Love and Faith Over Fear
A Long Way to Go
For 34-year-old Sifaye, the journey to her daughter Mariama’s healing was filled with unfamiliar paths and crowded roads.
Their village is a two-day drive from the port of Dakar, Senegal, where the hospital ship offering free surgeries was docked. The road is chiseled by the Casamance river. Thanks to the rough terrain, especially when it rains, people can only get there on foot or by motorcycle. Sifaye had never traveled farther than two hours away and the idea of traveling to the city filled her with fear.
“I was absolutely afraid of taking her (Mariama) to the ship,” said Sifaye.
Mariama is Sifaye’s youngest and only daughter. “When I was pregnant with her, I thought that she would be a boy because my first four children are all boys.” When she held her daughter, she relished the opportunity to share all the joys of girlhood with her and imagined a future where Mariama would grow up and become a strong, independent woman.
Then, at 4 years old, Mariama developed “bow legs,” a condition where her legs warp outward in a rounded shape.
“When I noticed her legs like that, I was really worried. I wasn’t able to sleep enough. I was so scared.”
Sifaye feared that her daughter would receive judgment and discrimination as she grew older. No one in the village had ever experienced her condition. Already, stares and whispers followed wherever they went.
“Her friends laughed at her because she couldn’t walk fast or run, she was always behind.”
Both she and her husband had noticed Mariama becoming self-conscious. “She always wanted to play like her friends… jumping and other games, but she couldn’t,” said Mariama’s father, Camara.
They made the difficult decision to keep Mariama home from school. “The school is so far, that is why I didn’t send her there. Because she can’t walk a long distance without complaining that she was tired. If she went to school, she won’t be able to walk back home.”
For the next year, the family’s focus became entirely on Mariama’s well-being. “During that period, we tried every type of medicine, but nothing changed,” Camara recalls. “When we took her to the hospital, they told us that they can’t cure her.” They were told that her legs would likely continue to grow curved for the rest of her life.
Finding Healing for Mariama
A year later, in a village two hours away, Sifaye’s brother Mane met a member of the Mercy Ships patient selection team who was traveling around the country assessing potential surgical candidates.
“He told me they would offer free surgeries for patients. He showed me photos of people they had already treated,” Mane says. When he saw the before and after photos of patients with conditions like Mariama’s, he knew he had to tell his sister. “The pictures of the previous patients convinced me. I wished the same for my niece.”
The thought of going to a new town for the first time, away from the familiar comfort of home, family, and friends made Sifaye hesitate. “My elder brother who informed me about the ship encouraged me. He told me that no bad thing will happen to me.”
Love for her daughter overpowered any fear, and they began their long journey.
Sifaye says that the first few days on board were constant bouts of homesickness, but the team on board quickly made them feel at home.
For the first time, they also met children with conditions like Mariama’s. “I was happy to meet other mothers who knew what I was going through, and it was good for Mariama to see she was not alone.”
Volunteer orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stan Kinsch says that bow legs can occur due to malnutrition. Unfortunately, due to inadequate medical access in some African countries, the condition is more prevalent on the continent compared to other parts of the world.
“In developed countries, these conditions are treated early so they don’t require surgery. But here they are recognized late, and appropriate treatment isn’t available, so they develop into extreme forms,” said Dr. Kinch.
After surgery and three months of physiotherapy, Sifaye and Mariama were ready to go home. When Sifaye saw her daughter’s straight legs for the first time, an overwhelming joy spilled out.
“I was so surprised; I thought her legs would always be bent for the rest of her life. Seeing them like that today was wonderful. We were never going to afford to get her surgery, so this is a miracle for us.”
Back home, Mariama is now enrolled in school again – and their world will never be the same. In addition to seeing her daughter’s healing, Sifaye says she also now has a new appreciation for the world beyond her village.