Aitong, 2015. Rachael England

I was bright red and sweating running through Dubai airport, it’s 47c (116f) and I’m carrying a stuffed dog and a heavy rucksack, just making it to the gate in time I slump down in a seat drawing curious glances from my fellow passengers.  

The flight is bound for Nairobi, Kenya where I’m meeting a team of dentists, ophthalmologists and support staff to travel to a rural village beside the Maasai Mara called Aitong. Nairobi airport is chaos, after over an hours wait for a visa I negotiate a taxi fare, suspecting this was an unlicensed cab, and head off to my hotel, feeling grateful I already knew about the dirt track and seemingly journey to nowhere.  

The next morning I expect to be collected at 10am. 10.30 passes…. 11.. 11.30, the emergency contact phones are turned off, just what did I know about these people?!, finally at 12 a bus pulls in and out jumps Simi our host, wearing traditional Maasai clothes and a huge smile. “Polay, Polay” translates as “slowly, slowly” that describes life in the Mara and set the pace for the rest of the week. 6 bone shaking hours later we arrive in Aitong. It’s getting dark, we’re all thankful our tents are already erected and delighted to find a mattress has also been provided.  

Camping in the grounds of the community centre we had outdoor showers, our hosts heated huge pans of water twice a day and there is a “proper” toilet. Rules are: during the night if you need the bathroom, you must wave your torch and await a Maasai guide, the wild animals can be dangerous! I was more worried about being seen in my pajamas stumbling around in the dark than the donkey that disturbed the witching hours.  

The team had all flown in from Spain, luckily they could speak to me in English because “Ola, dos café con leche, por favor” wasn’t going to get me very far. The first morning after a cooked breakfast we headed with the huge amount of supplies we had brought to the clinic, where the lead general practitioner Dr Collins has allocated rooms for us to set up. The dentists shared a room, sterilisation was established in another, ophthalmology outside and me in a separate room.  I quickly set up my portable scaler while a crowd of curious villagers looked through the window. 

The Maasai diet mostly consists of milk, meat and vegetables, so the patients I saw had very minimal dental disease, from a days clinic 2-3 patients presented with severe gum disease which I would expect as represented in a population. Treating a young man with a suspicious oral lesion really brought home the realities of these villagers and their lack of access to any sort of healthcare beyond the basics Dr Collins was able to provide.  

To identify as belonging to the Maasai tribe, the lower permanent central incisors are extracted in childhood, a blessing for the dental hygienist attempting to scale 3to3!  

Meanwhile in the dental surgery our team of hardworking dentists were busy carrying out over 300 extractions, the Aitong village residents have access to fizzy drinks and sugarcane – which is chewed for long periods of time increasing their rate of tooth decay.  

The ophthalmologists corrected the sight of over 50 people, witnessing the sheer joy of an adult woman being able to see clearly for the first time in her life is such a treasured memory.  

We visited 2 schools to provide lectures on oral health. This was my favourite! I’ve always felt terrified of public speaking, the fear gripped me in the first 15 seconds, then something totally unexpected happened, I began to enjoy it! The children were so smart and receptive, it was an absolute pleasure, even better they performed a Maasai Spectacle and several poems they had written.  

To break up the week we spent 3 incredible days on safari, I asked Simi to find me some Maasai Pepper Bush, known locally at “Kikay”. Several patients had mentioned these to me, their mouths were immaculately clean and they also told me it has soothing properties for toothache. It’s really nice, mildly spicy and known for its antibacterial properties.  

After 9 days camping and working in my makeshift surgery I was exhausted, but exhilarated. We relieved many people of debilitating dental pain, gave education and a free toothbrush to every school child in Aitong. I hope this is just the start of my career in international public health.