Ten-year-old Houssainatou lives in a town in the highlands of Guinea with her parents and her four siblings. If you ask Houssainatou, her childhood has been a happy one: she talks about playing jump rope with her friends, helping to take care of her little brother, and climbing the trees that speckled their neighborhood.
Her father, Souleymane, has worked hard to protect this childhood free from fear — but his reality has been very different.
For him, the facial tumor protruding from Houssainatou’s mouth filled every day with worry that he would have to watch his daughter struggle and die at an early age.
The first sign of her condition came when Houssainatou felt pain in her mouth when she was just a toddler. It eventually became a lump that steadily grew over time.
Two years ago, the family decided to keep Houssainatou home from school because of her health. Instead, she would stay home with her mother to help cook and clean the house. Although they worked hard to ensure their daughter was happy and didn’t feel defined by her condition, Souleymane says it was very difficult for them.
“We’re all worried. We worry all the time,” he said. “We have no money. The village clinic can’t help her. We can’t afford the kind of surgery she needs. We kept praying, and worrying, and looking for help.”
As a maize farmer, one of the toughest aspects of her condition for Souleymane was the feeling of failure that accompanied his inability to afford medical care.
“I can only get enough food to feed my family, but not extra,” he said. “I’d never have the means to take care of surgery for my daughter.”
One day, a relative living in the port city of Conakry told Souleymane about Mercy Ships. He brought his daughter to several rounds of patient selection screenings — and eventually, she was accepted for free surgery onboard the Africa Mercy.
When the time came for them to walk the gangway to the ship, Souleymane called himself “the happiest man in the world.” Houssainatou’s bravery had never shone brighter — as she explored the place that would be her home for the next two weeks, a volunteer crew member asked her how she felt about her upcoming surgery. “I’m not nervous… I’ll be asleep through it all anyway,” she said.
And what a transformation while she ‘slept’! After just one day — and a four-hour surgery — Houssainatou was down in the wards of the Africa Mercy getting ready to see herself in the mirror, tumor-free, for the first time in her young life.
The sight made Souleymane exuberant with joy and gratitude. “I cannot believe it. She is so beautiful!” he exclaimed. “I am so happy and so excited to bring her home to see the family.”
After several post-op follow up appointments, Houssainatou was healed — happier and healthier than she’d ever been. As the two got ready to leave the ship and return home to their family, Souleymane reflected on what her surgery has meant to them:
“My heart is free now. The fear is gone,” he said. “I used to spend every day afraid she would die young, but now I will spend my time helping her have a future. I want her to become a doctor so she can help people the way she herself has been helped.”
Written by Rose Talbot
Edited by Haley Hoar
Photography by Shawn Thompson