Smiles for Soweto
Today, upon arriving at our first school, we were greeted by the school principal, a woman with a smile that lit up the room. Though we are a group of sixteen, she moved among us hugging each and every one of us tightly and wishing us success.
As the children lined up and Dr Bob began his pre-screening it seemed as if everyone had perfect teeth, but somewhere during the screenings that changed and as has become the rule wherever we go, about 15% of the kids required treatment.
We’ll get our statistics at the end of the day, but from the treatment planning that I did, today was a lot of baby tooth extraction with many lower first molars thrown in.
While some children were outgoing and some shy, some brave and some scared, they were all polite and almost to a person thanked me before moving off to the waiting area.
Arriving at the second school today, we were greeted by Principal Reed. Though he didn’t embrace us, his baritone laughter put smiles on all our faces.
His students finished their exams yesterday, and though they didn’t have school today a large group of students arrived for us to examine.
Here too, the children have beautiful smiles and equally beautiful manners.
We have one more day working in the suburbs of Johannesburg, then we’ll head to Soweto.
But as we finish the day, we feel pretty good. You never know what to expect in a new country. But today went well and hopefully is an omen for a great trip.
Back to Soweto today to pick up where we left off. This area is nothing like I imagined. There is no feeling of poverty here though I imagine that the people have little money.
In fact it’s quite the opposite, the overwhelming feeling is that these people are rich with pride and positivity. Perhaps this is because little has been given to the people of Soweto, and rather, they’ve struggled in a long hard battle to achieve all that they have now.
Apartheid, as we know it began around 1948 and didn’t disappear until the mid 1990’s. Today the color barrier is less visible and based instead on wealth.
Unlike on other KIDS trips, today we are moving from school to school. Our 500 patients this morning were quite young and we extracted a lot of sore baby teeth. It’s about noon and we’ve loaded the van as we prepare to leave for our next school.
It’s now 2:30 and our second school is wrapping up. We have seen another 330 children, though these kids were big rambunctious teens.
When we arrived they were all on lunch break running around the school yard playing everything from jump rope to kick the can. I was I bit worried that somehow I had over credited the children here and maybe they weren’t so well behaved. Yet when they returned to their classrooms they all settled down and dutifully lined up to be examined, varnished and treated. And as we finish our work today we’re exhausted yet happy that we’ve been able to help such a deserving population
Third to last day
Today we changed direction and drove north out of the city. Johannesburg is an odd place, bustling with pedestrians during the day and devoid of life when night falls. At street level the buildings are impersonal fortresses without the familiar bodegas and pizza shops of manhattan.
Last night, as darkness fell I watched three pre-teens playing in the roof top of an adjacent building. In any other city these children would be breaking the rules, risking a deadly fall to the street below. Here, they were dutifully following their parents instructions.
As we drove north this morning we passed through the wealthy suburbs that are 10 minutes and a world away from Johannesburg. From the highway we could see big beautiful homes with large walls and barbed wire topping. Though we heard stories of violence and car jacking here, we’ve seen no sign of it, and the people from the poor towns could not be nicer or more welcoming. My only complaint is that it’s cold, unseasonably cold, 55 degrees Fahrenheit cold, and I wasn’t expecting this. Typically it’s in the 80’s, but like we experience at home, the locals say that the weather has inexplicably changed.
Leaving the highway, we continued on to the working class town of Alexandra. These are not shanty towns, but rather they are filled with small brick homes with walls and clearly defined boundaries. And though each home is constructed of a similar material, each property has its own unique look, allowing an expression of the family that lives within. Somehow I expected something different, an Apartheid-like, impersonal storage of workers.
As we arrived in Alexandra some of us remarked, “this looks familiar” meaning it’s the type of working class place where we can help.
Schools in South Africa range in price from free to very expensive. Not surprisingly we’re at a free school. A local organization called Tomorrow’s Trust helped organize the day for us. This group works with children from a young age through their University years. Their goal is to empower those who are less fortunate.
