Sunday, September 16, 2007
"Some Things I Learned From My Dentist"
By Ellen Zunon
Ever since childhood I have had a visceral fear of dentistry. At every six-month check-up, I always had new cavities; my older sister rarely did. My mother thought it was because my bones and teeth had been cheated of calcium because she became pregnant again so soon after my sister was born.
So I was always the one who had to listen to the dentist’s song and dance – literally! - while he pierced my tender gum with the novocaine needle, drilled until my skull vibrated, and then filled the crevasses in my teeth with that shiny metal. The trinket I got to choose afterward was small compensation for my ordeal.
In contrast, with Dr. Koiné, my dentist in Abidjan, there was no song and dance, no trinket, no nonsense, only cool, clean-edged professionalism.
Walking up the stairs and along the corridor to her office for the first time, I felt a sense of trepidation. My first experience with an Ivorian dentist, after I had broken a tooth, was not very encouraging. This was a professor who taught at the dental school in Abidjan. He had tried to grind down the tooth stump without using an anaesthetic. I vowed to myself at the time, if I ever get out of this dentist’s chair alive, I’m never coming back here again.
I think Dr. Koiné had been trained in France, but I’m not sure. In any case, she had learned her craft at the very same dental school from which my tooth stump still throbbed.
I preferred to think that she was trained in France.
She was extremely particular, meticulous even, about the sterilization of her equipment, and wanted me, as the patient, to know this. She wanted all her European and American patients to know this, as you could catch any number of noxious tropical diseases from unsanitary dental equipment.
Her assistant Kouadio was in awe of her. He was a dark black man with patches of pink here and there on his skin due to tinea, and it was his job to sterilize the equipment and to hand her the instruments. I had root canal before the crown went on, and many instruments were handed back and forth during this delicate process. Dr. Koiné admonished me in no uncertain terms to sit very still because the tools were extremely sharp, and missing the mark by even a millimeter could be disastrous.
Dr. Koiné definitely did not fit the Western stereotype of the submissive African woman. In contrast, she was very self-assured and in charge. She exhibited the resilience and self-reliance that I encountered again and again among the women I worked with in my community development projects.
Although she had a traditional Muslim last name, she was a devout Catholic. At first I thought that must be her married name, but I eventually learned otherwise. Incidentally, Koiné is not her real name. I’ve changed it to protect her privacy. But what you need to know about her name is that in the Ivory Coast a person’s tribal identity and religious affiliation are usually evident from their name. And it is quite unusual to have a mixture, as Christiane Koiné did.
As I sat gaping, slack-jawed, I learned how her family had disowned her when she had converted to Christianity. I wondered under what circumstances she had converted, but never learned any more details. I am guessing that her Christian first name had been given to her when she was baptized. She was very close to her priest and spoke highly of him on several occasions.
Dr. Koiné’s grandfather was known as El Hadj Koiné. He had earned the title El Hadj by accomplishing the hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, from Guinea to Saudi Arabia on foot during the early part of the 20th century. As Christiane spoke of her grandfather, I pictured him in sandals and flowing robe, trudging through the sandy Sahara from oasis to oasis in the wake of a caravan of camels. The family’s name is really that of one of the famous clans of the Ghana Empire, going back to the Middle Ages. It is a name which is still prominent throughout the Sahel.
I learned something about the degree of Muslim-Christian tolerance in Côte d’Ivoire from Dr. Koiné’s situation. During my years in the Ivory Coast, the country put forth an official face of tolerance and neutrality, but there were always private prejudices under the official façade. These became more evident later, after my family and I left Côte d’Ivoire, and it was torn in half for a time by ethno-religious tension. Some say that the conflict was purely political. Or was it? It is impossible to separate the religious from the political in a country of 60 diverse ethnic groups.
I also learned something about myself from Dr. Koiné. While drilling, and while her assistant was sucking up my copious saliva with that little plastic straw, she told me that my excessive salivation was a sign of someone who keeps everything in. I wondered if this was something she had learned in dental school or an observation drawn from her own practice of dentistry. It is true that I am an introvert and tend to hold things in, but not nearly as much as I used to. But who would have thought that this tendency would be reflected in my degree of salivation under dental stress? Is it because we introverts tend to swallow literally and figuratively things we should spit out?
I thought of Dr. Koiné last week when I learned that the rebels from the north of the country had finally burned their weapons in a public ceremony of reconciliation, putting an end to seven years of turmoil in Côte d’Ivoire. I hope this symbolic act will lead to a real and lasting peace, and that people like Dr. Koiné can go forward and lead their lives free of the anguish caused by ethnic conflict.
Ellen Zunon, a frequent contributor to MyStoryLives, is a writer living in the Capital Region of New York State.