Martha Deegan’s Tanzanian Mission

Martha Deegan is an alert “06880” reader. True to our tagline — “Where Westport Meets the World” — she checks in today from Bulima, Tanzania.

This summer she is living on the campus of Lion of Judah Academy, an excellent private boarding school of 850 students on Lake Victoria, near the equator 45 minutes from the Serengeti National Park. 

It’s a far cry from her Connecticut home. But, Martha says “I am drawn here yearly like a lemming diving off a cliff. My heart is here. I must be here. I cannot explain it any better.”

This is her 10th mission trip since 2011. She writes:

This year’s mission is split in two. This week, a group of American dentists from is conducting dental training for 9 Tanzanian healthcare workers. The urgency is real: the Lake Victoria region, spreading from Kenya to Uganda, is home to 11 million people. There are no dentists. Infections can cause death.

Before I left, Dr. Steven Regenstein of Esthetic Dental Group of Westport loaded me up with a gross of beautiful Oral B toothbrushes and a mother lode of Crest toothpaste. A Ugandan dentist told us it is not unusual in the bush to use a peeled stick to clean their teeth. Toothpaste is beyond the reach of most people.

A few months back I asked my United Methodist Church for children’s rain ponchos. Within days Amazon pelted my porch with nearly 70 parcels, filled with nylon rain gear.

I also asked for scholarship money for the students here through a non-profit organization, the Lion of Judah Academy. Gloria and Franchon Smithson, Dan Gelman and others came through with generous donations.

Martha Deegan (right) with the head of the science department at the Lion of Judah Academy, and a friend (middle).

Our drinking water is bottled, as there is no potable water here. How I would love to take a swim in Lake Victoria. However, the water is infested with bilharzia-infected snails, along with crocodiles and snakes. In my mind’s eye, I pretend I’m at Compo Beach.

I play mah jongg with a group of Westport and Weston gals. My regular group, including Laura Nissim, Susan Daly, Iris Jaffe and Karyn Freeman, sent me off with stacks of new polo shirts for the orphans of Kwetu Faraja. A group from Fairfield Prep also collected shirts for these boys. Martha Pham donated a dozen shirts for Kwetu Faraja Orphanage, where I am spending another 10 days

One item desperately needed by the Lion of Judah Academy was a microscope. This precious and treasured item was donated too, by Westporter Karen Beckman. The head of the school insisted I make a formal presentation to the school and faculty. The head science teacher had tears in her eyes.

We cannot know the ripple effects of that microscope. Perhaps a generation of future nurses, doctors and bacteriologists will be trained to use it. I found myself saying I would bring 2 microscopes next year, somehow.

I know this place — the equivalent of Andover in the US — because I have sent 8 children of academic promise here from the very rural village of Kahunda, out in the bush. I jumped at the opportunity to join this mission trip, so I could also visit my kids here.

Martha Deegan met these 3 orphans from Kahunda, Tanzania before they were in kindergarten, Recognizing their intellectual gifts, she sent them to Lion of Judah Academy, in Bulima. From left: Emmy David, who aspires to be a doctor; Neema Elias and Pendo Seth, both of whom plan to become CPAs. All are seniors at Lion of Judah Academy, and at the top of their class.

The American group brought in hundreds of pounds of equipment, including portable dental chairs. All will be left with the newly trained dental workers.

People needing dental care seat themselves outside under a tent. Some are masked. A translator proficient in English and Swahili gathers information on each patient. We have 3 translators. I am the native English speaker.

Dr. Michael Kennedy of Florida (left), a volunteer from Florida, performs medical work while also training dentists.

I talk to the young children about their tooth issues. So many have badly decayed molars, thought to be caused by sucking on a “ninny bottle” when they are put to bed as infants. The milk or juice pools in the mouth, decaying the teeth.

I chat up 6-year-old Charles. After preliminary questions, I ask him about his career objectives, as a joke. This guy, so bright, answers me straight away, in English. His plan is to be a professor, a “big” teacher of important subjects at a college somewhere, maybe in Kenya or London. He loves astronomy.

Charles captured Martha Deegan’s heart.

This is one bright child. We talk awhile, his earnest  eyes fixed on mine, seeking reassurance, while he is eased into a portable dentist chair. His favorite thing is reading about the stars. Do I know that God made all the stars? That the brightest star is the center one on Orion’s Belt? And do I know how many kilometers away that star is?

Oh the stars here in Tanzania! You can’t imagine!  At night the wonders of the universe reveal themselves in the sky. Here is the Southern Cross, the Big Dipper hanging so close it could dip down and scoop me up, if it wanted to do trivial things. And Orion, so kingly, so mighty.

Charles needs a molar pulled. While he receives a shot of painkiller and a tear rolls down his cheek I hold his hand, soothe him, and calculate what a scholarship will cost me to place this brilliant little boy in the prize-winning Lion of Judah Academy for 11 years. And then university.

Do I have enough shekels stashed away for one more worthy student? I wonder how the market did today.

The dental student working on Charles is a well-trained Tanzanian nurse named Rachel Paul. She runs the Busima Dispensery, the best place to go in these parts when your body hurts.

Rachel expertly and gently works Charles’s molar back and forth until it comes loose. Gauze is placed in Charles’ bleeding gum, medicines are handed over to his father, and the tiny boy is helped from the chair. There is no tooth fairy in Tanzania. The rotten molar goes in the trash.

But as Charles leaves the clinic, it is with a certain academic future: a full scholarship to Lion of Judah Academy. The introduction is written on a prescription pad paper, with my promise, contact information, date and signature.

This 6-year-old boy “gets it” immediately. “Today is the luckiest day of my life,” he says with a smile on a tear-stained face.

I cannot hug him, due to COVID, but we shake hands solemnly. A promise made is a promise kept.

I think sometimes God places us in the right place for His purposes.

(For more information on the Lion of Judah Academy, or to contribute, click here.)

7 responses to “Martha Deegan’s Tanzanian Mission

  1. I don’t even have words for how this story made me feel. Martha – you are a godsend, a true mensch, and a gift to the world.

  2. Sam Febbraio

    Go Martha!

  3. Wow. Just…wow. You truly are a godsend, Martha.

  4. This was a very inspiring story. Thank you for all
    you do for these children.



  6. Marcy Sansolo

    martha is a miraculous human being. her generosity knows no bounds.

  7. Laura Grossman Nissim

    Love you Martha and all you do. We miss you come back safe!