Adam Kessler enjoyed a very successful year working with Project Harar in the London office. When he was offered a new role in Ethiopia, we wanted to give him the chance to see the patients whose care he had fundraised for and recorded. Here's Adam's account from Addis Ababa.
I worked for Project Harar in the London office for almost a year. I was pleased to contribute to their fantastic work in extremely challenging regions. Though I never went to Ethiopia, through the videos, stories and interviews we received, I felt a close connection with the patients.
Now on a six-month posting with Save The Children in Ethiopia, I jumped at the chance to meet the patients for real. A surgical mission was taking place just 20km away from my office. I was taken there by Biniyam, Project Harar’s enthusiastic outreach officer. As we drove through the rolling, strangely English-looking hills, he talked non-stop about the charity's future plans, pausing only to rearrange his curly hair.
Eventually we pulled up through a tree-lined avenue into a large, well-kept complex, looking like hospital wards. Small groups of patients stared at us curiously – and I stared back with equal interest. I had seen photos before, but nothing quite prepares you for meeting the patients in person. It was like being on the set of a film. At first the facial deformities were shocked me; it was difficult to look past them. But after a surprisingly short time the physical marks faded in my mind. I stopped noticing the disfigurement and saw children simply chatting and playing.
Biniyam introduced me to a small boy, sitting with a group of friends. “This is Zahir”, he said, completely unnecessarily, as I squealed with delight and raced to greet him. He looked up, bemused. Though he didn’t know me, I knew him – if not in person, then from photos, videos, and the charity’s reports. I’d come to admire his courage and good humour – his ability to laugh despite growing up with noma, a childhood infection that had left gaping facial wounds. I couldn’t have been more excited if I’d been introduced to Johnny Depp.
Bright and clearly very intelligent, Zahir examined my watch, my pen and camera in quick succession. I passed my camera on to him and his mate Yesake, who instantly mastered more settings than I knew existed, and ran away to take photos.
In the meantime, I tried to speak with the other patients. Almost none spoke English. A visible facial disability is a real barrier to education, and few had gone to school. Eventually I met an older villager, acting as guardian to two girls from his village during their treatment. He told me that in his village six people suffered from noma, a terrible guage of malnutrition and poor access to health care in rural Ethiopia.
The thing that stood out most clearly for me that day was the difference between patients who were there for the first time, and those returning for their second or third round of treatment. The former could be nervous and unsure, the latter confident and enjoying the chance to mix with others who walk in their shoes. Photos and videos demonstrate the amazing physical change that surgery can make, but it has a transformational effect on self-confidence too.
Sadly, my time at the Cheshire centre was limited and our taxi driver had waited three times longer than we’d originally agreed. I retrieved my camera, saying farewell to Zahir and Yesake. I’d only spent a couple of hours at the Cheshire home but I left with a deeper impression of life with a severe facial disability than photographs and videos had ever given me.
To see two of the other patients Adam met and their insights into making friends at hospital, please visit our media page.
Listen to two BBC World Service interviews with Project Harar surgical teams from 2007. First up, an interview with Sissay Befikadu, who was in charge of the cleft programme at Yekatit-12 hospital. And secondly, an interview with Klaas Marck, a Dutch plastic surgeon and chair of the Dutch Noma Foundation.
Take a glimpse into the lives of noma patients in this BBC documentary presented by Ben Fogle, featuring 17 Project Harar patients