He sat a few yards away from where the other children were playing. Calm but unhappy, he watched dejectedly as the rest of the pack chased one another excitedly in a hide and seek game that afternoon.
“My friends at home don’t want to play with me again,” he began, rolling his face from side to side as our correspondent engaged him at the permission of his father, Uche, a petty businessman. “They said my teeth are too big and that if they play with me, I could bite them. Instead of calling me Ekene, many of them would call me vampire and some other names. It makes me want to cry and that is why I prefer to keep to myself or play with my siblings alone,” he said, fighting back tears.
Heartbreaks all the way
In 2009, in search of a solution to his son’s dentition, Uche went to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital where he was told the boy was too small to wear braces, a metal wire used to gauge the teeth and drag them into desirable positions. However, for gradual treatment, the father of three was asked to pay N150, 000. A trial at the same health facility three years later offered no viable way out as well.
“When I took him back to LUTH in 2012, they just gave me a note to go and do some tests on him at a private hospital at Palmgrove. We spent over N45, 000 on that alone before being asked to pay more for further examination. It was at that point that I gave up hope. But I am really concerned for my son’s future. Whenever I look at him and realise I have not been able to help his condition, it breaks my heart,” Uche said.
Eleven years into his sojourn on earth and it is a life of pains and stigmatisation for Ekene. Apart from Igwe, there are dozens of individuals across Nigeria with flawed dentition described as malocclusion, whose lives have been made even more miserable as a result of their conditions. Though, not a disability, persons in this category battle rejection in several forms – a situation that forces them into a life of solitude most of the time. Not being able to freely express themselves in public, many in this category have learnt to live with the stings of low self esteem and depleted confidence. The situation continues to push opportunities farther from the reach of scores in this class.
Turned down at job interviews
“I have lost three opportunities for employment in the last one year because of my protruding teeth,” Godwin Kingsley, 21, told our correspondent. “After passing the interview test, they always turn me down during oral interview after seeing the way my teeth look. No matter how well I perform, I don’t hear from them again after the oral interview.
“But it is not my fault that I have protruding teeth. This is how I was born. Apart from the job opportunities I have lost, my communication with people has also been affected. Even though I am a very friendly person, some people just decide to be hostile and unfriendly, they mock me and make negative statements about my teeth. To avoid such, I keep to myself most of the time because I don’t want anybody to remind me of my condition. I don’t go near ladies for fear of being embarrassed,” the Akwa-Ibom State-born young man said.
Like Nwilo, Godwin is battling his own fair share of stigmatisation and heartbreaks. At 21, he can count the number of times he has freely expressed himself in public or laughed with all mouth wide open like many do when excited. For him, opening his mouth the way he wishes comes at a heavy price – it could provoke ridicule or a scornful reaction from people around. His looks have earned him several derogatory names like ‘vampire’ and ‘tiger.’
‘My relationships end even before they begin’
Though, not born with flawed dentition, Funmi Adejumobi’s life changed when she had a minor accident in 2002. Eleven at the time, she hit her mouth against a pavement after slipping while walking home with her friends from school in Ado-Ekiti, capital of Ekiti State. Apart from two broken teeth, her gums were also badly affected in the accident, pushing the rest of her dentition outwards awkwardly. The cost for a corrective surgery was beyond the reach of her parents who barely took care of the family’s needs with a paltry income. Adejumobi has lived with the scar and pains ever since. She told our correspondent how much that minor incident has hampered her life.
“It is the expression on people’s faces when they see my teeth that really hurts me,” she said. “It is as if I disgust them and spoil their moods by allowing my teeth to show. I can’t remember how many times I have cried since I had this accident in 2002. There is no name that people have not called me in this world. Some even said it happened to me because I am ogbanje.
“I remember one dentist my father took me to a few weeks after the accident, he said we should pay N800, 000 for a corrective surgery. Even till today, we cannot afford that kind of money. The other places we tried were also charging the same amount and that is why I have remained like this; I only take a few drugs to kill the pains,” she said.
On what the experience has been with the opposite sex despite having a decent look, Adejumobi said it has been a mixed bag. Though, she gets passes from guys on few occasions, it has been difficult keeping a relationship with any of them as a result of her dentition.
