Seven Years of Miracles: Imvelo's Mobile Dental (and now Optical) Safaris

Imvelo Safari Lodges • 3 January 2018

Imvelo Safari Lodges, who operate Gorges Lodge and Zambezi Sands River Camp in the Victoria Falls area, as well as four safari properties in Hwange National Park, facilitate incredibly valuable community and conservation projects which benefit people and wildlife in the areas in which they operate.   

The company works with local, regional and international  individuals, groups and foundations as a facilitator.  Imvelo provides all the logistical support without charge. Money for the projects is raised by well-wishers and every cent is spent on materials and labour only, with Imvelo contributing the rest.

Imvelo-facilitated projects help improve the facilities and services offered by community clinics, provide access to clean water from boreholes and up-grade the facilities of schools in the area.  

But by far the most important and life-changing work is done via an annual Imvelo Mobile Dental and Optical SafariA team of international dental and optical specialists (2017's team pictured above) volunteer their services annually to assist adults and children from the nearby villages and schools, who have dental health and eye problems.  To thank the volunteers for their hard work and the sacrifices, Imvelo Safari Lodges organise a special safari for them at the end of their stay.

Imvelo have provided the following detailed run-down of the extraordinary miracles they achieved during 2017:-

"From a campfire discussion at Bomani Tented Lodge (one of the Imvelo Safari Lodges) many years ago to our first Mobile Dental Safari in 2011, this year (2017) - our seventh year, was without a doubt the biggest and best yet. The number of patients treated in a little under a week was just over 4,000, while our first year was 1174!

But it’s not just about the numbers – the event has evolved into so much more than annual dental care for villagers. We now have an optical component that this year was larger than the dental, and we added a number of other different new elements each providing relief to thousands.

Miracle 1 - Where eye surgery is required

This year we provided the first surgical ophthalmological component in response to what we’ve seen in our communities in previous years. Our team was joined by gifted young Zimbabwean ophthalmologist Dr Gilbert Moyo from United Bulawayo Hospitals who diagnosed patients in need of eye surgery. Working with Sam Moyo, our Communities Officer, these patients will in the future be organised with transport to town for an operation that in most cases will save their eyes and restore vision. Our first patient Goodnight Sibanda has already had a successful operation that was urgent, paid for by D3 Foundation. We are in the process now of raising money for more than 100 other patients Dr Moyo identified as requiring eye surgery.

Miracle 2 - Clear sight for old and young

Our optometric team that last year comprised 2 Spaniards was overwhelmed by the number of people needing spectacles. So this year we grew the team by 2 more Spaniards as well as 2 Zimbabweans from Bulawayo optometrists John McMinn & Co. We equipped them with state of the art eye testing equipment paid for by money raised by Smile is a Foundation, and even this much stronger much better equipped team could barely cope with the demand that came forward. They treated over 1900 patients, a large number of them older people requiring two sets of specs for reading and distance, as well as hundreds of sunglasses to protect eyes from our harsh sun.

Miracle 3 - More experts volunteer their services

Our team has almost doubled since our first year in 2011, but most gratifying is the number of Zimbabweans volunteering to work with us and the number of new enthusiastic young faces in the Spanish and Italian team. Some of the original veterans are facing increased family and work commitments which have made it more difficult to travel every year, so they have carefully selected new faces that can replace them in years when they are unavailable. By expanding the team, pressure on individuals to join us every year is relieved. Sergio and Natalya were unable to join us as Natalya (who has been six years in a row) was taking care of their newly born twins. New faces included Sophia and the Moraleda family - father Fernando Senior and two sons Fernando Junior and Diego, are all qualified dentists, while mum Elsa is a dental nurse who handled data collection for us.

Miracle 4 - Support from all over the world

Our wonderful donors continue to support our efforts as we’ve expanded and grown. Higher Life Foundation this year picked up the tab not only for airfares but also for a larger fleet of buses to move patients more efficiently over long distances. Smile is a Foundation raised a fortune to purchase equipment for the optometrists and dentists to make them more efficient and effective. Smile also raised funds to support Imvelo catering and taking care of the larger team at our lodges, as well as for anaesthetics, spectacles and medical kit. D3 Foundation funds covered a host of expenses that included around 3000 litres of diesel, supplies for over 3500 meals served at the clinics, just over 4000 toothbrushes and tens of thousands of Ibuprofen and Amoxicillin. D3 is also going to lead our drive to raise funds for patients identified as needing to come to town for eye surgery. Apart from spectacles brought from Spain, Elke Kuepper with ITP in Germany organised and then arranged delivery of thousands of pairs of carefully wrapped and tested specs. Feinschmecker from Joburg provided us with cooler boxes filled with cold meats and goodies. Bulawayo dental practitioner Dudu Sibanda volunteered her time at our clinic in Dete, and also kindly autoclaved and sterilised all our tools. John McMinn and Matt Love assisted in many ways but also arranged for Karene and Somayya from their company to work with us for the week. Shoes collected by Anita McGaw in Melbourne were given to those patients most in need. The list of our supporters is long and growing – we thank them all.

