In so many ways, six-year-old Fatmata could be considered one of the luckiest kids in the world: she’s surrounded by love on all sides. Her parents are enamoured with their daughter; their eyes soften and alight when they talk about her.
‘She’s so smart,’ they boast in the endearing way that only family members can really pull off. ‘Do you hear the way she speaks French? And she’s learning Arabic, too!’
If Fatmata’s parents have nabbed the spot as her number one fans, her aunt Mariam is not far behind. Their dreams for Fatmata centre around her education — her father, Hassane, teaches language at the local university, while Mariam works as a schoolteacher in the city.
As such, they find it particularly heart-breaking that Fatmata isn’t able to go to school.
With bowed legs that grow more severely bent every year, walking the short distance to the local school has long been out of the question. As the only child with an orthopaedic condition in her area, Fatmata also struggled from bullying by the other kids her age.
Despite her condition, Fatmata’s family never lost hope that her future would amount to more. Working in the public school by day, Mariam would return every night and spend hours teaching Fatmata, making sure that she remained up to grade level in her studies. Her father continued sharing his love of languages even when people said it was a waste of time.
When Fatmata was six years old, her family heard about the orthopaedic surgery program taking place onboard the Mercy Ship. Her aunt brought her to the ship for several screenings and, eventually, up the hospital ship’s gangway for her operation. Mariam held her niece’s hand when she was in pain after her surgery and played music to comfort her. She was by Fatmata’s side rejoicing when she took her first steps in her casts.
When Fatmata was discharged from the Africa Mercy wards and returned for her weekly rehabilitation sessions, it was Hassane’s turn to champion her forward. He was there for every single appointment, where he’d say ‘She’s so smart. She is going to go so far. She could be a doctor; a lawyer; the president of this nation. She is full of curiosity — she wants to know everything there is to know,’ Hassane said, as Fatama danced out of the tent on her discharge day. ‘Fatmata has a great destiny ahead of her.’
Now able to return to school, it’s impossible to imagine Fatmata not going far — and while her straighter legs are a piece of that possibility, it’s the love and committment of her family that is giving her the ability to stand tall.
Written by Rose Talbot