“I have a number of male friends but none has ever asked me out. The few guys who have managed to ask me out disappear even before the relationship begins. Of course I know the reason they leave me but then, there is nothing I can do. Whoever wants me has to accept me the way I am. But as a person, I do my best to respect myself and avoid unnecessary insults and ridicule,” the 24-year-old said.
During the 15-minute conversation with our correspondent, Adejumobi managed to smile a few times – a rarity according to her sibling, Bisola. For her, smiling comes last on the list.
A brand new life
While Nwilo, Kingsley and Adejumobi continue to endure terrible daily experiences as a result of their flawed dentition, a few others once in their shoes but who have managed to find new lives today, thanks to a pioneering technique in dental treatment, are basking with renewed hope. For them, the transformation has been filled with priceless lessons.
Introverted by flawed dentition
Born with a crowded and protruding teeth, Emem Prosper, had derogatory names such as ‘Dracula’ – a villain with
“While growing up as a child, I used to have funny names given to me by friends and relatives,” she said. “When we went out in public, even my siblings would tell me not to embarrass them by smiling or exposing my teeth anyhow. I kept to myself most of the time even when my siblings would go out and play with friends, I would remain indoors because I had lost my self esteem. It was a terrible period in my life.scary dentition in the famous James Bond 007 series, as a child. The names kept coming while growing up so much that Prosper completely lost her self esteem and confidence as a person. Her life was miserable until recently.
“But since I was offered the opportunity for a corrective surgery by Project Smile seven months ago, my life changed. Though, I still have 13 months to complete my treatment, I am freer and happier now. I talk freely in public and for people who knew me; the transformation has been hard to believe,” she said.
Adekoya Oluwatosin, 29 and Jaiye Johnson, 24 also suffered pains in various forms as a result of the conditions of their teeth until a few months ago when they were offered a chance alongside Prosper and six others for a smile makeover by Project Smile, an annual initiative of Smile360 Dental Specialist, Lagos, to touch lives. While Adekoya like Kingsley, was turned down at several job interviews as a result of the flaw, Johnson’s relationships especially with friends suffered various setbacks.
‘Did you fight a witch’
“If I went for a job interview, instead of asking me questions related to the job, members of the panel would immediately focus on my teeth. Some would ask if I fought with a witch or was bitten by a dog.
“There were things I would want to go for but because of my dentition, I had to draw back in order not to embarrass myself. The condition really reduced my confidence and self worth,” Adekoya told Saturday PUNCH.
‘I never smiled in pictures’
“There were times when people made me feel bad as a result of the problem,” Johnson said of her own experience. “I had a very close friend and she would call me all sorts of name. At the time, my lips were protruding and my dentition really looked terrible. In fact I never smiled in pictures as a result of the problem.
“People made offensive comments at me and that really demoralised me a lot. I have had guys come up to me trying to ask me out and when they said hello and I opened my mouth to respond, such guys withdrew almost immediately. It is not an experience I wish for even my enemies,” she said.
Both ladies are in their eight month in the process of correction but now have new lives as a result of the amazing transformation they are currently undergoing.
A silent killer
Principal, Smile360 and initiator of Project Smile, Dr. Amy Traore Shumbusho, an orthodontist, says Nigeria needs to pay more attention to rising cases of dental flaws and the pains sufferers go through while searching for acceptance from the society. According to her, apart from the psychological effects of having to live with a bad dentition in the face of rejection, the dangers to the general health of the individuals could be severe.
“Dental flaws are quite common but now we are paying more attention to it because we don’t have to live that way. This condition is caused by a number of factors; for example our eating habit has changed, oral hygiene habit has changed as well. This is among factors that have occasioned the rise of dental flaws in several communities.
“Most of the cases that we have dealt with are hereditary; the individuals didn’t do anything to deserve such. Only a few are caused by accident and self-inflicted habits. Habits like sucking which disturbs the teeth could result to severe dental flaw in the long run. Clenching and grinding could also lead to such because it causes unnecessary pressure on the jaws and the teeth. A healthy dentition is a healthy life, so it is important that we must encourage such all the time.
“I decided to extend the opportunity each year to those out there who cannot afford this treatment to correct dental flaws, people who deserve to also smile.
