After two years at Te Hiku Hauora's dental clinic in Kaitaia, Dr Zia Loo has spent most of this year travelling the world. But it hasn't been the typical cruise.

Dr Loo has been plying his trade in countries as diverse as Vanuatu, Mexico, the Caribbean and West Africa, providing dental services for people who generally have no access to dental care, and who pay dearly for that.

He was most recently aboard the 16,000-tonne Africa Mercy, the world's largest civilian hospital ship, operated by Christian NGO Mercy Ships, which was docked in Guinea, West Africa, while the crew provided free surgical, dental and healthcare services in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The 26-year-old dentist from Kaitaia found he was not prepared for what he saw resulting from multi-dimensional poverty.


"We would see patients with enormous facial swellings that would never have been allowed to progress that far in First World countries," he said.

"Due to lack of access to antibiotics, a dental abscess from an infected tooth could very well be a death sentence here. It's a sad truth that is unheard of back home."

Guinea is a predominantly Muslim country, with French being widely spoken, along with as many as 24 tribal languages. During his time at the dental clinic Dr Loo would greet patients in the more common native language of Fula, with "Onjarama — How are you?"
"I'll never forget the delight on their faces when they heard me greet them in their own language."

Dr Zia Loo (centre back) and Mercy Ships colleagues enjoying a lighter moment for posterity.
Dr Zia Loo (centre back) and Mercy Ships colleagues enjoying a lighter moment for posterity.

The medics worked in operating theatres onboard Africa Mercy, but Dr Loo and the dental team used a local clinic that Mercy Ships renovated for their visit. Since arriving in Guinea in August they had treated more than 1400 patients.

Long days in hot conditions made for tiring work, Dr Loo said, but his month had been well spent, and included many remarkable experiences outside the clinic too.

Those experiences included a "wonderful day" with the children at Hope Village, the likes of which he had never seen before.

"The moment we pulled into the driveway in our vehicles, the group of about 20 kids greeted us with a dance and song that they had been practising hard. It was just amazing to see their joy despite the little they had.

"We spent the rest of the day making crafts, singing, dancing and sharing a meal with them.

"A few of us got to sit down and talk to the lady in charge of the orphanage, who shared her experiences going through the ebola crisis just a few years back. It was heart-breaking to hear her recount the tragedy, and how she lost many close ones, but I was grateful for her willingness to share and admired how strong-willed the people were despite what they have to endure.

"One of the highlights was being invited by one of the dental translators, Abdul, for a meal in his home. Their house consisted of two rooms for himself, his wife and his baby.

All the cooking was done in the communal kitchen, which they shared with several neighbours.

"Abdul's wife prepared a hearty meal for us, and we spent the rest of the night chatting and enjoying the meal together on the floor of his living room. It is humbling and eye-opening to be at the receiving end of such warm hospitality and generosity."

Africa Mercy, he added, operated on the goodwill of volunteers who gave their time and skills to serve people in need, he added. People from many nations, different cultures, languages, all worked together.

"It is a diverse community made up of incredible individuals, many of whom have dedicated years of their lives away from home, foregoing a stable income and society's definition of success. What they have chosen to do is very counterintuitive from what the rest of the world tells us success should look like," he said.

"The crew includes people of different faiths, socio-economic status, races, age groups and gender, and I think that is a truly beautiful thing, because it is a true reflection of what people can achieve when we set aside our differences and share a common vision for the greater good."