Go down two flights of stairs on the Africa Mercy, and you’ll find you’ve stepped out of a ship and into a busy buzzing hospital. On the wards you’ll find kids playing, doctors praying, patients visiting, and plenty of African music. One would expect that a 13-year-old girl would be among the chattiest – but not Maimouna.
Maimouna’s pronounced facial tumour began above her left eyebrow, spilling down her face to the corner of her mouth and displacing her left eye. This tumour, a neurofibroma she has had since birth, left her looking like one side of her face was sliding off . From behind the curtain of her deformity, Maimouna saw the world with her good right eye. And, to her despair, the world saw Maimouna.
For 13 years she was taunted for her appearance. Moreover, superstitions run deep in West African culture, and physical deformities are believed to be the sinister mark of someone cursed. Maimouna was not only teased by peers – she was completely dismissed. The drooping facial tumour became the source of a broken spirit.
“I had so many sleepless nights worrying how to help my child,” said Maimouna’s father, who was trying to sell his car to afford her surgery when he learned the Africa Mercy was coming to Conakry. “I was told that no one would be able to do the surgery except Mercy Ships. I had no money to pay with . . . and then God paid!”
Mercy Ships surgeons removed Maimouna’s tumour. After her operation, even under layers of bandages, the transformation was profound. Maimouna’s profile no longer appeared rough and misshapen. Her face had been physically lifted from the weight of the tumour. Nurses hoped her spirits would follow, but removing years of social isolation is a much more complicated procedure.
In the days after her operation, quiet Maimouna said nothing, while her father and sister took turns staying at the hospital and speaking on her behalf. “I’m sorry, maybe she will talk more another day,” her sister would say to visitors.
Australian volunteer ward nurse Lynne White said, “It was a long time before I realised she spoke. She was so silent that I didn’t think she could. But I can understand it. She went from spending her life keeping to herself with no friends, and then she came here and was overwhelmed by the attention.”
One night a week after the surgery, Lynne came into the ward to find Maimouna listening to headphones, nodding her head to music and mouthing the words. “I couldn’t believe it, so I did whatever I could to try to get a laugh out of her – I started dancing!” Lynne said. “Maimouna just laughed and laughed. It was wonderful!”
Two weeks later Memouna arrived back on the dock with her father for a check-up. She kept to herself, waiting on the benches. “Is that my Maimouna?” Lynne exclaimed. Hearing her name, Maimouna glanced around to find Lynne, not walking, but dancing over to her. “It’s you, you’re here!” Lynne cheered, waving her arms in the air.
Maimouna clapped her hands and covered her mouth, trying and failing to hold back her giggles.
The removal of Maimouna’s tumour marks the beginning of physical . . . and spiritual . . . healing.