Beyond keeping oral hygiene

By Kaleab Kiros (Ethiopia)

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe.

My name is Kaleab Kiros and I am an Ethiopian volunteer! I was born from a mother and a father that were from two countries having boarder conflict some 20 years before.

My country, Ethiopia, is a nation that has been beset by hunger and poverty for most of its long history. A land where child starvation and subsequent death have been prevalent for such a long time requires assistance from the more privileged and prosperous nations of the world. It is the responsibility of all members of the peaceful international community to step in with more rigor and determination to empower the people of Ethiopia. The population of the country has proven to be one of the strongest on the face of the earth, having endured massive hardships. If given a little assistance, Ethiopia will be able to build on the strength of its inhabitants to increase the strength of the nation itself.

As a child from such poor country of a middle-class family, I was able to spend my childhood with children from both low- and upper-class families. Observing the vast gap between the lifestyles of my classmates and friends, it always made me curios on how I can help people from low class families. I believe that was the first kindle of voluntarism that sparked in my life. By the time I was around ten years old, I lost my grandfather due to an illness. In many ways it influenced me to become a medical professional.

As I grew up, this kindle was only fueled by what I saw around me and life experiences. As a teenager I wanted to help my community, but I was neither qualified nor organized. I was all fire, but I had no mentor, no budget, and no leader to nudge me to the right direction. As an 18-year-old and a high school senior I decided to become a medical professional, “perhaps I can make a difference and make a good living” I thought.

I am sure by now you are wondering why I have written so much about my life. Please allow me to explain why I am inspired by the quotation of Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Since my parents are from two fighting countries, I was not born in an easy circumstance. My family faced ill-treatment and things were tough but through it all I have learned a strong sense of valor and honor from my parents. They always advised me to be compassionate and kind, these were the only tools I had while growing up and when I began my amazing journey of Dental school, EDSA-Ethiopia, and Humble Smile Foundation.

“Dental caries (cavities) and periodontal diseases have historically been considered the most important global oral health burdens.” –World Health Organization

“Start where you are”: As I joined the Doctor of Dental Surgery class, I started to read more about the dental problem in Africa and my country Ethiopia as well. It became clear to me that majority of the Ethiopian population do not have proper dental services and have limited knowledge in oral health. I also noticed that dental caries and periodontal diseases are highly prevalent oral health problems among young adolescents in Addis Ababa.
A research work in Ethiopia indicated that the high prevalence of calculus, the tooth cleaning was not adequate, or the techniques used were not proper. Among those who clean their teeth 57.7% use a local twig/chewing stick which is commonly known as “Mefakiya”. Studies have shown that traditional chewing stick is an effective way of maintaining good oral hygiene if the right type of shrub/twig and technique is used. The “Mefakiya” aids the mechanical removal of plaque, together with the antimicrobial effects.

For my first time, I signed up for a volunteer project and organized four of my classmates including myself and we went on prophylactic campaign. At the time, we were able to aware thousands of children from various schools about oral health. We had nothing to offer except transferring our limited knowledge. It was my first volunteer project, who knew volunteering could be such a satisfying experience? From that day onward I was committed to do more, act more, treat more, educate more, and give more believing that I will receive more. Believing small giving rewards extra receiving.

“Use what you have”: To put in bluntly, I had nothing except my country’s Dental student’s association and my 5 years Dental School knowledge. So, two years ago, I joined volunteer service and now I became the president of Ethiopian Dental Students Association. I still work at my association voluntarily. All my past experiences led me to where I am now, a member of Humble Smile Foundation, a leader of my country’s Dental student’s association and most of all a volunteer.

“Do what you can”: As human being in general and as a dental student and professional, we need to ask ourselves what can we do to help the needy people without expecting any reward from them? Even the minimum support from us could change a child’s entire life; we need to change our perspective on the Humble Brush itself. It is not just another tool to help keep oral hygiene, it is beyond that. It is an inspiration to a child, a source of smile for an old man and a sense of relief to a parent who couldn’t afford a toothbrush to their child.

I have worked on two projects with Humble Smile Co. the first project largely involved geriatric patients, to simply sit next to them and learn from their life experiences was such a once in a lifetime opportunity, they are a breathing history book. As I took their dental and medical histories, I noticed most of them have been totally neglecting their oral hygiene, and had other systemic issues, I welcomed the challenge. I armed myself with both Ultrasonic and manual scalers and went to work. I was extra careful not to harm any soft tissue, sometimes it took me up to couple of hours, but I didn’t mind, they paid me back in stories!! There were few patients with psychiatric issues, so they posed a challenge we brought in a senior dentist and tackled the issues together. For the duration of the project, I always had a smile on my face because I know that a patient of mine will be painless and infection free in the coming days. It was rejuvenating to see an 80-year-old smile and thank you for what you have done freely.

My second project took me into a completely different environment it was a prophylactic project on elementary schools. I was now working on children who are just beginning their lives. I could see their innocence, their enthusiasm and energy for life was infectious. Before we started, I took my time and spoke with some of them, they reminded of the carefree days of my childhood. I soaked in their energy and went on a trip down memory lane, oh how I longed for the days I was as free as a bird.

After we began the project, my colleague was talking to a kid from the first grade (he couldn’t have been more than 7 years old) he said something that helped me put things in perspective. He said, “I have never even owned a toothbrush”, it hit me like a bullet; here I am working on a prophylactic project for kids when they have never even owned a toothbrush, the most basic prophylactic item. As I handed him the Humble Brush, I could see it meant the world to him. That was a moment of inspiration for that child, a moment he received something that was so close yet so far away from a stranger in a gown. We are not just preventing oral disease; we are creating a new generation of volunteers with our acts of compassion. If I would be able to inspire a single child to become a Dentist and a volunteer beyond preventing oral disease, this would have been great achievement for my participation in this project. This is what we can do, we might not have much, we might not have any, but we have our profession and sense of volunteerism, and those two things are more valuable than anything. After all, volunteerism is giving a part of oneself without expecting any reward… is it not?

This why I said we need to look at the Humble Brush as beyond just a simple toothbrush, I have seen it become a beacon of hope for a better life in a child, I have seen it become a source of smile and gratitude for an old man, I have seen it become a source of assurance that someone cares for a differently abled student, I have seen it become a source of satisfaction in myself. So, thank you Humble Smile Foundation and The Humble Co. for bringing such light and such humble smiles into so many people’s living in this poor country and I am eternally grateful for what I have experienced so far. I am living proof than with proper motivation a person that comes from nothing and has nothing can truly inspire and touch people’s lives. I have been so blessed and if I can do it, then so can you. Please volunteer, be part of our community and let us bring more humble smiles to our world. Thank you!

Surely, the best is yet to come!!