Eight volunteer dental professionals from around the UK met up with our Dentaid team leader Gail at Schipol Airport for the long flight to Entebbe. We were off to Uganda for what Gail described as: “two weeks of hard work and fun” – it turned out she wasn’t wrong.
From the moment we landed in Entebbe with a huge stack of cases and bags, to when we boarded the return flight two weeks later, it was all go as our exhausted but happy faces showed.
The first day started with a long session of sorting dental supplies and meeting up with the four Ugandan dentists who were working with us and our two drivers. Organised by the extremely efficient and patient Gail, we became a team there and then.
Our first clinic was at a primary school reached by driving along a bouncy, rutted, muddy, red road. We were to discover that all roads leading to our clinics were like this due to thunderstorms or heavy rain which made our driver’s task even more tricky.
We were met with great excitement, smiles and waves from the children and staff. We set up a clinic in a classroom and saw our first patients. That was my 63rd birthday and it will always be a very special memory.
I felt slightly tentative to start with, especially as I had to rely on a translator, but I soon got into the swing of things and several hours passed in a flash as we got on with treatments as if this was a normal day in our surgeries in the UK.
There were a few differences to adjust to. No aspirator for suction, no 3-in-1 syringe, standing the whole time and a light atttached to your forehead which didn’t stay pointed where you wanted it to. It took a few clinics before I stopped shining my torch into folks’ eyes.
The main treatments were extractions, fillings, scaling and fluoride varnish applications. Every patient recieved a toothbrush, toothpaste and lots of oral hygiene instruction.
At the end of each clinic we packed everything up and reloaded the van. This was the pattern for a further nine clinics. A total of 1259 patients were treated as we travelled from the Mountains of the Moon in the west to Jinga in the east.
After just a couple of clinics we realised we were seeing, up close, the massive need for dental treatment across Uganda. Lack of access, not enough dentists, poverty and poor understanding of oral hygiene are the principal reasons.
Our Ugandan dentists work daily in these challenging circumstances with very limited resources.
At every clinic, whether at a school, a church hall or community centre, the welcome and thanks we received was humbling.
We were treated to dancing, singing and local food (including fried grasshopper and roast goat) and surrounded by so much laughter and so many smiles, that the sore feet, heat, tiredness and mossie bites faded into insignificance.
The Ugandans generously shared their culture with us. We even had Ugandan national costume specially made for us so we could join in the celebration they held for us in Buzaaya, a dynamic little community set amidst the sugar cane fields in the east of Uganda.
On our two rest days, Gail had arranged a chimp trekking expedition in the Kibale Forest and sleeping close to nature in a cabin in the Mabira Forest. We also managed a boat trip on the Nile, an evening watching a professional dance group and the chance to shop for local crafts.
At one of our post-op treatment stations, a local gentleman showed the team how to make “Ugandan toothbrushes” from a twig. So simple but effective if used properly and a plastic free, completely biodegradable product.
When we said goodbye to our Ugandan colleagues I felt really proud to have worked alongside them and to have been allowed to share their work. One of the team commented that we wouldn’t have seen the real Uganda if we hadn’t been on this trip. Being taken to rural communities is not something you would do as a tourist.
It was a fantastic experience and I would recommend it to all dental colleagues. If you get the chance to volunteer with Dentaid, go for it!
Liddy Laird – Uganda volunteer November 2019