Dr. Ray Damazo drove slowly. The large 4x4 Land Rover
pulled the one-ton trailer close behind. The corrugated, treacherous
roads sent the vehicle bouncing along the Kenyan countryside.
Sixty miles from the nearest town, the trailer continued
to rattle violently. The commotion was enough to unscrew the
dental syringes. One year the vehicle’s chassis fractured. Then
there was the year the rear axle broke away from the trailer.
During the rainy season, the mud may as well be quicksand.
Damazo has driven this mobile dental clinic to the local Maasai
people dozens of times. He knows how difficult the roads are to
traverse, and he knows what it takes just to get there. But his
patients are expecting him. After all, for nearly twenty years, the
safari dentist hadn’t missed an appointment.
Africa in New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1939
The Damazo family filed through the doors of the New
Bedford Public Library. It was a weekly migration for the
mother, father and the ten children; seven boys and three girls.
The parents encouraged their children to browse the books.
At age 10, Raymond Damazo, a child of the great depression,
dreamt of adventure. His book selections were often the
tales of his hero, Dr. David Livingstone, the physician and
African explorer. Damazo envisioned himself following suit, traversing
the dense wild of Zimbabwe, living along the banks of
the great Zambezi River, helping those in need.
But for a man who would later spend more than two and a
half decades alleviating human suffering in Kenya, and for the young boy who was drawn to the lore of the Dark Continent,
the road to Africa was neither direct nor quickly forged.
Blame it on Frank Buck too
When the young, intrepid Damazo was not chased off by the
suspenseful tales of Livingstone, he turned to a stronger fix: the
movies. Growing up in a rural expanse of Massachusetts, along
with repeat showings of Frank Buck’s African films, his love for
Africa, adventure and the outdoors only grew. Later, in college,
Damazo earned a bachelor’s in zoology and dentistry, the latter
study was one encouraged by his parents, who would
often introduce him, even as a child, as a future dentist.
So it often goes, mothers know best.
Dr. Damazo, I Presume?
In 1965 Damazo found himself in
remote areas of Brazil where he spent
several months teaching emergency
dentistry to an American physician
where the locals were in dire need
of a dentist. Somewhere between
the overwhelming dental needs
in the region and the thrill of
maneuvering a four-seat Cessna
182 airplane so it could land on
makeshift jungle-surrounded runways,
Damazo realized that the everyday office
experience just wasn’t going to cut it. But
the unfortunate truth of most charitable
work: it costs money to bring resources and
access to those who have neither. Enter Bellevue.
Just across Lake Washington and ten miles as the crow flies
West of Seattle sits Bellevue, Washington, a large suburb considered
one of the best places to start a business and to live. Starting in
1970, Damazo did just that, where he ran an incredibly successful
private practice in one of the wealthiest communities in the state.
Over the next 35 years, Damazo practiced in the comfort of
the Evergreen State, far removed from the wide expanse of the
Serengeti, where he’d devote so much to so many.
In 1987, after exploring a myriad of potential locations,
Damazo put a pin on the map where he felt the need was the
greatest. Kenya. Reaching out to the government’s Ministry of
Health, he offered his services free of charge, and was received
with open arms.
So, at age 58 with retirement scratching at the door, Damazo
made the decision that there were far better things to do than take
it easy. Over the next seven years and until he finally retired from
his private practice in Bellevue, Damazo trained clinical officers,
twice a year, in Nairobi, Kenya’s capitol. His focus was on closing
the chasm of dental ignorance among the poorly trained clinical
officers who oversaw the treatment of millions in the area.
“My most productive period was between [ages] 60 and 80,”
Damazo said. “And I like for people to know that when you get
to be that age, you can still do a helluva lot.
Damazo quickly made friends who beckoned him beyond
the bustling, crowded capital, and out into the wilds. Word
spread quickly, and for Damazo, the door to becoming a bush
dentist opened up, with accommodations and opportunity
blooming in the African desert.
The Maasai, a semi-nomadic tribe that range their territories
from large swatches of Kenya to sections of neighboring
Tanzania, are easily recognizable in their colorful, often red
clothing, impressive beadwork and body modifications
(stretched earlobes, removal of lower central or lateral incisors).
