I went to the dentist….the horror!

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

I went to the dentist and heard the drill, so I done a runner and didn’t pay my bill

I had to go to the dentist the other day. Upon arriving at 10 am, I found that a lot of patients had been waiting since 9 am. After an hour, I was ushered to the dentist’s office and directed to sit on the dentist’s chair. Soon, the dentist would remove the tooth that had been bothering me for nearly a month. As I sat there, I thought of how blessed chickens are, since they will never know the pain associated with teeth. A pain so terrible that it causes brave men to weep and wise men to go insane.

I know of a certain man in the countryside who, unable to bear the raging pain caused by a decayed molar, took a big stone and struck his cheek with a heavy blow. In doing so, he knocked out the bad tooth, along with two good ones. He didn’t fully understand what he had done until he saw blood oozing from a hole in his cheek.

When we grow old, we are lucky to lose all our teeth, molars and all. Good riddance! No more toothaches and no more dental appointments. Don’t bet on that yet, say some religious people. When you go to hell, the demons will be there waiting for you with sets of teeth on a platter to be distributed to the toothless. Why, you ask? Well, how else do you expect the damned to grind or gnash their teeth in pain as they roast in the blazing fire?

The problem starts with teething. It itches, doesn’t it? Could that be nature’s way of making fun of us? It may be itching now to herald its arrival, but wait just a little and it is going to hurt heralding its departure. The Eritrean child is given kitcha or a similar product in order to alleviate the terrible itch.

When we were kids and saw our milk teeth falling one by one or had to have them pulled out by our brothers, father, or the dentist, we threw them in the direction of your place and in the name of St. Mary, we said, “I give you a bad tooth, you give me a good tooth.” We knew nothing of the tooth fairy.

As we grow old, we can sense the desire of some of our teeth to leave us for good. But some of our elder brothers did not wait to get old to part with some of their teeth. A simple fight did the job. The punishment for not listening to Pa or Ma was that they could not smile as long as there was a gap in their set of teeth. But once they could somehow manage to have the gap filled with gold teeth, they laughed the whole day to show their newly-acquired gem.

Still young, I came to realize that girls, unlike boys, made good use of their teeth when threatened. I have seen a friend who was unfortunate enough to lock horns with one of the girls in our neighborhood. If I hadn’t separated them, he might have been chewed alive. “Come and fight without your nails and teeth if you are a real man,” he said to the girl, shaking with anger. The girl laughed at being called a man. She had seen him biting right and left during previous fights with boys his age.

In our culture, next to good looks and long hair, a beautiful set of teeth is a valuable asset in a marriageable damsel. Girls should have a set of teeth as white as milk, say most suitors. How about them? Do you think that girls do not care about boys’ teeth?

About thirty years ago, there was a famous poster of a Beni Amir boy whose set of teeth made the producers of Colgate or Signal think twice before embarking on a new formula for tooth decay. What did that shepherd boy eat or drink to have such marvelous teeth? Most probably, he drank goat milk all the time, ate sugarless food, brushed his teeth with various twigs, washed his mouth with water and salt, ate lemons, and gnawed on akat (fruit of the Doum tree).

In the countryside, youngsters still use charcoal to scrub their teeth. You take a piece of charcoal, scrub every tooth with it and rinse. The fleshy inside of a lemon can also be used for the same purpose.

I remember meeting a foreign dentist who came to Eritrea to practice dentistry. He had been here for a year and told me that as long as Eritreans kept on crunching kolo (roasted chick peas) and kitcha, there was no future for him.

As biscuits and candies slowly invaded the country, accompanied by ice cream, pastry, and other sweets, the clinic of the said dentist was filled by scores of patients. And he lived happily ever after.

“What were Eritreans doing before the coming of Italian dentists?” I once asked my aunt. “Eating meat and crushing sheep or goat bones with one’s molars during holidays kept one’s teeth healthy,” she said. “It was with the introduction of sugar that the problem arose,” she added.

She told me that if people ever suffered from tooth pain, there were herbs that took care of that. “How about a decayed tooth that needed pulling out,” I asked. “The blacksmith was around to conduct the operation,” she said.

The blacksmith or anyone who had a strong stomach would arrive with a pair of plier or pincers and that was more or less a declaration of war on the bothersome tooth. After wrangling with the tooth for hours – sometimes even falling over backwards with empty pincers and swearing by God to get that stupid tooth even if it took him forever – the blacksmith would succeed and the operation was over. The hero of the day held the bad tooth, dripping with blood and small pieces of flesh. Quickly, he’d put some cloth or even a lump of soot in place of the tooth in order to stop the bleeding.

Mr. Haile is an old man. He has no teeth. But then he uses his gums to crush roasted beans and recounts his exploits when he was young. “I used to crush bones with my molars when I was only sixteen,” he likes to boast. No bone from an Easter sheep was spared. Tarzan, his dog, never forgave him for that. “I used to open beer bottles with my teeth,” he continues. He never waited for the barman or barwoman to go and fetch the bottle opener.

Given the opportunity, other impatient boozers availed of his free services which eventually caused his teeth to fall, one by one.

“I didn’t know at the time that I was making a mistake,” he admits. The toothless lion is now waiting for his children in America to send him money to repair the damage he inflicted on his teeth when he was young.