Primary dental care in Western Kenya

Some 20 years ago, a clergyman in Kisumu, Western Kenya, faced a growing problem. Regularly people would come to his door “suffering from teeth”. He was unable to help them but what could he do? Local help was not available so he arranged for two dentists to come from the UK to start the Dental Unit in the Dioceses of Maseno North and South.

News of this service quickly spread and the demand from the people of the area was very high. Basic equipment was purchased and buckets were filled with extracted teeth! Plastic replacement teeth were made if requested.

As the years passed, dentists would come from the UK for periods of two or more years. The demand for treatment continued to rise and also for treatment to save infected teeth, rather than just removing them. (Many local people still do not realise that teeth can often be cleaned of their infection and repaired.) But transport to Kisumu, money for the treatment and the availability of the dentist were the limiting factors for many, and it was only the fortunate few who were able to get help.

In 1981 steps were taken to extend the work of the Dental Unit into the community. Tearfund provided a Land Rover and portable equipment and, for two days a week, the Anglican church network on the Northern and Eastern shores of Lake Victoria became the basis of community dental care, using churches and school rooms as temporary clinics. The real aim was to prevent dental problems before they started.

God asks us to minister healing in all its fullness (Isaiah 61:1-3) and dental care forms part of this process. This is explained to all who assemble for dental care under the community project.

The next step is to bring an understanding about the cause of dental problems. Many people believe bad water, worms or groundnuts cause bad teeth.  It is news to them to discover the real cause of is sugar in food and drinks. Often sugar is taken without realising it. Biscuits, cakes, sweets, tea and sodas all contain sugar. This needs to be cleaned from teeth after eating because:

SUGAR + MOUTHGERMS  = ACID 

                                     = HOLES IN TEETH

If people remember this formula they can do something to help themselves. Removing teeth will cure a short-term problem but will not have a long-term benefit. God looks at us in the long term and we need to care for our bodies in the same way.

Neil McDonald, author of this article, worked as a dentist in Kisumu for 5 years with Tearfund. He now works in Wimborne, Dorset.