By Kevin Wilson
Special to The Globe
It’s been a while since my last column, and I’m sure that some of you probably appreciated the break. Others may have wondered where I’ve been.
Well, I took a little trip half a world away from Southwest Missouri.
Early in January, I went on a mission trip to Senegal in West Africa with the Open Doors Foundation of Neosho.
To say that this trip changed my life is probably an understatement. I think that every American should have such an experience. I guarantee that you would have a much different perspective on things that we think are so important but that really don’t matter much at all in the grand scheme of life.
The team of a dozen or so left from Springfield at 6 a.m. Jan. 10 and arrived at 6 a.m. the next day in Dakar, Senegal. That included stops in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and a six-hour time difference. Still, 18 hours of travel time is a long time for anyone, and we still had to get to our final destination of Sedhiou in the Casamance region of Senegal.
A quick Internet search shows that it is about 200 miles from Dakar to Sedhiou, which in the United States would take us about three hours. But we were in West Africa and didn’t have a four-lane interstate, so it took two days and about 18 hours of travel time including the six hours we had to wait to cross the Gambian River.
Do you think we might be a little spoiled with our transportation system?
Part of the trip was on a really good two-lane road similar to one of our state highways, but that road turned into a not-so-good paved road with multiple potholes. Most drivers bypassed the holes by driving along the side of the road on a dirt path. When the paved road ended and turned to dirt, we were actually able to make better time. That pattern repeated itself several times over the course of the two-day trip.
We finally arrived at our destination on Saturday night around 7 p.m. local time, barely making it before the curfew imposed by the local gendarme. If we had not made it in time, there was a real possibility that we would have had to sleep in the vans along the side of the road. There were no Best Westerns in the bush country of West Africa.
After settling in and resting the next day, we spent five days running a medical/dental clinic, treating the people of the Casamance region. Joining the American team were about 20 African nationals including doctors, a dentist, nurses, drivers and interpreters. While there is a hospital in Sedhiou (a city of 200,000-plus people), there isn’t a clinic that people can go to for regular medical treatment. In just five days we saw over 600 people who desperately needed medical and dental help that we take for granted.
The dental treatment consisted of giving the patient a numbing shot and pulling whatever teeth were giving them trouble. No cleaning, drilling or capping. And the medical ailments ranged from the routine to problems well beyond the scope of the clinic. Oh, and the building that we worked out of was concrete block, about 80 years old and had no electricity, so we could only see patients while the light from the open windows allowed the doctors to see.
I’m not a medical professional, so my job was to only allow those people in the clinic who had been selected by the local tribal officials to be seen. Many people had walked for days and waited for additional days just for the chance to see a doctor. And some of those didn’t get that opportunity because of the limited time and resources.
Since I worked so closely with the local officials, I saw firsthand how stressful it was on those who so desperately needed services and those who had to make the decision as to whether or not they would get that opportunity. As I saw the process and looked into the faces of the people needing just the chance to see a doctor, it made me appreciate the access to basic medical care that everyone in this country has.
In the United States, we have turned a new page on health care and there are still a lot of unanswered questions as to what is going to happen in the years to come.
We had better be finding those answers and quickly, because there is way too much at stake to do anything else. If you don’t believe me, then take a trip and see for yourself.
Kevin Wilson, a former state representative, lives in Neosho.