Miracle 5 - Better equipment for diagnosis and treatment

This year we deployed a significantly beefed up equipment list with our team... two new autorefractors (an electronic eye testing device) and a trial lens case, while our fillings department was thrilled with their irrigation and suction machine. The new equipment was provided by Smile is a Foundation.

Miracle 6 - Lives changed, futures brightened

Every year we are overwhelmed with the stories of the individuals whose lives we change:- The young mother who had tears in her eyes when one of our dentists removed the 2 extraordinary incisors of her 10 week old baby that had made breast feeding almost impossible. The young kids left out of school because of a supposed learning disability, fixed with a simple pair of spectacles. The old people terrified of falling because they can’t see, suddenly able to see far and then with a second set of specs to even read again. The hundreds of kids lining up in their afternoons after school to get a sadza and beans lunch and then watch real life dentists and doctors at work, and listen to an oral hygiene talk. Our impromptu soccer match against the kids at Mabanda on our drive home from Dhlamini -accompanied by Spanish soccer songs!

Miracle 7- Reaching further out to neglected areas

Apart from taking care of the communities around our lodges, this year we wanted to push further into the communities on the remotest south western boundary of Hwange National Park, areas plagued by some of the worst poaching we have had to deal with. We warned our team that it would be long distances and long drives down to Dhlamini so we could send our buses deep into Chief Siphosa’s area – not a murmur of complaint from any of them. And here as expected the mouths we looked into that day reminded us of the mouths that we experienced in our first years closer to home: terrible and massive multiple infections; multiple extractions per mouth; huge abscesses; thin, scared kids with debilitating tooth aches. But when we left there late and exhausted on that Thursday evening we were unanimous in our agreement to return every year to that most remote and neglected part of our country.

Miracle 8 - Programming long-term health benefits

In past years we’ve attended to the needs of thousands of school kids but this year we took it to the next level. At Ngamo Primary and Secondary Schools, a file was opened on each individual, capturing their dental and sight records so that in the years ahead their specific needs can be catered for. Over time, this record will provide a database to assess the effectiveness of our preventative programmes. This year’s ‘school clinic’ was such a success we are planning to bring several more schools into the programme next year, so that while the grownups are being attended to at the local clinic, the nearby schools will also be a hive of activity and health & hygiene education. The plan is to engrave in young minds the importance of eye health and oral health; annual intervention will include checking eyesight, providing spectacles where needed, and providing sunglasses to everyone to prevent eye disease caused by over exposure to the strong African sun.  In the dental department all mouths will be checked, cavities filled, rotten teeth extracted and root canal done when needed. On top of that every 6 months new tooth brushes will be provided, fluoride treatment applied and a 1 minute rinse with chlorexidene with the help of our Ngamo teachers. Every time a lecture on prevention of both teeth and eye disease will be given to every class.


Miracle 9 - School kids see the Falls for the first time

A major part of putting the Dental Safari into the field every year is assembling the fleet of vehicles and drivers. This year, the day after our last clinic but before the buses set off back to their homes we decided to use them for something else. We realised that the majority of the kids at Chisuma School near Gorges Lodge had never actually seen the Victoria Falls themselves, even though they had grown up within sight of the spray column rising into the sky. We hatched the plan to use the Dental Safari buses to change that.  So on Sunday the 12th we took 388 Chisuma School kids and their teachers into the Victoria Falls National Park, and what a day it was. Despite the constant anxiety of the teachers keeping the kids safe and in straight lines, the well behaved children had as many pictures taken of them by other visitors as the Falls themselves that day. This is another program we have decided to replicate every year for other schools in the area.140

Miracle 10 - We spoil the team with a special safari

Part of the success of the Imvelo Mobile Dental and Optical Safari is when we do our bit to thank the volunteers for their hard work and the sacrifices they make to come and treat our communities - we take them on safari for a few days. This year their first day at Nehimba enabled us to show them some magnificent elephant at the Seeps, ‘Horse’ our remarkable lioness and her newest young cubs, and the incredible evening elephant show in front of the lodge. Then of course when we were at Bomani after we got back from Sipepa Hospital and were enjoying the sunset at Stoffie’s Pan the wild dogs gave us a show. For our move from Ngamo to the Falls we used the overnight passenger train service that, just as we predicted, everybody loved! That same day we lunched at The Victoria Falls Hotel and that evening we danced with our Ingqungqulu Emnyama troupe.  The last day at Zambezi Sands saw us canoeing on the Zambezi and our now-annual Spanish paella party on the beach next to the magnificent river. These memories will last a lifetime – but none stronger than those of the people we helped along the way.

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