Since he was six years old, Dr. Aaron Kim knew he wanted to do mission work in Africa.
“At the time, I simply said I want to be a medical doctor, and I’d like to be one who goes to Africa (to) help poor people,” he said. “Now I didn’t become a medical doctor, I’m a dentist now, but ever since that moment, it became my dream of my life.”
Dr. Kim is the Director of Clinics for the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Manitoba, and nine years ago, his dream came true.
A missionary with Villages of Hope-Africa (VOH-A) gave a presentation at Kim’s church, what was then Charleswood Gospel Temple, now called Grace Community Church. After the service, Dr. Kim approached the missionary and asked him about getting involved with VOH-A’s work. Dr. Kim took his first trip to Kitwe, Zambia with other members of the church and one other dentist.
Since then, he’s been back to Kitwe two more times, the most recent trip being in June of this year. Kitwe is now home to an orphanage, school, and a medical facility, and Villages of Hope have built seven more communities across Africa.
On his first trip, Kim wasn’t sure how much complex dental work he’d need to do, but he realized the orphans just needed a few fillings more than anything else.
“In general, Africans, they have very nice teeth,” said Dr. Kim, adding that the children and adults he saw on all three trips didn’t drink pop or eat refined sugars. “They have very good oral hygiene.”
After his second trip seven years ago, Kim and his team decided to build a medical and dental clinic in Kitwe. Once the project was completed, Dr. Kim approached Gerry Hagglund, the Vice President in Manitoba of Sinclair Dental. Dr. Kim needed some equipment for the Kitwe dental clinic, so Hagglund got together some older equipment that still had life left in it and Kim and Hagglund sent it off. But due to electrical problems and a lack of qualified installers, the equipment sat dormant until last summer.
In October, Dr. Kim and Hagglund sent over a generator, some more equipment, and 60 quilts, but Kim knew they needed to go to Kitwe to set up the dental clinic and assemble the equipment themselves.
“I’m the one who sent it. I have a better idea of how I wanted to set it up, and that was my project, I wanted to finish it,” Dr. Kim said.
Dr. Kim decided to bring along Huma Rohan, a fourth year dental student at the U of M, who was born in Zambia and had received her African dental degree from the University of Zimbabwe. Dr. Kim and Rohan found common ground in their love for Africa.
“It’s always been my dream to give back for my community, and that’s the message that’s preached back home,” Rohan said. “We’re very community-focused as a group of individuals, and the family that I come from, the entire family is in the health care profession, so giving back to the community has always been part and parcel of growing up back home.”
When the trio got to Kitwe, they found the electrical system wasn’t up to North American standards, and they wanted volunteer dental teams to be able to come in, turn on the generator, and use the equipment without power bars, extension cords, or wires running out of windows.
Luckily, the team met a young couple from the Northwest Territories who were working at the orphanage for a year. She was a nurse and he was an electrician. It took him two days to install North American-style plugs and tie them to the generator and Zambian power supply. In Hagglund’s words, he saved the mission.
“Oh my gosh. You know, you want to say ‘God couldn’t have given anything better than to parachute this guy in.’ How lucky were we.”
Even the simplest things proved challenging for the team. It took them a full day to find parts so they could drill an x-ray machine into the wall. Once they had the parts for their make-shift drill, they installed the machine in just 20 minutes.
“We were almost about an hour away from the city centre, so every time you needed something–you needed a set of nails or you needed some tools–somebody had to go into town,” said Rohan.
Despite their challenges, everything came together. While there, Rohan and Dr. Kim examined and treated 106 orphans. All three team members talk about how happy and appreciative the children were, but Rohen says they seemed to have a special bond with her, perhaps in part because she was born in Zambia and speaks the language.
“It was nice for me in the sense that I was able to engage with the children on a very personal level,” said Rohan. “The girls in the orphanage would come around, and they would bring their knitting and they would come and sing songs for us.”
The trio agree the trip to Kitwe was an emotional, life-changing journey.
“These children go through every day with a heart full of hope, and they have such radiance in their eyes. Nothing gets them down. It’s the most endearing thing to see and to experience,” said Rohan.
Hagglund is already making plans to help build a dental clinic in Nicaragua next year.
“I’ve been doing background mission work for years and years and years. We would provide materials and support for all of these people that were going on missions, and this is the first one that I went on, and you’re hooked. I will do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
All photos courtesy of Dr. Aaron Kim