Giving wrecked faces big smiles

Thursday January 14 2016

Ms Hadija Shaban poses on her bed at Aga Khan

Ms Hadija Shaban poses on her bed at Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam while awaiting reconstructive surgery recently. PHOTO | SYRIACUS BUGUZI.   

By Syriacus Buguzi The Citizen Reporter

Dar es Salaam. Today’s culture has become extremely image-conscious, and there’s apparent pressure for everyone to look glamorous and blemish-free. For most individuals, this is a luxury.

But in cases where one’s image is distorted in an accident, such as in domestic fires, the pressure to regain the original image may turn out to be a sensitive and complicated matter.

In some scenarios, the sensitivity attached to self-image has gone as far as ruining some family bonds, as was the case with Ms Hadija Shaban, a resident of Mbagala suburb, who ended up parting ways with her husband after her face was disfigured in a kitchen fire accident.

According to Ms Hadija, the husband she had lived with for many years before the accident occurred could not come to terms with her grotesque outlook.

“He  gradually kept me at a distance after fire disfigured my face,” she says. This happened about five years ago in Kigoma region, where she was living before shifting to Dar es Salaam.

The 35-year-old mother of one, has endured the ordeal of living with a scarred face for years now. To her, the curious stares, strange looks, hurtful remarks and at times, put-downs, have been part of life since the accident occurred in Kigoma. 

“It was one morning, when I was preparing tea,’’ she reccalled,  “I was busy stirring sugar in a saucepan full of milk on a stove. My memory then went blank. After a few days at the hospital, I realized that my face was dark with scars,” she narrated to The Citizen recently.

Hadija’s story is not unique in Tanzania.  More than 30 Tanzanian women with scars and disabilities caused by domestic fires, recently turned up for reconstructive surgery at the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam. The process aims to restore physical function and appearance of the affected body parts and in doing so, improves the self-confidence and quality of life of the victim.

According to medical experts, severe burns are prevalent in households which still use open fires or kerosene for cooking, heating or lighting. This represents a health crisis in developing countries, and particularly for the poor, they say.

Some of the victims have been stigmatized by their families, according to Dr Loiz Kahoro, a surgeon from the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. 

“Having a facial blemish or disfigurement can be a painful psychological problem for those affected,’’ she says, and adds: “We all know that looks are purely superficial, but we often judge people by their appearance, especially when we first meet them,” she noted as she further explained the medical aspects of fire accidents.

“There is  a case of a woman who could not walk because her thighs became tightened together by scars caused by burns,” says the plastic surgeon who was in the team of doctors attending to the women and children who suffered severe burns in the past.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that in developing countries, more women die of complications from burn injuries than they do of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

In the past one week, doctors under the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Project have been carrying out surgeries on women and children who have been afflicted  by the burns in Dar es Salaam.

Over 30 plastic surgeries were performed by experts from The Aga Khan Hospital, in collaboration with the Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH), on women and children affected by deformities resulting from violence, burns and accidents.

According to the Regional CEO of Aga Khan Health Services, East Africa, Mr Sulaiman Shabiabuddin, the goal of the collaboration is to share and enhance surgical expertise and address the medical needs of plastic and reconstructive surgery patients across the country,

“The surgeries are provided at no cost to the patients who cannot otherwise afford such treatment,” he said recently in an interview with The Citizen. 

Mr  Shabiabuddin  noted that the project, worth 1.6billion, is currently redistricted in Dar es Salaam but there are plans for spreading to upcountry regions, when the project under the patient’s welfare program mobilizes enough resources.