The journey to healing for Mariama was filled with unfamiliar paths and crowded roads. But it was one that her mother, 34-year-old Sifaye, was willing to take.
Mariama’s village is a two-day drive from the port of Dakar, Senegal, where the Africa Mercy docked, the site of free surgeries for those in need. The road leading there 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 (Mariama) to the ship,” Sifaye said.
Mariama is Sifaye’s youngest and only daughter. 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 bent outward in a rounded shape.
“When I noticed her legs like that, I was really worried,” Sifaye shared. “I wasn’t able to sleep enough. I was so scared.”
Sifaye feared that her daughter’s life would be filled with judgment and discrimination as she grew older since Mariama was the first and only child to experience this condition. Soon after Mariama’s leg began to bend, the stares and whispers started to follow wherever they went.
“Her friends laughed at her because she couldn’t walk fast or run. She was always behind,” Sifaye said. Mariama’s father, Camara, added, “She always wanted to play like her friends… jumping and other games, but she couldn’t.”
Worse than the mockery that came from others, Mariama’s condition left her parents with a difficult decision to make. “[Mariama’s] school is so far. That is why I didn’t send her there,” Camara said. “If she went to school, she wouldn’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 recalled. “When we took her to the hospital, they told us that they couldn’t cure her.”
Camara and Sifaye were told that Mariama’s legs would likely continue to grow curved for the rest of her life. Nearly a year after hearing that painful report, hope arrived.
One day 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. But, love for her daughter overpowered any fear, and they began their long journey.
Sifaye says that the first few days on board, she and her daughter struggled with homesickness. But the volunteers and national crew on board worked hard to make their stay feel like home.
That feeling of sadness gave way to excitement and even acceptance. For the first time, Mariama was able to meet children who also struggled with orthopedic conditions. Her mother was able to find community as well.
“I was happy to meet other mothers who knew what I was going through,” Sifaye said. “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 the lack of 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,” she said. “Seeing them like that 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 her world will never be the same.