Providing Dentistry in Africa

How serving others in Africa helped me grow a passion for dentistry.

Providing Dentistry in Africa 1

I carefully packed my new teal and gray scrubs in my luggage. They were going with me to Kenya on a mission trip for two weeks. Our group was traveling half way around the world to Nairobi where we would catch a bus for a seven-hour bus ride to our destination in an underserved area of the country in which we would help build a school cafeteria and dining hall, as well as provide free medical and dental care to people in surrounding areas in need. I was looking forward to serving the people in Kenya— 

What motivated me the most and really got me excited was the thought of being part of a dental team. Ever since I was a young girl, I have always enjoyed going to the dentist for routine cleaning appointments. Now that I am older, I have become more interested in dentistry as a profession. Here was an opportunity to get some practical, hands-on experience in providing dental care. 

In all honesty, I did not know what to expect. I had no idea what helping out in a dental clinic would be like and couldn’t help asking myself a number of questions. How will I react to the sight of blood? What will it feel like probing around in someone’s mouth? What if my hands shake due to my nervousness? The one thing I did expect was this. I planned to be the one bringing a blessing to the needy people in Kenya by providing free dental care. But I would soon realize that my assessment was distorted and needed adjustment. 

When I discovered I was definitely being assigned to the dental team, I was over the moon with excitement and anticipation. The night before clinic began, I made sure that my scrubs were laid out and ready to go. 

Early the next morning, I put on my scrubs, put my hair in a ponytail, and tucked my pen into one of my scrub’s many pockets. I was set. I looked the part. I felt the part, and I knew that the medical and dental work that we were going to provide people was going to be a blessing to them. I felt a bit nervous not knowing what I was actually going to be doing or what to expect when we arrived at the site where we would be working. 

Providing Dentistry in Africa 2

After reaching the clinic site, I stepped out of the bus to see dozens of people eagerly waiting outside, hoping to see a doctor or dentist. I knew we would have a long day ahead if we were going to see every patient already waiting in line. Wanting to see as many people as we possibly could, we quickly started setting up our table and laid out the instruments, gauze, gloves, needles, and medicines. 

Simple plastic chairs available for the patients to sit in while they got their teeth examined lined the walls of the tent which would serve as our operatory. In a pensive moment surveying this situation, I realized right then and there that the planning required to make this clinic possible had taken months of preparation. Dedicated dentists had sacrificed time and donated supplies. Furthermore, they willingly volunteered to serve people to the best of their ability. 

One by one the patients filed into the tent. As I assisted the dentist, I heard patients describe the pain and problems they were feeling in their mouth. Listening to these people talk, I realized that many of them probably had never seen a dentist before, either because they did not have the money, or because a dentist was just not available locally. 

The vast majority of the patients that we saw had large amounts of tartar, decay, and dark spots covering their teeth. Some of them, through no fault of their own, may have even lacked the simple knowledge of basic dental hygiene and how to care for their teeth. Very few patients that we saw had bright pink gums and clean white teeth. 

Being interested in dentistry, I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity given to me. In time, I had the amazing opportunity to pull my first tooth. Initially, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle the sight of blood, but I was determined that if the dentist offered to allow me to extract a tooth, I would. 

The opportunity finally came. A patient came in experiencing pain caused by one specific tooth. The only option available was to extract it. The dentist asked me if I would like to pull the tooth. I was all in; I wanted to learn. I reached for the extracting forceps and started to carefully twist the tooth. Eventually it popped! I relished this experience, but the best part about the procedure was seeing the patient’s sweet smile, expressing relief that I had relieved her agony, and that she would go home and eat food without pain. This experience was, for me, the biggest reward. 

Providing Dentistry in Africa 3

As time passed, I began musing to myself. Here I am in Kenya assisting people who need and want help to relieve their pain. Here I am in my clean scrubs while many of these patients are wearing tattered shoes and are forced to wash their clothes in muddy river water. Most of them do not have the opportunity to just stop by the dentist for a quick checkup. They don’t have the luxury of sitting in nice, comfortable dental chairs with padded head rests. Rather, they are sitting in plastic chairs while one of us supports their head, using our arms as a brace. It gradually dawned on me that even though these people may have walked barefoot to our clinic and may live in modest, humble homes, yet they still possessed an inner strength and dignity that caused them to break forth into beautiful smiles of gratitude. This was the beginning of a wakeup call I needed. 

Most of the time, I was so busy I didn’t have time to even stop or think of myself and how tired I felt. Yet, somehow serving these warm-hearted people energized me with each smile and encounter I experienced. My first fear vanished, and I loved the experience of serving the people—every minute of it. 

After this opportunity of working in a barebones, outdoor dental clinic, I realized that what was most memorable and worthwhile was not my being able to wear my new teal and gray scrubs nor the thrill of visiting an enthralling game park once our clinic concluded. Rather, it was about serving grateful people and expecting no material reward in return. 

What I received was something priceless and unforgettable—the return of a smile, the expression of a thankful heart, the clasp of a grateful handshake. That one moment I enjoyed spending with the appreciative, smiling patient whose tooth I had just pulled—knowing that we had relieved her pain—was the best possible reward. Money cannot buy a heart full of thankfulness or a smile of gratitude. I thought that I was the one traveling to Kenya to bless people there. But I was wrong. In fact, I was the one that received the blessings, blessings I will cherish for a lifetime.