A pair of final year students at King’s College London Dental Institute spent 3 weeks of their summer volunteering in the villages surrounding Cape Town in South Africa as part of the school’s elective program.
Karolyn John and Jack McSweeny helped deliver hygiene education, including tooth brushing and hand washing, to children on behalf of the Dental Wellness Trust, which serves less fortunate communities in the United Kingdom and abroad.
“The people living in the townships suffer extreme hardship and poverty at a level that we in the UK can hardly comprehend,” said John. “They use water and soap sparingly, as it is seen as a luxury.”
The children attend afterschool programs run by a limited number of trained volunteers known as Mamas. Initially, John and McSweeny were going to meet with 4 classes of about 48 students each, but they managed to get 12 classes involved by spreading the word and recruiting more volunteers.
“It was extremely challenging logistically to ensure there were enough toothbrushes for everyone,” said John. “With about 500 children brushing at the same time, monitoring their technique was initially quite a task! However, their abundant enthusiasm and happy disposition made the entire operation a thoroughly pleasant experience.”
McSweeny also visited an outreach center in Mitchells Plain that’s run as a community clinic, where he observed how the state healthcare system struggles to serve its citizens. For example, a single tooth extraction at the center took 30 seconds. The same procedure would have required 45 minutes in an undergraduate clinic in the United Kingdom.
“I found this community clinic and their protocols considerably different to those in the UK,” said McSweeny.
Both students felt their trip to South Africa was a life-changing experience.
“During my elective, I saw a sign that read ‘Ubunta: Xhosa for human kindness,’ and it hit me how often I saw human kindness on a daily basis,” said McSweeny. “Reflecting on my 3 weeks in South Africa, the kindness of the Mamas and everyone I met is largely what made this elective such a great experience.”