In 1935, Dr. Weston A. Price, founder of the research portion
of today’s American Dental Association, blazed a path into
the heart of Kenya to study the teeth of the Maasai, the largest
ethnic group in the region. What Price found was astonishing.
The great majority had no signs of caries, let alone malformations
of any kind. By Price’s estimate, the Maasai had a caries
rate of .04 percent. The difference compared to modern standards
is staggering. According to studies done by the National
Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, from the 1970s to
the mid 1990s, 42 percent of children in the United States had
caries in their primary teeth, and 21 percent showed caries in
their permanent teeth. The Maasai, with a diet consisting mostly
of raw meat, raw milk, some maize-meal and daily rations of cattle
blood, had very few factors that drew damage to their teeth.
But nearly six decades after Price’s findings in the field, Damazo
would quickly learn that the dental health of the Maasai was not
what it once was.
Those Pesky Tourists
Tucked in their minibuses, or strapped into their safari jeeps,
tourists look out their windows, heartbroken at the sight of the
poverty-stricken children. It’s understandable. And after years,
the local Maasai children have become conditioned to what the
thousands of annual travelers offer in condolence for the witnessed
plight, often in abundance: candy.
Small hands reach out to accept the sweets, and the tourists,
unaware of their crime, are nowhere nearby when their good
intentions become hell. The simple truth is this: for the vast
majority of the Maasai children, there is no protection from the
soluble sugars found in the sweets given to them. Their drinking
water contains no fluoride. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, painkillers
and antibiotics are nearly non-existent. There won’t be a sixmonth checkup. Instead, caries will run rampant in the Maasai
youth and for most, the solution is a Maasai elder using the point
of a knife to rip out the damaged tooth. All without anesthesia.
We’re Going Mobile
“If you have men who will only come if they know there is
a good road, I don’t want them,” Livingstone once said. “I want
men who will come if there is no road at all.”
After years of training Kenya’s clinical officers in Nairobi
and being invited beyond the capitol’s crowded streets, Damazo
was determined to reach the people beyond the city limits.
There were hundreds of thousands in need who would never
venture into the heart of Nairobi. So Damazo decided if those
out in the bush were not going to come to the dentist, the dentist
was going to come to them. A man who has always taken
great care and pride in his work would not allow himself to get
all the way into the field without everything he needed to
accomplish professional-grade dentistry.
On the road, Damazo set out with a 4x4 Land Rover and a
one-ton trailer, both packed with dental supplies and equipment.
He wouldn’t have a chance to resupply or even refuel
after departing Narok, the last city before the 60 mile drive to
the entryway of the Maasai Mara. Paved roads become as rare
as shade in the Serengeti. Pot holes, drastic changes in terrain,
river crossings and the never-friendly dirt roads mean driving
careful and slow. Out here car trouble comes with a complimentary
pack of circling vultures.
The first trip, Damazo had not even made it out of Nairobi
before his Land Rover was broken into and thieves made off
with his wife’s purse, the computer and some specialty dental
camera lenses. Unfazed, Damazo pressed on. If there is truth to
Tobias Wolff ’s famous claim that “we are made to persist, for
that is how we find out who we are,” then Damazo proved his
resolve by returning to Kenya two times a year for the next two
decades, self-financed, to bring dentistry to the far reaches of
rural East Africa.
“The first few years I was still juggling a practice in
Bellevue,” Damazo said. “I never in my wildest imagination
thought that twenty years from then, I would end up doing it
every year, three to six months a year.”
First Bite of the Mara
Nearly six-hundred square miles (roughly the size of
London but minus its bustling, complex road system) is the
Maasai Mara. The Mara, as the locals call it, is famous for its
large population of big cats and most notably the extraordinary
Great Migration, where millions of wildebeests and zebras
trample the ground as they cross the Serengeti each year. Mara,
meaning “spotted” in Maasai, is also home to the world’s
largest wildlife reserve.
The environment was ideal for Damazo, who often jokes
that dentistry was just a convenient excuse to go to Africa and
look at the wildlife.
