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An unforgettable journey: the Phelophepa train

02 May 2024

Fifth-year dental student Riya Hardev Gopal reflects on a powerful and perspective-altering journey aboard South Africa's Phelophepa healthcare train. 


In the midst of life’s bustling moments, where the rhythm of our everyday existence often drowns out the silent struggles of the marginalized, we embarked on a transformative journey.  A journey that led us, nine 5th year dental students from The University of the Western Cape, to the heart of an underprivileged community.  Apart from an act of service, this experience afforded us the opportunity to reveal empathy within, where the lines between giver and receiver blurred, unlocking new perceptions and cherished memories.  Fortunately, I was afforded to experience this opportunity with a completely different clinical group within our class, which allowed me to make new friends and develop new relationships.

The Phelophepa Healthcare Train is a unique mobile clinic in South Africa that travels to rural areas providing access to affordable healthcare services to underprivileged communities.  The train involves several separate carriages comprised of different healthcare disciplines, including: dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, optometry and psychology which all work together as a team to treat the public.  ‘Phelophepa’ meaning ‘good, clean health’, in the Tswana language, accurately describes the train’s values, as it aims to promote public health awareness and improve access to healthcare amongst disadvantaged communities.  The initiative is fully funded, organised and managed by Transnet, corporate partners and other non-government organisations.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Phelophepa train experience, it’s that it only takes one person, one patient, one moment to change your life forever, to change your perspective, colour your thinking and to force you to re-evaluate everything you think you know.  To make you ask yourself the toughest questions: Do you know who you are?  Do you want to live this way?  For me, this moment happened on my outreach day to Ethakasani primary school and Mkhobosa primary school, where I screened 300 children for dental treatment.  This was one of the most humbling moments in my undergraduate dental career.  Seeing their smiles when we arrived at the school, highlighted all the reasons I chose this career pathway, for qualities such as: compassion, empathy, fulfilment, gratitude and hope.  Five feelings all captured in one moment made me even more grateful for this train experience.

As I reflect upon this journey of service to this underprivileged community, I am not only confronted with those I have treated, but also with the reflection of my own privilege and the responsibilities entailed.  Within this reflection, the power of human connection allows us to witness the systemic injustices woven into the cycle of poverty, the barrier to accessing basic healthcare and the evident sense of hopelessness that lingers within the community.  Amidst these shadows, the light of purpose flickered, allowing us to ignite change, no matter how small.

Riya Hardev Gopal, Fifth-year dental student, University of the Western Cape
Instagram: dentist__ri