Heart to art

South African expatriate draws attention to rare autoimmune disease

Sharmaine Pretorius, a South African expatriate residing in Nizwa, is an artist, author and activist, all rolled into one. But, more importantly, her efforts to find creative expression in diverse media gains greater significance since she suffers from Sjögren’s Syndrome – an autoimmune condition commonly marked by dry eyes, dry mouth and rheumatoid arthritis.

On the occasion of the ninth World Sjögren’s Day, which coincides with Oman’s 49th Renaissance Day (July 23), Sharmaine calls for better understanding of this autoimmune disease in Oman. There’s need for more facilities in Oman to treat conditions associated with Sjogren’s, besides setting up support groups for patients of this disorder and for their family members to help them cope.

Sharmaine was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome at the age of 28 in South Africa. The disease brings with it many debilitating conditions like pain in major salivary glands, micro spasms in tissue surrounding the glands, ear pain, dry eyes, dry mouth, panniculitis and arthritis, all of which Sharmaine has to constantly battle to keep under control.

She came to Oman in August 2010 when her husband took up a job as a faculty member at the University of Nizwa. “Doctors in Oman have been very kind to me. However, I now visit Tbilisi, in Georgia, once or twice a year for ozone treatment which makes me feel better after each session,” says Sharmaine, pointing out that some Gulf countries, especially Kuwait and Bahrain, have a high incidence of Sjögren’s Syndrome. Also, studies show that Sickle Cell Anemia, which has high incidence rate in Oman, may be a possible precursor to autoimmune illnesses such as Sjögren’s Syndrome.

In many countries, the condition is simply not reported because it is misdiagnosed. The dry conditions in Oman can easily mask the disorder. “If you suffer from dry eyes, dry mouth, prolonged fatigue, unexpected dental caries, recurring sinusitis, nose bleeds, difficulty swallowing and prolonged heartburn or reflux, do ask your doctor for a specialist referral to a rheumatologist or internist.”

Sharmaine said even tennis champion Venus Williams suffers from Sjögren’s Syndrome, and stressed that earlier diagnosis helps in better management of the condition. Its treatment is a specialised field, usually treated by rheumatologists or internists. “Oman needs more rheumatologists. It is my dream to bring specialised ozone treatment to Dakhliyah and the rest of the sultanate as it is a natural treatment using an extra oxygen molecule. It is one of the most important and urgent medical services needed in Oman,” she said.

The condition has not stopped Sharmaine from anything. Besides being a full-time artist, she owns a business in Bulgaria where she is an online consultant specialising in port and aviation security awareness as well as intercultural relations – advisory and research. She belongs to the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) – a signature effort by the US government to invest in the next generation of African entrepreneurs and activists, and is currently writing a series of books for teenagers.

Her first book, Nasser – The Boy from Nizwa, is currently going through its final edits. “The world needs to hear stories about the people in Oman. Arabic treasures are lodged in oral tradition, but I wish to make the people more accessible from the outside too.” About her work as an artist, Sharmaine said, “My art is about all the holographic memories surrounding us daily. I draw what I see and experience in my dreams. My art contains maps, puzzles and hidden musical compositions according to the Chladni chart of sound frequencies among others. It is supposed to be beautiful, entertaining and fun. It also takes my mind off myself.”

In 2018, Sharmaine held a solo exhibition ‘Enclosure Fathom – Part 1’ in Nizwa. She now plans to hold ‘Enclosure Fathom – Part 2 in December 2019/January 2020.

Her other works, I Wanna Be A Starwalker and Rose Revisited – Floating Matrix, will be exhibited at CICA Museum in Seoul, South Korea, as part of a group exhibition named ‘Contemporary Landscape 2019’ in November.

On the occasion of World Sjogren’s Day, Sharmaine acknowledges Oman as a magical place with a vibrant culture and forward-looking vision of its ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who brought about a laudable synergy between principles and action.

“Like Oman, I am able to contribute to society because I have been carried on the shoulders of giants in my life, be they medical staff or my family members and friends. The wisdom of being peacemakers and following His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s excellent example of focusing on virtues with eternal value, shall always elevate Oman to a higher level and growth will be unstoppable,” Sharmaine observed


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