Tales & images from life as me…

The write time – latest freelance project

As part of my freelance writing work I was recently asked to do some pieces on behalf of an incredible organization, based here in Mwanza, called Bridge2Aid. I thought I already knew a little of what they did, but it turned out that in actual fact I knew very little about the intricacies of the work they, and their intrepid volunteers do, how much difference they are making or how this has been done in partnership with the Tanzanian government and Clinical Officers.

The basic premise, you see, is unique. It’s essentially a charity which focuses on bringing dental pain relief to the rural areas. That is pretty brilliant in itself when you consider that here in Tanzania there are currently 120,000 people to one dentist – but that 90% of the qualified dentists live in cities, whilst 80% of the population live in rural areas. That means a huge proportion of the population do not really have access to dental care. Initially this may not seem that desperate – medical care is surely more of a priority. But when you consider that some people then live with the pain of tooth decay or an abscess for years with no means of relief it’s shocking. Not only that but there are cases where, for example, an abscess gets so infected that it drains out of the cheek, or a tooth is so painful that someone untrained attempts to pull it out and breaks a person’s jaw. These stories are commonly brought to the volunteers of Bridge2Aid.

So – yes, the charity sends qualified dentists and nurses out to temporary clinics (selected through the Regional Officers) and they work exceptionally hard on relieving pain amongst the population brave enough to come. Indeed, they frequently will remove as many as 2,000 teeth in a week! But that’s not where all this ends – as is the case for many other dental volunteer programmes. Bridge2Aid is determined to develop dental training in Tanzania and, as such, has established a programme which actually trains local Clinical Officers to extract teeth safely and to help to manage people’s basic dental requirements. Now in it’s 8th year this programme has served to increase the number of extraction trained Clinical Officers in Tanzania by 50% (from just 400 to 600!).

During each rural clinic volunteers work alongside the COs to teach them practical methods of pain relief. They use only tools that the COs can then be given to keep afterwards – nothing electric and not the enormous selection you might see in a Western dentist’s office, but a set of good quality tools that can be utilized to really make a difference. At the end of the week the COs take an exam and either pass or are called back to complete a second course.

Volunteer dentist Kevin Dow, commented on his return: “I have to admit that at first, on day one, I wondered if the training could possibly work. The COs had done their initial theory, but had no practical understanding whatsoever. They couldn’t even use a mirror! But over the first few days I noticed the phrases I was using changed. I went from ‘no, no, not like that, like this’, to ‘yes, go on, go for it – commit!’ to ‘you tell me’ – and they did! In fact by the end I felt like an assistant, just there to wipe some blood or move a light. That was really something.”

Whilst another volunteer I interviewed, Michael Best- practice owner and dentist, explained that the COs certainly earned the group’s respect over their time together. “These guys are ninja! One guy delivered two babies the night before, had no sleep, and still came to our clinic ready to learn in a foreign language. We get five years to master this stuff – they have a week.” The COs are responsible for all medical requirements in their catchment area, so they may have been trained in a whole range of aspects of care, but dentistry is just one small part of it, hence the gap in their knowledge and experience.

Paediatric dentistry volunteer, Urshla (better known as Oosh) returned from her clinic week saying: “I think I said to you before I went out to site that they were ‘just teeth’ and this isn’t life or death. I was wrong. In these circumstances we actually were occasionally saving lives – let’s face it a life in constant pain or shunned by your village for the way you look is no life at all. This experience has changed me forever. I will never take things for granted or spend so freely ever again. This has been the most rewarding experience of my entire life.”

Oosh talked about a few of the moments that had really touched her, and many were very simple ones– not the shocking decay or the searing pain, but a boy of 14 who’d walked miles with no shoes, the kindness and support of team mates, the shear number of people needing help and the absolute poverty. “There wasn’t time to think, or get upset on our sites, we were so busy and my emotions were irrelevant to a great extent. It was humbling.”

“I was especially touched by a young girl who came saying that she wanted to be a dentist. We extracted one tooth and the next day she came again, trusting us enough to remove another. I hope she manages to get the training she needs.”

And the story was the same from every volunteer I spoke to…On her return the word Roisin, dental nurse and medical student, first reaches for? …”Ridiculous!” but her big smile tells me she doesn’t mean it as a negative. “Amazing! Life changing!” She has not even sat down yet! As she joins me at the table her words spill over. “I know life-changing sounds crass, but honestly. On a personal level I think you really appreciate things more – I mean the COs work so hard, and in a totally different language, and the patients… some of them walked through the night to get to see us. Some of these people have been in agony for years and they are just so grateful for the relief. And the babies – no, I know they don’t have teeth yet, but, oh, I just wanted to steal a few!”

“It’s an amazing feeling, on that last day,” concludes Kevin, “to know that those COs are doing these procedures correctly. I’ll be back in Scotland and he’ll still be here working and helping people. On the other trips I’ve been on once you’ve gone it’s over, but this way we leave years of capacity.”

The photos sadly are not mine to display but suffice to say they are utterly uplifting. I have now written up six interviews and a feature for a dental magazine on behalf of the charity and am delighted to be anticipating more work with them in future.

This is a charity which is setting a model of excellence in its entire methodology. Over the years I have seen so many well-meaning charities fail to really achieve very much because they have not taken time to understand the culture and the people they are trying to help. Bridge2Aid, on the other hand, is increasingly run by Tanzanian staff and it is the plan that not long from now it will actually be handed over completely, allowing the current directors to set up a similar operation in another country where help is needed.

If you’d like to donate, or know anyone in dentistry who might be interested in volunteering, please direct them to http://www.bridge2aid.org/b2a/volunteering.html or back to me and I’ll try and give them a direct contact.

In the mean time, next time you go to the dentist on the NHS or your insurance, spare a thought.

As for my other writing projects – my article in Digital Photographer is out now, there are all sorts of travel pieces due out in several countries over the next couple of months and I have several new commissions on the table so the magazine stuff is going pretty well. The book on the other hand… hmmm. Let me get married and then I’ll get back to the book!


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