“The impact of a smile in someone’s life cannot be overemphasised. There are a lot of people out there who need help. The percentage is disturbing and it’s a big problem in the country and other parts of Africa,” she said.
According to dentistsng.com, the type of lifestyle adopted, heavy and constant alcohol consumption, smoking, chewing of kolanut and improper tooth-picking can also cause malocclusion.
A call for urgent attention
Though, there are no accurate figures on the number of Nigerians living with flawed dentition, suffering all sorts of rejection and hostile treatment from the society in the process, health experts told Saturday PUNCH that the number is quite alarming.
According to Dr. Oyinkan Sofola of the Preventive Dentistry Department of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Nigeria lacks sufficient data on its state of oral health, especially with teeth problems not reported until they become almost impossible to correct surgically.
Ahead of this year’s World Oral Health Day which comes up on March 20 and themed ‘Smile for Life’, Sofola says oral health is a component of overall wellbeing and must be taken seriously like the other parts of the body. An individual, according to her, is not well systemically if he or she is deficient orally.
A traditional doctor who treats dental cases, Festus Opurum, fingered the experimentation of all sorts of mouth washing paste and liquids as some of the factors fuelling bad dentition in Nigeria. According to him, a lot of persons have abandoned traditional ways of taking care of the teeth and jaws hence the drastic rise in such cases.
“I have been doing this job for more than 20 years and I can tell you that a lot of these mouth wash products in the market are harmful chemicals that mostly result in other serious problems like damaged gum, bleeding and tooth decay.
“In the past, our parents used ordinary chewing sticks to clean their mouths and up till their old ages, their teeth were still intact. There were also herbal mixtures to freshen and make the teeth and gum stronger. But nowadays, people use all sorts of pastes and chemicals called mouth washing treatments. I am not totally condemning them but then the traditional method of taking care of the teeth and mouth generally is better and safer as far as I know,” he said.
Psychologist, Buchi Anyamele, explained that persons living with bad dentition could be suffering as much rejection in the society as those living with life-threatening diseases such as HIV and AIDS and that if not critically and quickly addressed, it could trigger a rise in suicide cases and other deviant behaviours among individuals living with such conditions in the society.
“As humans, we all want acceptance especially from the people around us. But in a situation where people turn you into an object of ridicule because of a condition you are living with, it could push some into taking extreme measures like ending their own lives. Some others as a form of repudiation to the society that has rejected and made life difficult for them, take to criminal behaviours to inflict as much pains on others just as they have on them.
“Personally I have had opportunities to counsel persons with bad dentition and I realised that the level of stigma they are dealing with is almost at the same level with people living with HIV/AID. The society really needs to pay attention to this problem and educate people from hurting those living with this type of condition,” he said.
A sociologist, Omolola Tella, told Saturday PUNCH that the easiest way to help persons living with bad dentition escape rejection and ridicule the society subjects them to, is for government to build and fully equip public health institutions that offer quality and affordable surgeries to correct such problems. Embarking on a countrywide campaign by relevant government agencies to educate the populace could also reduce stigmatisation, she said.
“In most parts of Europe and America, you don’t see this level of frustration among people with bad dentition because the health care system is there for them to access and correct such flaws. Apart from being very efficient, it is very affordable and readily available across every part of such societies. Our government can do the same for us if they were sincere enough.
“If you go to most public hospitals, what you would find there would shock you. There are no equipment or drugs to treat even minor cases, let alone perform surgeries. How many people can afford the cost of visiting private health institutions? Not many, you would agree with me. That is why the government must invest properly in public health care so that persons who require corrective surgeries can access them easily and not suffer unnecessarily,” she said.
The cost of having quality treatment to correct malocclusion and other dental flaws vary from clinic to clinic and also severity of case. According to findings by Saturday PUNCH, it could be as reasonable as N200, 000 and as high as N3.5m. In a country where many average citizens go to bed hungry and where the minimum monthly wage for public workers is N18, 000, affording such medical expense is a tall dream for dozens of individuals and households. For the likes of Adejumobi and Kingsley who earns slightly less and lives with flawed dentition, it is indeed a tough life – one filled with quietness and fast-fading hopes.