On the day he came to Mercy Ships, 12-year-old Sekouba held a weathered picture in his hands. The photograph, with frayed edges and faded color, was of a young boy with an unblemished face smiling brightly at the camera.
“This used to be me,” Sekouba said.
Only two years had passed since the photograph had been taken, but that was more than enough time to steal a large part of young Sekouba’s childhood away. It was just an ordinary morning when Sekouba first noticed a tiny lump in his mouth, no bigger than a button. He showed it to his mother, M’mahawa, who told him not to worry.
“Maybe it will go away on its own,” she said. But it didn’t. Over the course of the next year, the lump grew at an alarming rate, eventually forming a tennis ball-sized tumor filling Sekouba’s cheek. As the tumor grew, it began significantly impacting Sekouba’s life. People began to taunt him. “What’s that in your mouth?” they’d ask him and curiosity would soon turn into laughter and scorn. To shelter himself from the endless teasing and stares, Sekouba dropped out of school and confined himself to his home. His brothers were ashamed to be seen with him, and his friends refused to play with him anymore.
For two years, Sekouba spent his days waiting anxiously for his brothers to return home from school so that he could continue to learn. He spent his evenings copying their homework in an attempt to teach himself the lessons that he was forced to miss — a constant reminder that he was the only boy his age NOT going to school.
Seeing Sekouba’s grief over missing out on his education, saddened his mother. She continued to search for a way to heal him, going as far as trying to sell her land to raise money for surgery. Unfortunately, before M’Mahawa could complete the sale, the surgeon she had found told her he was unable to operate because he lacked the necessary equipment.
The family was at a loss for what to do — until they heard about a hospital ship coming to their country! Sekouba and his mother traveled three days to where the Africa Mercy was docked in search of help for his condition. As Sekouba sat on the dock showing his old picture to those around him, his eyes were bright and his smile pronounced, even as it curved around his tumor.
During his time onboard the Africa Mercy, Sekouba received surgery to remove the maxillary mass, followed by several weeks of appointments to observe his recovery process. The sight of Sekouba’s healing face brought his mother endless joy. “Every time I pray, I thank God for this ship,” M’mahawa said. “I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
One month after he was admitted for surgery, Sekouba was ready to make the voyage back home, excited to return to the classroom. Sekouba was only on the ship for a few weeks, but in that time, his life changed entirely. With his tumor gone and his face healed, Sekouba’s treasured photograph can now return to being a happy memory instead of a reminder of what could have been.
Written by Rose Talbot
Photography by Lara Arkinstall
Edited by Haley Hoar