Today the weather is not helping our cause. We have a huge pile of signed permission slips but few children to use them. As if the cold wasn’t bad enough, the skies have opened up and everyone has likely decided to spend their Saturday in their warm, dry homes.
So our 350 children seen is disappointing. But everywhere we go, we learn more about this country, and how we can adjust our program to be more productive, if or when, we return next year.
Today we returned to Soweto, but literally and figuratively we “crossed over the railroad tracks” to the other side of town. This is the poorer area of Soweto where jobs are scarce. And the living conditions in Kliptown reflect the job scarcity.
We’ve set up our clinic at the Youth Center and the compound itself is an organization of stucco and concrete buildings amid a community of corrugated metal huts. We had difficulty finding the center because the roads are unmarked and unpaved.
Though we’ve had a steady flow of patients through the morning, as the afternoon approaches, our flow of patients has slowed to a trickle.
Today’s children are just as cute as the ones we’ve seen earlier this week, but judging by their torn, unlaundered clothing the parents of these children are likely unemployed.
The conditions here are “rustic” to put it mildly. And while these people are entitled to free housing, the wait can be as long as 20 to 30 years to reach the top of the list. And thus, the 44,000 residents of Kliptown bide their time and rely upon the donations from the various NGOs like Kliptown Youth Center and groups like ours. We’re told that we are the first dental group to visit this township.
Today our team, and in particular, our leader, Purobi, is very frustrated that the director of this NGO isn’t here to help us, and worse he didn’t properly announce our visit. As people slowly wander in, its clear that our visit is a relative secret. People are somewhat surprised and appreciative when they find us.
And or course, this is a dilemma that we routinely face; this population deserves our attention, but if the infrastructure, meaning the local support isn’t here, we won’t be able to return next year.
But amid the chaos of this town there is still hope and beauty. And it’s found in the faces of the young children and the art below an overpass or on a building wall.
When I asked again ‘why are the children here so well behaved and polite?’ A twenty six year old young mother looked at me quizzically as if to say ‘how else would they be?’ And by now her reply should have been obvious to me- “It’s simply part of our culture.”
Today we find ourselves in south west Soweto in an area much like the one that we visited a couple days ago. It’s not by any means wealthy, but it’s well kept and clean. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he returned to this neighborhood. After moving into a house that was constructed especially for him, he chose to move to another home. The many security cameras installed for his protection were too painful a reminder of his time in prison.
When we arrived at the school that would serve as our clinic today, a worker was sweeping the classrooms. When he finished sweeping inside, he went outside and swept a sand and rock yard; his effort was clearly as much to welcome us as it was custodial.
Despite the cleanliness and order of our surroundings, the need for treatment was quite high. I have only seen a couple full blown infections, but in an outreach program where radiographic diagnosis is not possible, we choose to err on the side of caution, and extract teeth that look as if they may have an active cavity. And today we extracted a lot of teeth. Interestingly, some of the worst looking teeth have actually undergone a process called ‘arrested caries’, where the cavity stops and the tooth becomes hard and brown/black. These teeth don’t necessarily require extraction, and in fact, they’re resistant to future cavities. As such, they are important space maintainers for the permanent teeth.
With the exception of yesterday, where the housing was made from corrugated metal and our patients were shoeless, the children of Soweto appear to be poor but well cared for. Despite this, most have never seen a dentist. And this may account for the higher than expected number of cavities that we have seen today. With 503 patients seen and 101 children requiring dental treatment, we’re at the higher end of dental need, meaning 20% of the children require extractions. This is a much higher rate than we expected at this particular school.
And as we finish our day we’re certainly tired; yet, we’ve managed to end the trip on a very high note. Tomorrow’s Trust provided us with exceptional on-site support and the school and teachers went out of their way to help us succeed.
As we took a group picture and shared some final words before departing, I smiled to myself not just because I was able to skirt the responsibility of speaking for the group, but rather, because the “thank you”, “no, thank you”, “but seriously, we couldn’t have done it without you”, had turned into a slightly comedic, but truly heart felt expression of ‘THANKS’.