For 12-year-old Sekouba, the outlook was bleak. Not only did the enormous growth in his mouth mean he could not attend school, it was the kind of ailment which has seen others slowly suffocate.
Happily, he became another of the burgeoning rescue stories carried out by international charity Mercy Ships – whose ship, Africa Mercy, brings essential surgical interventions to Africa's poor. The ship is currently docked in Senegal as Mercy Ships launches a new appeal for about 80 New Zealand volunteers and $50,000 in fundraising from this country.
Sekouba is a typical example of how Mercy Ships has provided 100,000-plus free surgical procedures in on-board operating theatres for people in extreme poverty over the past 40 years – plus upskilling and mentoring more than 42,250 local health care workers in developing nations.
Mercy Ships spokesperson Sharon Walls says the boy's life was saved by the free operation: "But it was something that would not have happened in West Africa. There are a minimal number of surgeons, particularly in the more remote areas and, in any case, people living in poverty cannot afford them.
"He first noticed a lump in his mouth a year earlier, and it grew very rapidly. It was benign but the sad thing is that for many patients the tumour just keeps on growing and frequently blocks the airways, slowly suffocating the patient in a traumatic death."
Walls says Sekouba's life was threatened as the tumour grew outwards and inwards. He was ridiculed and ostracised by his community.
"The growth impacted his ability to speak clearly and breathing became difficult. His friends refused to play and even his brothers were ashamed to be seen with him. The cruel taunts from the other children became a burden too large to bear.
"Attending school was completely out of the question because the other kids were so cruel about the tumour in his mouth. His family was afraid of what the future held as the tumour continued to grow.
That all changed with an operation on board Africa Mercy, which spends 10 months of every year stationed in a different country, administering to urgent cases like Sekouba's.
The Mercy ship is a floating hospital with operating theatres, recovery wards, crew cabins and specialises in visiting countries where the poor cannot access essential surgery.
It is crewed by volunteers who live on the ship in host countries – and who can sign on for two weeks to five years, depending on the positions and duties, with some of the senior long-term opportunities coming with a family cabin. Most short-term opportunities range from 2 weeks to 10 months.
That's why, says Walls, Mercy Ships is looking for more Kiwi volunteers to crew the ship and for more funds to support its services: "When we ask for volunteers, most people think we need doctors and nurses.
"Yes, the medical people are important, of course, but this ship is a floating village, like a small town with a medical industry – we need engineers, IT people, tradies of all descriptions, even a hair stylist, not just those people who can make an incision."
About 40 New Zealanders a year volunteer for shipboard life, she says, and the Mercy Ships charity appeal this year is seeking volunteers and donations from Kiwis. The volunteers provide any air fares applicable and pay a monthly room and board fee of about $1000 – while donations made to Mercy Ships go towards supporting and maintaining the ship's services.
The ship's complement is 450 people at any one time but, as people come and go, there is opportunity for about 1200 over the course of a year.
"We need all hands on deck - Kiwis volunteering their skills to do their bit to transform the lives of people in developing nations who have no access to essential surgery in normal circumstances. If you can't go, you can give," she says.
Walls says the impact of seeing a child like Sekouba recover from a life-threatening ailment gives volunteers and professionals a feeling they remember all their lives: "It can be so emotional, not just seeing people in this kind of plight but also seeing the results and knowing we have changed their lives for the better.
"We say we have performed over 100,000 free surgical procedures but the reality is those operations affect a great many more people – families and whole communities – so we estimate we have helped something like 2.7 million people directly."
A key part of Mercy Ships' work is not just turning up to help people, important though that is and vital for patients like Sekouba. Walls says the work goes beyond surgery.
"It's also all about working with, and upskilling, local health practitioners so they have a greater capacity to meet the needs of their own communities – building that capacity is a really important aspect of our work."
For more information or to donate: www.mercyships.org.nz