Dentists do go to church, But in Durban, South Africa, dentists did much more than go to worship.
While the hospital ship Africa Mercy has been in dry dock for maintenance work, volunteers serving with Mercy Ships dental team have been busy working with a number of local groups in the region.
One spur-of-the-moment suggestion developed into a two-day extreme dental outreach in one of the most notorious areas of Durban. Dr. Dag Tvedt, Mercy Ships Chief Dental Officer, met a fellow Norwegian, Ingrid Osthus, a graduate student studying to do social work with street children. The two were discussing the Mercy Ships off-ship dental program when Ingrid suggested that the team come to her church to do a clinic for the street kids who congregate there.
The church is in a very disadvantaged area of Durban, an area that is home to gangs of young people. Many of them have been on the streets since they were children, doing whatever they must do to survive.
The mission administrator said, “When the Presbyterian Beach Mission was set up, it was thought surfers would be attracted, but the homeless showed up. We found them on our doorstep, so they had to become our children.” The Church works with the many homeless young people in the area, providing food and spiritual guidance.
Workers encourage the youth to attend the Sunday church service and to get involved with programs geared to help put their lives in order.
A room was provided for the dental team to set up chairs and equipment. Loaves of bread were sliced, spread with butter and placed on trays for the meal that preceded the clinic. Security was set in place to ensure order among the rowdy young people.
When the clinic began, a few of the patients were anxious to rush in for the free dental care. But some were more nervous about sitting in the dental chair. Three volunteer dentists extracted many decayed teeth that were causing great pain. “Although these patients were a bit of a challenge, they were also very appreciative,” said Dr. Tvedt.
In a small Zulu settlement in the region arms were raised in jubilation, and shouts of joy filled the air as the Mercy Ships dental team arrived for a day-long clinic. More than 125 people had assembled, hoping for the opportunity to have a dentist examine their teeth.
Working in cooperation with the Kwa-Zulu Natal Department of Health, the dental team brought dental care and hygiene instruction to local hospitals and many remote Zulu villages. The people started arriving at 5 am. One woman said she was told of the clinic by a neighbor. “I live a long way away, but I came by the shortcut,” she explained. The shortcut was a cross-country walk, going up and down the deep canyons, instead of using the long roads around them.
In a local school, 120 students packed into a classroom for dental hygiene instruction. Many of the children had never seen a toothbrush.