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COLUMN ONE

Dentist in Africa Sour on Sweets

American volunteer Raymond Damazo has met the enemy and it is tourists, whose gifts of candy rot the teeth of the Masai. But he soldiers on in uphill battle with sugar.

September 16, 1999|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MASAI MARA, Kenya — Here on the untamed plains of the Masai people, where boys hunt lions as a test of bravery and many quarrels are settled with a spear, a 70-year-old American is the champion of sweet talk.

But it isn't what you might think.

"Tanga enkutuk!" the command--"open wide"--comes in Masai.

Here we go again, Dr. Raymond Damazo announces from behind a pair of thick spectacles in his best I-told-you-so dentist's voice. Another jaw of cavities so far gone the teeth can't be saved. And Kiminta Ene Yenkon, as pretty as an African sunset, is barely 6 years old.

"Sweets," says the little girl, the only English word she knows. "I get candy from the tourists on the road," she continues in Masai.

Damazo huffs. He knows the sweet story well. It sticks with him like a licked lollipop to its wrapper. A perfect little mouth laid to waste by sucrose, glucose, dextrose and fructose from halfway around the world.

Damazo hates those "oses" on the road.

The bumpy dirt thoroughfare beyond Nkoilale Primary School is a main route to the Masai Mara Game Reserve, one of Kenya's most popular safari destinations. It has no name and looks harmless, but it might as well be the Road to Hell, Damazo figures. It is paved with countless good intentions, all of them deliciously sugarcoated.

"These tourists with candy think they are being kind to the poor kids of Africa who don't have anything, but they are doing the worst thing possible in the world," the dentist says of the game-park visitors, some of whom arrive lugging pounds of the stuff as gifts for the children. "They have no dentists here, no pain medicine, and ultimately the chief is going to rip out the bad teeth with the point of a knife."

Ouch. Just talking about it brings a pained furrow to the brow of Gail Sage, Damazo's wife of two months and loyal assistant in bush dentistry. Sage has one of those happy faces that lights up when she looks at you, but get her talking about those "oses" and the Road to Hell, and she becomes just as huffy as her husband.

Sage has seen the shredded gums that come with knife dentistry. The digging and wrenching are so primitive that good teeth often get botched up in the process. A simple toothache becomes an agonizing mouth of horrors. The blood, the infection, the abscesses. . . .

Listening to Sage, there's no controlling your terrified tongue. It sweeps madly from left molar to right, across the bicuspids, over the incisors and canines, hurriedly taking inventory. It can't be stopped.

One, two, three, four . . . 18, 19, 20 . . . 30, 31 and 32.

Praise the Lord, sweet 32! A full mouth. But you don't actually say sweet 32. Not now. Not here.

All because of the "oses" and the Road to Hell.

"We try to do as much education and prevention as possible," says Sage, 45, who is studying to become a dental hygienist near the couple's home in suburban Seattle. But it isn't nearly enough. The sightseers keep coming. The Masai keep going to the Road. And Damazo keeps yanking teeth.

Last year, the couple logged more than 11,000 miles on their custom-built Land Rover, hauling everything from an X-ray machine to dental floss through the remote grasslands of Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. They charge nothing for their services and estimate that they spend $50,000 a year keeping the mobile practice going.

Children Cry Out for Something With Sugar

In 11 years of visiting Africa, the septuagenarian dentist has never seen such awful decay, so many missing teeth and so much gum disease as during his past few visits. On a continent where dental hygiene often amounts to picking one's teeth with a frayed branch, sugar is a mouth's worst enemy. When left in an unclean oral cavity, as the dentists like to say, it helps breed 37 kinds of decay-causing bacteria.

"Each passing tourist vehicle is a shop full of sweets," says Kipkoech Rotich, who runs a medical clinic at the Siana Springs Tented Camp, a nearby safari lodge where Damazo also treats staff members and their families. "These kids don't have money to buy sweets, but when it comes free from the tourists, they take as much as possible."

These days, when the "Sweets! Sweets!" chorus commences, Damazo and Sage respond with "Pens! Pens!" You can find them handing out thousands of pens and pencils--their idea of a sugar substitute.

Schools are short on basic supplies, putting pens in great demand. But most foreigners still toss treats that tingle the tongue--so a stern dentist offering ink and graphite gets more looks of exasperation than gratitude.

"Would you rather have these pens or some candy?" Damazo asks a gathering of boys singing "Sweets! Sweets!" when his office-on-wheels comes to a halt at a cattle crossing.

Huh? Is he mad? It isn't the kind of question you ask in the company of sweet-toothed strangers. But wait. The littlest boy is intrigued by the blue ballpoint. Is he going to make Damazo's day?

"Sweets! Sweets!" the others shout, pushing the tiny one aside.

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