“I’m not all that altruistic,” Damazo said. “Or a wonderful
human being. I could not go to Somali and work in refugee
camps. I tried like hell to find a place in Hawaii but could
never justify anything, so I ended up in Kenya.”
Damazo traversed the countryside with his mobile dental
clinic and treated countless people, mostly children, always
free of charge. Stopping at villages and camps and often working
under the shade of trees, Damazo performed more than
just extractions. His goal had never been to travel across the
world just to extract some teeth. Damazo treated his patients
to the same options he would those sitting in his chair back in
Bellevue. This meant offering restorative and preventive care,
along with educating his patients and helping ensure they had
the tools to upkeep their teeth post-visit.
“[For] the 19 years of being involved with the mobile dental
clinic, at 22 locations, we worked five days a week at each
location,” Damazo recounted. “It got to be almost like a practice.
We’d see the same people every six months and I felt like
I was accomplishing professional dentistry.”
Damazo and his wife, Gail, spent the evenings enjoying the
beauty of Kenya and visiting the wildlife reserve free of charge
(a consolation for having treated nearly every employee and
their family members.).
Damazo showed up every six months for the next twenty
years. The large 4x4 bouncing along the dirt roads, towing a
giant trailer, became as common as the migrating wildebeests.
The trust of the Maasai, while not easily secured, was
But what is a story without the element of love? Damazo’s
wife, Gail, has been beside him every step of the way, a woman
to who he accredits much of his success in the field.
“Gail has been in the middle of everything,” Damazo said.
“She was so fantastic in helping. She had no dentistry background
and she learned to do hygiene.” Throughout his career,
Damazo has worked with more than twenty-five hygienists.
“And she’s as good or better than any I’ve ever hired. We work
hand and fist together over everything.”
“I didn’t mind working all day long on 75 people, and
through all kinds of stuff,” Damazo said. “As long as I knew at
the end of the day I had a good bed, a good dinner and a glass
of wine. Then I can put up with just about anything.”
The Safari Dentist
“I don’t do dentistry to preach or spread religion,” Damazo
said. “We are often asked if we are missionaries. And no, no,
no. If someone’s hurting, if they have a toothache, we take care
This mindset and his persistence built him the reputation of
“the safari dentist.” A title he would later use for his engaging
book chronicling his time spent in Africa.
“I handwrote it,” Damazo said. “One paragraph at a time.
And I thought I would write this mainly for my ten grandchildren.”
Safari Dentist recounts the years spent in the field practicing
and highlights encounters with Kenyan wildlife and
engaging anecdotes of interesting patients. The profits of the
book, published in 2007, all go to continuing the charitable
work in Kenya, and is available through Amazon.
After so many years of making a tremendous difference in
the lives of the Maasai, Damazo looked to the future.
“I know it sounds sappy to say I fell in love with the
Kenyans,” Damazo said. “But I developed a deep reverence and
respect for them. I developed a deep reverence for their ability to
survive in this world. As I got deeper and deeper into the significance
of the people I worked on, it started to get deeper and
deeper into me.”
Damazo, a compassionate man, is brought to tears while
recalling certain patients he helped, and in turn, touched a place
in his heart. He also maintains a sense of humor and considers
what the Masaai people have given him over the years.
“They certainly haven’t given me any money,” Damazo said
laughing. “We might as well start there. The things they’ve
given me are these intangible things. There’s no way to describe
other than a fulfillment, a richness...things that make for a
In 2008, Damazo was knocking on the door of his 80th
birthday. The decades of running a mobile clinic around the
Kenyan countryside, and the reality of time began to wear on
Damazo and his wife. The Maasai, who now had come to call
him a friend, also relied on him. Damazo aimed his sights at creating
something permanent for the people he had grown to love. Over the course of that year, Damazo and his wife built a stateof-
the-art dental clinic, along with a small set of apartments for
dentists, right in the heart of the Mara, home to more than
50,000, and in a location that would give access to one of the
most underserved communities in the world, free of charge.
