Ten years ago today, a chance encounter with a young street beggar changed his life, and mine, forever.
We met on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia, where he lived. I was making my way through the busy market, getting ready to head home to England after several hot and dusty weeks travelling through east Africa as a photographer.
As I hurried on, a veil the boy wore to cover his face dropped for an instant, and I reeled back in horror. There was a gaping hole where his cheek should have been; he looked at me with sad brown eyes. I gave him some money and walked back to my hotel; now deep in thought. What was he suffering from? Could he be helped? CouldI help him? What wasI letting myself in for if I tried? These were the questions coursing through my mind. But I knew already that I did want to do something.
The next day I organised a search party to find the veiled beggar. We failed to find him that day, but we did find Fhami, another boy aged just 8. He had been terribly mauled by hyenas.
I asked locals to continue the search for the first boy. Back in London and a fortnight later, I received news of the boy – Jemal – by post. He was 14 and he had developed noma, a devastating facial gangrene caused by malnutrition. Against the odds, he had survived this illness which claims nine in every 10 of its victims. He lived rough in the town and was treated as a modern-day leper, even by the other street beggars who ostracised him. His impoverished parents had no way of looking after him. He was in deep trouble.
I was determined to find doctors prepared to help him, and Fhami. After exhaustive enquiries and preparations (neither boy had a birth certificate, let alone a passport), I found a way.
The boys would have to fly from Ethiopia to London and then onto a hospital ship docked in the Gambia, run by the Mercy Ships charity. Over four months and numerous complicated operations later, their faces were rebuilt. The doctors and nurses under Tony Giles had not only transformed the boys’ appearances, they had restored basic, invaluable, human functions – the chance to eat and speak with dignity, and smile again.
Back in Harar, Fhami now faces the public every day, working on the bus network. He is thankful that our paths crossed all those years ago, and so am I.
The charity that was inspired that day - Project Harar - has now reached over 1,600 patients with facial disabilities from remote, impoverished areas of eastern Ethiopia.
We’ve seen huge progress in the quality and range of medical services now available to Ethiopians, one in 600 of whom are born with or acquire a devastating facial disability. Last year, we helped 575 young people get treatment; a far cry from the days when it took months to help two children. We’ve formed partnerships with five hospitals in the capital, Addis Ababa, and our funding goes further because we can do everything for the patients within Ethiopia.
We intend to mark our 10th anniversary more formally in the coming year – timed to celebrate the date Jemal and Fhami actually received their medical care. Watch this space.
Until then, thanks for all your support over the years. You can keep track of our progress via our newsletter and Facebook. And if you want to help, please get in touch.
Listen to two BBC World Service interviews with Project Harar surgical teams from 2007. First up, an interview with Sissay Befikadu, who was in charge of the cleft programme at Yekatit-12 hospital. And secondly, an interview with Klaas Marck, a Dutch plastic surgeon and chair of the Dutch Noma Foundation.
Take a glimpse into the lives of noma patients in this BBC documentary presented by Ben Fogle, featuring 17 Project Harar patients