ZOMBA, MALAWI – International charity Operation Smile is helping Malawians with cleft lips and palates leave behind shame and embarrassment stemming from their condition.
Agnes Chiotcha recalls her reaction when she gave birth last year to a son with a cleft lip.
Chiotcha says she was devastated and wondered why she gave birth to such a child.
What the hell happened to him to make him look like this? she said she asked herself.
In her home village, people spread a rumor that her child’s cleft lip was from a botched, backstreet abortion.
Others accused Chiotcha of using contraceptives that deformed her baby.
Chiotcha says she told them that this is not because of contraceptives.
How could I take contraceptives if I had another child? I told them that this is how God created him, she said.
The charity Operation Smile says cleft lips and palates are the world’s third most common birth defect, in 1 out of 750 births.
Operation Smile gives free corrective surgeries to those who have the condition.
About 1,000 surgeries
In Malawi, the group has performed 1,000 operations in seven years but relies on foreign doctors because few local plastic surgeons are available.
Ibrahim Nthalika is program manager for Operation Smile-Malawi.
We have only two [Malawian] plastic surgeons that have … who have volunteered to work with us, that can do this and volunteer to work with us, he said.
Discrimination or worse
People born with a cleft may have difficulty with speech and eating. They also face cruel treatment and discrimination like what James Rice faced.
Rice says his aunt insulted him a lot. He says she told him that if he had been born when she was there, she would have thrown him into the toilet.
But those who receive the surgery have reason, and the ability, to smile.
Agnes Chiotcha is one of them.
Chiotcha says now those who used to insult her will be very much ashamed once they see her child. Because the child they used to laugh at has been operated on. They will not laugh at them again, she says.
The smiles are spreading to James Rice as well.
He says now he will be able to do everything without any problem and will not be ashamed as before. Also, he will be free to tell others who have cleft to come out into the open and have their defect repaired.
Operation Smile estimates about 3,000 Malawians still suffer from cleft lips or palates. To tackle the problem, the group is also training local doctors to perform the reconstructive surgery.
Source: Voice of America