When the Wewak based Caravan, piloted by Paul Woodington, shut down its engine at April River‘s airstrip the five passengers on board were not only greeted by the hot and humid reality of the jungle but also by a group of local people. They had come as willing helpers to carry the passengers‘ many boxes to the village of Niksek, a good 30-minute walk on muddy paths and a 15-minute ride on a dugout canoe upriver. One of the boxes actually weighed about 50 kg and contained a small cupboard of equipment, part of a mobile dental clinic.
The people at Niksek had never been to a dentist before. When facing toothache or a mouth infection they just had to hang in there or treat it the bush way to get the aching tooth out somehow or get used to it. Now, in January 2018, two German dentists had brought a mobile dental unit to the people.
Gerhard and Brigitte Stamm, missionaries for nearly 30 years with Liebenzell Mission, had planned this dental outreach to Niksek and Moropote for about a year. Immanuel Funk, a friend of Gerhard from when they were at Bible College, who later became a dentist, was keen to spend his annual leave in Papua New Guinea. He wanted to run a dental clinic for these remote communities, where the Stamms usually go twice a year to do biblical teaching and to encourage the churches there. Immanuel was accompanied by his wife Susanne and Stefan, one of the Stamms’ nephews who had just finished his diploma as a dentist.
Months ago, with assistance from the Swiss Evangelical Brotherhood Mission, Immanuel shipped a mobile dental clinic with all the essential tools to clean teeth, do basic fillings and remove teeth. The kit also included a suction unit and a compressor. The mobile clinic travelled from Germany, via Switzerland, to Papua New Guinea.
On the evening the team arrived at Niksek, the people gathered for a lotu (church service) and asked Gerhard to do some teaching on the following days. Gerhard hadn‘t expected to do any teaching as he had initially thought he was going to be the dentists’ assistant and translator.
However, the dentists didn’t really need him as their dental nurse or translator. Brigitte, Gerhard’s wife, who is also a trained nurse, assisted the dentists allowing Gerhard to be free to do discipleship training as wished for by the community.
While one patient after another was seen by Immanuel and Stefan, those waiting for their turn had time to listen to Gerhard’s teaching. He taught eleven sessions in total about the prophecies of the coming Messiah and that all these prophecies were fulfilled in Christ Jesus.
Immanuel and Stefan, professionally dressed in their white uniforms, head torches and special dentist’s glasses, set up their clinic at the community’s health post, which Gerhard helped to build about 30 years ago when he first came to Niksek. They were also assisted by Aiko, the local health worker.
With the sweat constantly running down their faces, Immanuel and Stefan examined a total of 65 patients and extracted 102 teeth, most of them being roots where the tooth had either half rotted away or had not been removed professionally. These pulled out “souvenirs“ were neatly packed in small plastic bags and given back to the patients to take home. Some patients who weren’t Christians were afraid that these relics might be passed on and used by local witch doctors for animistic harm against them.
Word went out and patients also came from nearby Bikaru to have their mouths inspected by the dentists. Bikaru is a small village nestled in the mountains about a two-day walk east of Niksek.
Samuel, usually a strong and proud man, suddenly became very small and fearful when he entrusted himself to the white men with their unknown goggles and tools. Often the patients came to the clinic in pairs to hold each others‘ hands during their examinations.
Brigitte not only assisted the dentists translating from Tok Pisin to German but was frequently engaged with villagers in giving biblical counselling and guidance to overcome life’s challenges.
The community showed their appreciation for the team’s effort by preparing a big mumu, a traditional feast of meat and vegetables cooked in the ground on hot stones.
After a week, the team jumped into the MAF Caravan again and transferred to Moropote to continue the dental clinic there, a comfortable 15-minute flight compared with a tremendous three-day journey by canoe and on foot.
Please stay tuned to continue reading part 2 of this dental clinic outreach about the challenges and successes the team encountered at Moropote while caring for the physical and spiritual well-being of the people there.