What would it be like to have no dentist available to relieve the pain of infected or rotting teeth?
In Bardai, a village in northwestern Chad in the heart of the Sahara, residents know what it’s like to live with tooth pain for years on end. When American dentist Dr. Kevin Ackerman made his first dental clinic trip to Chad in 2002, there were no trained dentists in the entire country. In Bardai, a five-hour MAF flight from the capital, a trained dentist is still non-existent.
On Dr. Kevin’s fifth and most recent trip to Bardai in November 2017, people in pain come to the Community Center where, on a normal day, Teda children and adults can take classes to learn how to read and write their own language. Shelves filled with books, pamphlets and posters surround two portable gurneys where patients lie – a school library turned dental office for six days.
Dr. Kevin and his dental assistant Erika del Gadillo work on approximately 25 people per day for a week, alternating men one day, women and children the next. There are more people than time, more pain to be addressed than hands to fix it. “They start to get desperate and panic that they won’t get seen,” Dr. Kevin explains. “We had one man come in who seemed like he was ready to fight. The tensions can get pretty high. It happens all the time. They’re living in pain for years.”
A Service to the Sahara
Bardai is home to the Teda people of Chad, a village in a sandy oasis tucked between the magnificent hills and crags of the Tibesti Mountains close to the Libyan border. To reach Bardai by vehicle from the capital of N’Djamena can take three days…if all goes exactly as planned. If vehicles break down in the sand, rocks, and brutal heat, it can take weeks.
Mark Ortman, who has lived in Bardai for 25 years translating the oral language into writing, tells wild tales of two and three week trips due to broken trucks and days of waiting for spare parts while rationing water and food, hiding in the shade of the vehicle. The Sahara is one of the world’s most intensely harsh environments. From the air it’s an endless sea of sand and black imposing mountains, stark and surreal. From the ground it’s potentially deadly.
The dental clinics evolved as a mission from a California church. Pastor Brian leads the team each year that includes not just Bardai but other locations around the country where the greatest need is, always flying with MAF to get the most out of their time. The November dental clinic marks the sixteenth visit to Chad to meet people’s physical needs, thus providing tangible evidence of God’s love for them.
“We could be treating a poor kid from the village or the Governor,” Pastor Brian explains. “We get to see God on the front lines and that’s a huge privilege to be a part of. We’re sent by our home church and there’s a lot of prayer that’s happening every day.”
“We’re bringing something good to the people that they don’t have so it’s just a service,” Dr. Kevin points out, “but they see that it’s the workers that are on the field that have bought us to them. It propels the workers in their standing in the community.”
Choose the Tooth That Hurts the Most
With too many patients and too little time, Dr. Kevin and Erika must simplify the work down to “choose the tooth that hurts the most.” Mostly they extract teeth, but if there are several teeth in one quadrant of the mouth that is already numbed, the patient might get lucky and receive a filling as well. At least half the patients would take half a day to address the majority of their dental problems if they walked into Dr. Kevin’s clinic in California.
For Erika, on her first dental clinic abroad, treating the children is most difficult. “It’s hard seeing the little ones that come in because you have to hold them down to do the anesthetic and they’re kicking and hurting and crying because they’re scared. I don’t understand how people here tolerate pain. They would come in with teeth rotted all the way to the gum line, and I’m sure they were in pain for months, years. It’s far beyond what we see at home. It makes you realize what you have. We’re blessed.”
“In America our dogs get better dental care than the people of Chad,” Dr. Kevin observes. “I feel like God’s given me the gift that I can alleviate a lot of that suffering.”
Dr. Kevin has trained Odji, a Teda and one of Mark Ortman’s colleagues in Bardai, with the basics of pulling rotten teeth, even leaving dental tools for this purpose. “It is a very important part of the dental ministry,”
Mark Ortman observes, “that we have been able to greatly multiply Kevin’s one-week dental clinics into something that continues to serve the Teda community even when Kevin is not here.”
Stealing Teeth and Other Challenges
Helping people is not always welcomed, or advise easily accepted. In some cases the help can be seen as a threat. During the first dental clinic to Bardai, rumors spread that Dr. Kevin was poor and only came to make money off the Teda to feed his family in America. Mark Ortman suggested Dr. Kevin bring pictures of his dental clinic, family and home on the next dental trip. The rumors then changed that he was extracting teeth to sell like ivory. The dental team made sure they gave the extracted teeth to the patients.
“We thought that we had worked through those two issues,” Dr. Kevin said at the end of the November trip, “but we heard again this time that they think we are taking their teeth, which was really discouraging to me. You can’t get through to everybody.”
Despite the rumors, people come, including the religious leaders and government officials, and many from far distances. On a previous dental trip, a 6-month-pregnant woman traveled 70 miles by donkey cart for an abscessed tooth. Another woman came from the village of Zoumiri, a two-hour trip by car.
“Maybe they don’t understand, but even our body language is communicating to them that we really are here because we love them. No other reason,” Dr. Kevin says.
Working Together for the Long Haul
For part of 2016 and early 2017, MAF Chad was forced to discontinue flights due to governmental issues and permissions, causing the dental team to suspend their planned clinic trips.
“We simply wouldn’t be able to do this sort of thing without MAF,” Pastor Brian explains. “It means that we can really optimize our time here so that rather than spending a lot of time on the road, we can actually land one day and kick off the next.”
For Dr. Kevin, the MAF flights are critical. Without them, he simply would not come. “We have two weeks and we’d spend half of it travelling. It’s not worth it – flying half way round the world to have a clinic for two days. Every trip I’ve been out here I’ve been on a MAF plane. It really is a wonderful, wonderful ministry.”
Sixteen years now and the team has no end date. “We’re in it for however long it takes God to work out His plan,” Pastor Brian affirms. “We believe that God could redeem a whole people group instantaneously if He chose to through dreams and revelations. Or it may take longer, but we’re in it for the long haul. This is just an incredible privilege and a window of opportunity.”
Leon Prinsloo, former CEO of MAF South Africa recently acted as the Interim Programme and Operations Manager for Chad. He is now moving to South Sudan as the interim Operations Manager.
Story & photos by LuAnne Cadd, MAF’s Roving Communications Officer