The Maasai had leased him the land at a “friend price,” $1 a
year for 33 years. In his book, published prior to even the concept
of the clinic, Damazo described himself as not being a
spontaneous giver. “Someone said your first real dollar is not the
one you earn,” he wrote, “but the one you give away.”
For two years Damazo ran the clinic and ensured it was
fully-equipped and functional with three operatories. He personally
recruited volunteer dentists who would serve in two to
four week rotations, and work alongside Maasai staff members.
He secured funding, and while some organizations donated to
the clinic, Damazo continued to self-finance the majority of the
overhead. As though it wasn’t enough, Damazo earned his first
real dollar a thousand times over. He
gifted the clinic, entirely debt-free, to
the Loma Linda University School of
Dentistry. It is estimated that the
clinic will help 100,000 Maasai
patients over the next 30 years.
“There is a side of Ray that is not always transparent,” Gail
said of her husband. “On the outside he can appear tough and
driven, but on the inside he has a heart that is both deeply compassionate
and generous beyond belief. He chooses his philanthropy
carefully so that his generosity helps people help
themselves, rather than crippling them by making them dependent
Passing the Torch
Now Damazo’s focus is on passing the torch.
“They don’t have to take the whole thing,” he insists, “just a
piece of the torch.”
Over the last five years, more than 60 volunteer dentists have
made the trip to the clinic. They work either a two-or four-week
commitment, providing free dentistry to the local Maasai, and the
rest of the time, have free access to the wildlife reserve.
“I call it a vacation with a purpose,” Damazo said.
The clinic is run with an annual operating budget of a
mere $35,000, a figure some practices in the United States post
The clinic is primarily funded through volunteers, donations
and out of Damazo’s own pocket. In Africa he aimed to leave
something lasting not for himself, but for others: an enduring gift.
“I’m going to be 85 in September. And you know, at some
time I have to start saving up for when I get old.”
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
Until recently Damazo had not been well-recognized for his
works, despite their magnitude and scope. Though it is not surprising
for a man who remains humble, even in accepting the
ADA’s Humanitarian of the Year award, his happiness was not in
the reception of the distinction, but the light it helped shine on
the work being done in the Mara.
“I mean it’s just fantastic,” Damazo said. “Because now, when
we fundraise, it’s nice to have an outside organization which has
identified this as a great humanitarian project.”
Perhaps due to the announcement of the award, dentists
from all over the country have reached out to volunteer at the
clinic, filling up the available spots for this year and 2015.
In October, the ADA President Charles Norman
will present Damazo with the Humanitarian of the
“When most people are looking forward to
a relaxing retirement, Damazo looks forward
to improving the dental health of the
Maasai people of Kenya,” Norman said.
“Dr. Damazo has spent decades traveling abroad to help those in need. He inspires all of us who want to
leave our mark on the world.”
In 2013, Damazo won a similar honor, The Citizen of the
Year Award, given to him by the Washington State Dental
Association. Other than those two awards, both coming in the
twilight of a remarkable career, Damazo was showcased in a
BBC documentary in 2004 showcasing the Maasai children. A
pair of articles in The Los Angeles Times and the Auburn Reporter
in the late 1990s round off the publicity Damazo’s received.
Every evening a British Airlines flight leaves Seattle’s SeaTac
Airport bound for London Heathrow Airport. From Heathrow is
a non-stop to Nairobi. Better believe he’ll be catching his flight
sometime this April, safari hat packed, set for another excursion.
“My debt is to Africa,” Damazo wrote in his book. “And my
legacy will be in the hearts and minds of those who feel they
experienced some benefit from my journeys of discovery in the
land that captured my heart.”
This year, Damazo will turn 85. He continues to travel with
Gail and visits the clinic he built in the Maasai Mara and his
friends. He is a creature of habit, and his annual migrations to
Africa are not slowing down. After more than 40 years of helping
people around the world, Damazo has no regrets. And from the
first turned pages of Livingstone’s books when he was a boy, to the
final chapters of his own tales and beyond, Damazo has crafted an
adventure story that rivals his boyhood hero.
To learn more about how you can help, contact Raymond
Damazo at firstname.lastname@example.org.