Zambia, famous for the Victoria falls, it's wildlife and culture, is a popular destination for tourists from around the world. Tourism is perceived in many ways, however, to us as volunteer dental students, this meant understanding and interacting with Zambian culture, its people and their approach to life.
So, after nine hours of flying followed by an eight-hour car journey through beaten down tracks featuring many potholes and lined with huts in a sporadic fashion, a group of dental professionals, nurses and dental students arrived in Mongu, the capital of the Western Province in Zambia.
Upon arrival we were warmly welcomed by Namakau Kaingu, Zambia's Ministry of Health Liaison Officer, who bridged the gap between us and the local community.
Provision of dental care in Zambia
The ratio of dentists to the population is 1:150,000, so with an estimated 114 dentists in Zambia, access to dental care, especially in the rural areas, can prove to be difficult.
The Western province features only one dental technician with the closest dentist being based in in Itezi, a five-hour car journey from Mongu.
It is therefore not surprising that poor dental health is a common occurrence.
Once news of our arrival in Mongu had spread, people suffering from dental pain travelled from afar to visit us.
In over two and a half days, 273 patients, including children from a local school, were seen to, with over 500 teeth being extracted. People would stay the night outside the clinic in the hope to be seen the following day for treatment.
SmileStar: the dental charity
SmileStar is a charity which provides free acute pain relief to people in areas where dental care is difficult to access, whilst also providing free dental care for injured and medically discharged Royal Marines in the United Kingdom.
Volunteers travel to Eastern Africa to provide treatments, that consist mainly of extractions, and interactions occur with the local community to communicate the importance of maintaining oral hygiene to prevent dental pain in the future.
They also work closely with a hospital in India that provide ophthalmic and dental treatments.
Our dental 'dream team'
The team was led by Mitesh Badiani, the founder of SmileStar and Keith Coulston, who had grown to know Zambia quite well through living there for a number of years. All medical supplies and instruments were transported from the UK.
Along with Namakau, who helped us to interact with the local community, the team consisted of Keith and Andy, who were part of the decontamination section, dental professionals - Supriti, Debra and Sneha, who carried out the majority of the extractions, with Nisha and Nita, both dental students, and Cheryl, a dental nurse, assisting.
A translator was also on hand to provide post-operative instructions and a member of the clinic assigned patients onto a waiting list.
As we worked closely with the people of the Limilunga District, we began to learn about their etiquette and were able to apply that to the dental environment to build a rapport with our patients, despite the language barriers.
"Work hard, play hard…"
After a few days of intensive work, the team had the opportunity to experience the untouched beauty that was the Kafue National park. Whilst a 5:30 am wake-up call wasn't quite our idea of a "chill day", our hesitation was soon alleviated when we were greeted by the residents of the national park, the wildlife!
However, our Zambian experience was not only restricted to the safari, our evenings were spent discussing the day's events around a firepit under the stars, eating the most amazing Zambian cuisine and experiencing the novelty of showering with monkeys outdoors whilst overlooking a river inhabited by hippos, crocodiles and a world of other amazing creatures.
We departed Zambia with the satisfaction of having provided care to so many people who wouldn't have otherwise received it, and a newfound appreciation for the Zambian culture, values and wildlife. But, most importantly, we left with a team with whom we share the most amazing memories which we will cherish for a lifetime!
If you are interested in working with SmileStar, please contact Mitesh Badiani.
Nisha & Nita Mandalia, fourth-year dental students
Images Courtesy of Mitesh Badiani and video courtesy of Sneha Shah
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