KIGALI, RWANDA – Kamikazi Priscilla, 9, says she now has a reason to smile – because now she can. Kamikazi, from Kirehe, a district in eastern Rwanda, was born with a cleft lip. And she says it used to affect more than just her smile.
“Life was very complicated for me,” she says, crying. “Eating was a hard task. Sometimes I was struggling to make people understand what I was saying because it was not clear.”
She says it also led to social isolation as some people said it was her family’s fault.
“Some people were telling me that it was a satanic curse from my family,” she says. “I was always ashamed.”
But thanks to Operation Smile South Africa, a partner country for Operation Smile, an international charity organization that heals children’s smiles, a doctor recently fixed her cleft lip for free. Thanks to the operation, she says that she can now drink easily, express herself clearly and eat boldly “with a good smile.”
In conjunction with the Rwandan government, Operation Smile South Africa came to Rwanda last month to perform free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries on more than 250 patients who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Operation Smile volunteers say the surgeries transform the lives of people facing social and health problems because of a fixable condition. The organization, which also does surgeries in other countries in Africa, plans to return to Rwanda for future missions as Rwandans currently in training to perform the surgeries themselves aim to eventually become self-sufficient.
Cleft lips and cleft palates are the fourth most common birth defects in the world, with one in every 750 babies in Africa born with a cleft, according to Operation Smile South Africa. A cleft is an opening in the lip, roof of the mouth or soft tissue in the back of the mouth. The exact cause of clefts is unknown, but scientists attribute them to genetic and environmental factors, such as drugs, infections, maternal illnesses, maternal smoking and alcohol use, malnutrition and vitamin-B deficiency in folic acid.
Clefts are usually corrected after birth, but medical treatment is not available for many children in rural areas around the world, according to Operation Smile South Africa.
This was Operation Smile’s second trip to Rwanda. They operated on 248 patients with cleft palates or lips last year and 253 patients this year, according to the Ministry of Health.
According to a press release from Ministry of Health official Bonavanture Nizeyimana, the operation took place during nine days at the Central University Teaching Hospital in Kigali, the capital.
Operations typically take between 45 minutes and an hour, according to a press release from Natalie Miller, Operation Smile’s vice president for Africa. On average, about 45 cases were taken per day at the hospital as the rest of the patients stayed at the Rwandan Red Cross until their turn.
The team of 50 medical experts started with the most critical cases. Not just cosmetic, clefts also make it hard to eat, speak, breathe and socialize – leading to malnutrition, medical and