Mulikat zips herself into a silver dress. We watch her turn and admire herself in the mirror. The dress flatters her shapely figure, but the left side of her face is terribly scarred: misshapen and difficult to look at. Earlier on in her life, Mulikat contracted a disease called Noma. The gangrenous disease starts as an infection in the mouth. If symptoms are not diagnosed and treated quickly, it begins to destroy the bones and tissues in a victim’s mouth. In just days, it can disfigure a victim’s face terribly. Depending on where the disease started, it can completely destroy a victim’s nose, jaw, cheeks, lips, or eyes. According to the World Health Organization, an untreated case of Noma can even kill its victim in as little as 2 weeks. Mulikat is one of the lucky ones. Her case was caught and treated before it became fatal. She received treatment and reconstructive surgery at the Sokoto Children’s Hospital. It is at the Hospital that we meet her. She is one of the subjects in a documentary called Restoring Dignity.
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Restoring Dignity follows the lives of 5 Noma victims at the Sokoto Children’s Hospital, over the course of one year, as they are treated and recover from the disease. It is a moving documentary, one that strikes you unapologetically. In it, we meet Sakina, Amina, Adamu, and Aliyu. We hear Amina laugh, but we don’t see her mouth move because she has no lips and the Noma disease has made it impossible for her to move her jaw. Adamu contracted the disease when he was 2 years old. He hides his face with a scarf because his features have been twisted to an odd angle, and there is a massive piece of swollen skin dividing the two sides of his face. He has been married 3 times, but each wife left him. He is now married to a 4th woman, and with a smile on his face he tells us: “God has given me a wife that can endure my disease.”
At the Sokoto Children’s Hospital, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the State Ministry of Health have combined efforts to treat children and adults suffering from Noma. They send outreaches into remote communities in Sokoto, educating the poor and trying to find victims. They offer medical and mental health support to these people and even help them discover a better life through reconstructive surgery.
If you have never heard of this disease, it is most likely because you have had no reason to know about it. Malnutrition, poor dental hygiene and a low immune system are the usual causes. Children who live in poor, unsanitary and remote communities are most likely to contract this disease. Noma is not contagious, but people in these communities are not aware of that. Instead of trying to help a Noma victim, they tend to ostracize them. As a result, Noma victims have to deal with social stigma in addition to pain and severe facial disfigurement. Despite being preventable and treatable, many Noma victims die from this disease.
There is an undeniable need to inform more people about the risk of Noma, especially those living in poor, unsanitary conditions. There is also a need to provide these people with the simple resources they need for good hygiene and nutrition. In Restoring Dignity, we see an old woman confess that she has never used a toothbrush or toothpaste in her life because she cannot afford them. The aim of Restoring Dignity is to spread awareness of Noma and the social consequences of not addressing this disease. The documentary screened at the Mike Adenuga Centre on the 18th of November, a day that also happens to be Noma National Day. This is the film’s first stop in a countrywide tour that will take it to ten different locations across Nigeria (Lagos, Enugu, Jos, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Owerri, Ilorin, Maiduguri, Kaduna and Kano) in partnership with the French Embassy in Nigeria and the Alliances Françaises network.
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Claire Jeantet, one of the directors of Restoring Dignity, was present at the screening. At the end of the film, she and Dr. Shefiu, a doctor from the Sokoto Children’s Hospital, answered every question the audience had to ask. With warmth and obvious passion, Claire said;
“I have taken on the responsibility to fight for this and I will continue to do so.”-Claire Jeantet
To discover more about Noma, watch the short version of Restoring Dignity below, and visit noma.msf.org. Don’t forget to spread the word.
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