African trip is an eye-opener for Joanne

A dental worker is back from a two-week African adventure filled with every emotion under the sun.

The scenes which faced Joanne Brown when she arrived in Uganda were nothing like she has ever experienced before.

Chris Cordner reports.

SHE boarded the plane as the snow pelted down.

This was the North-East in the middle of winter. Joanne Brown was huddled against the -10C conditions.

Eight hours, and four in-flight movies later, Joanne landed in Uganda.

It was the middle of the night and the temperatures had cooled down to a mere 30C.

For Joanne, who normally works as a dental therapist for the Elliott McCarthy practice in Hartlepool, it was a complete change of scenery and a completely different type of dentistry.

For the next two weeks, she helped the village people of Kumi and Mbale, in Eastern Uganda, as part of a Christian Relief mission. She's back home with a lifetime of memories.

After one initial night in a Ugandan bed and breakfast (with a bed, a mosquito net and a cold-water shower), the hard work began.

Joanne, 38, and her fellow Christian Relief team had to haul 25kgs each of donated dental equipment onto a mini bus and take it to the villages they planned to visit.

"They were dusty roads in the middle of nowhere and a lot of the people we saw had never seen white people before. We were treated like celebrities," said Joanne.

Once the team arrived at their destinations, they had to unload supplies of anaesthetics and filling material, forceps (for extracting teeth), needles, gloves and masks.

"We would arrive in a village and find queues of people waiting for treatment," said Joanne.

"We would set up surgery in an unused school room with no electricity, no lighting and on an uneven floor."

They treated 200 people each day and still found massive queues waiting outside. "We would have to turn some people away and the most heartbreaking thing is some of them might have walked 30 miles to get there," said Joanne, who is married to motor bike salesman Stephen, 41.

"But we had to draw a line somewhere at how many people we treated each day."

The conditions of the patients – and their dental hygiene – was shocking.

"There were people who'd had tooth decay for months and nowhere for them to get it sorted," said Joanne. "There were a lot of people with abscesses, people with blood poisoning and children with swollen faces.

"The children all had teeth which had been ground down because, all they ate all day, was sugar cane. It was very fibrous and it was flattening their teeth. Their diet was so basic."

The surprises did not end there. Much of the treatment given by the time was for non-dental complaints.

One such problem involved small worm-like insects called jiggers which had embedded themselves into the victim's foot.

"We had to give lots of people disinfectant for that," said Joanne.

"Another woman had a fractured jaw which had been wired at a local hospital but they had not given her antibiotics so we had to give her that."

Another problem involved educating Ugandan people about oral conditions.

Ugandan families panicked when they saw the first teeth coming through the gums of their young children – thinking it was a worm infestation.

They would take the children to a witch doctor who would yank the tooth out of the infant's heads.

"Ugandan children would have the growth of all their remaining teeth displaced by the witch doctor and we were having to educate families that it wasn't a worm. It was just a tooth coming through," said Joanne.

Yet despite all the problems, Joanne, originally from Sunderland, admitted: "My abiding memory is of the nicest people you could possibly meet. One man was on his hands and knees thanking us for helping him and his family.

"While they did not have anything to their name, they had community and they looked after each other. They were friendly, beautiful and happy."

She said it had been a delight to "help put a smile on the faces of people."