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The safari dentist
When a Maasai girl in Kenya wants to get married, an ugly smile can keep her from getting a proposal.
That’s where North Bend resident Dr. Raymond Damazo comes in. Damazo, also known as the “Safari Dentist,” has spent four months a year for the past 20 years in Kenya, practicing general dentistry in a place where his presence makes a big difference, one person at a time.
Damazo works alongside his wife, Gail, at their clinic near the Masai Mara Reserve, one of the world’s most popular animal-related tourist attractions.
“At age 53, I thought it would be nice to give something back to the world,” Damazo said. “To go somewhere where people have no options.”
An animal enthusiast and one-time aspiring zoologist, Damaza chose Kenya as a place where he could improve lives and get a chance to take an extended wildlife safari.
In Kenya, Damazo practices in a place where the nearest dentist is many miles away. None of the locals own a car, few own bikes, and people either walk or use a limited, private bus system. Most people have no toothbrushes, toothpaste, or access to regular dental care, and there a few trained dentists in the country.
That means that what might be a minor problem for Westerners can lead, in the Kenyan bush, to tooth loss or infections that can ultimately kill.
Tourists to Africa often bring candy, which they give to children. Without dental care, that candy leads to serious health problems. Damazo urges visitors to give children pencils and pens, not sweets.
Formerly practicing out of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, Damazo set up his permanent clinic last January.
“I wanted to work someplace where I would really enjoy myself,” he said.
Damazo doesn’t mind working hard, helping dozens of patients each day, as long as he can retire to his apartment above the clinic, clean up and relax, or head out into the game reserve. Being part of an environment that he loves helps Damazo stay productive.
The Masai Mara reserve is a vast, grassy plain, and is home to cape buffalo, wildebeest, lions, giraffes, zebras, and thousands of other creatures, big and small. Some herds migrate. Others, like the lions or giraffes, are there year-round.
“I can’t wait to see it again,” Damazo said at his North Bend home. “It’s just lovely, grass as far as you can see.”
Tourism is the biggest industry in Kenya. Some 750,000 people visit Africa yearly to see animal migrations in the bush. That number dropped off almost entirely after tribal unrest in 2008 led to the murder of some 1,500 people.
Now, stability has returned and the tourists are slowly coming back.
The Maasai still wear their traditional clothing and jewelry, and live in mud-walled, thatch-roofed huts. They make a living raising cows, sheep and goals, milking the cows enough for their own use and then leave the rest for calves. The Maasai keep their herds in thorn-brush enclosures at night to keep the lions away.
With Kenya’s population of 33 million, Damazo figures the roughly 5,000 people he helps each year are a drop in the bucket.
But, with each person he helps part of an extended family and close-knit society, Damazo’s work makes a difference in many lives.
“Your impact is more than what you think it is,” he said. “For every person that you treat, there’s ten to 20 people in their family that know about you, that are aware that somebody from America cares.
“So many people come that are having pain,” Damazo said. By pulling a tooth, putting in a crown or making a better smile, he is changing lives.
“Even though they live in a dung hut, they have incredibly sensitive aesthetic tastes,” he said. “They don’t like to go around with a crooked smile.”
The would-be bride with the missing front tooth couldn’t get married before Damazo’s help. Now, she can marry, and her family gets 12 cows as a dowry.
“You make a bridge, you replace a tooth, and now they can get married, and they’re tickled to death,” Damazo said.
Damazo is retired from his dental practice in Bellevue. He formerly ran a business offering corporate picnics at Mountain Meadows farm in North Bend, but sold the enterprise a few years ago.
Damazo has written a book about his experiences, “Safari Dentist.” The book describes Damazo’s adventures, the hard life of herders in the bush, and his efforts to help patients.
He returns to Kenya for a stint at the clinic this month.
“Africa gets in your blood,” Damazo said. “I feel like we’re contributing a lot to the world. I want to keep doing it as long as I can.”