Nearly one hundred elementary school children sat very still in a cramped, dim Togolese classroom. Mercy Ships Dental Hygienist, Donna Bartholomew, stood in her blue medical scrubs at the front of the room, smiling at all of the children.
“Raise your hand if you have a toothbrush,” Donna asked.
Half of the children's hands shot into the air. The other half glanced at their peers, realizing they should probably put their hands up, too. Up they went.
Donna laughed and said, “How many of you brushed your teeth this morning ?” Twenty-five, or roughly one-fourth of the kids, raised their hands. Donna's goal was that, after the day's session, all of the kids would know how to take care of their teeth properly – and brush every morning.
The Mercy Ships Dental Team went to Ecole Primair Publique de Be-Klikame to educate the kids on dental hygiene. This school is a public elementary school in Lomé, Togo. Most of the kids attending the school come from households that struggle to feed and clothe their children. Hygiene, especially dental hygiene, had never been taught to them.
“Dental health is very important. Learning to take care of their teeth now, as children, can prevent large cavities in the future. Our team perform s many extractions every day in the dental clinic. We hope education at a young age will help,” said Gini Porter, Mercy Ships Dental Coordinator.
Donna told the children that there are two things they can do to keep their teeth healthy. First, they need to keep them clean, and second, they need to eat the proper food. She held up a chart with colorful pictures of fruits and vegetables.
“Bad health will lead to cavities – holes in your teeth that will pain you,” Donna told them. Then Donna held up a large model of a mouth and teeth, and an oversized red toothbrush. She asked if a volunteer would like to demonstrate how to brush correctly.
Out of the crowd nine-year-old Rodrique was selected. He came to the front and, using the large brush on the model of a mouth, showed the rest of the class the correct way to brush your teeth. The kids watched, smiled, and nodded their understanding.
Before the lesson came to an end, Donna asked the kids to now become teachers – to show their friends and family members how to brush their teeth and maintain good dental hygiene. They all promised to teach one person, thus sharing their newfound knowledge.
As the kids filed out of the classroom, each was given a red toothbrush of their very own. Unlike in more developed parts of the world, receiving a new, free toothbrush was quite a treat for these kids. Judging from the looks on their faces, one would think they had been given a brand-new toy.
Nine-year-old Ange lives just around the corner from the school. Tightly gripping her bright red toothbrush she told her friend that she doesn't want a hole in her tooth. She declared, “I'm going to go home and tell my brothers about this, so they don't get holes in their teeth either.”
She has never had a toothbrush of her own.
One classroom at a time, Donna, Gini and the rest of the Mercy Ships Dental team are trying to work themselves out of a job (in a good way). The need is so great that eliminating their job is not a realistic possibility. But, with every speech and every toothbrush handed out, they are getting closer to eradicating poor dental hygiene in Lomé, Togo.
Story by Claire Bufe
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Tom Bradley