Front Teeth.

Follow New Sight on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube and Joyce Samoutou Wong on Instagram.

  All images courtesy of Joyce Samoutou-Wong and New Sight.

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