Kampala, Uganda — In Uganda, when a child is born with a cleft lip or palate, tradition dictates that he or she is named Ajok or a variant of it. It literally means “Cursed by God.” Unfortunately, in far too many cases, this “curse” becomes self-fulfilling as the child is shunned and ostracized, destined to lead a life of unwarranted shame and isolation. Before he came to Smile Train partner Uganda Burns and Plastic Surgery Institute Hospital: Mulago National Referral Hospital, six month old Ojok Ismail was destined to this same fate.
Ojok’s mother was a laborer on a farm where she met her husband. They arranged to get married and according to custom, her husband paid the first part of his dowry to her shortly before the birth of their son. When Ojok was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, his father soon ran out on his family believing that his son was cursed and that it was his wife’s fault. Ojok’s mother was left without a husband, support, or the remainder of the dowry to take care of her infant son and so she moved to a larger town to find work.
Unable to afford someone to watch over Ojok while she worked, she brought him to her job at a local bar everyday. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as a month after she started working at the bar, a customer noticed the small baby with a cleft in a makeshift crib in the corner. The customer was a relative of another Smile Train patient who had his surgery fixed the year before. He explained that her son was not cursed, but rather was born with a birth defect called a cleft — and that it could be fixed. He persuaded Ojok’s mother to come with him to see the health worker who had helped his family before and within days, Ojok was admitted for free cleft surgery.
When Ojok was discharged from the hospital with his newly repaired cleft lip, his mother shed tears of joy knowing that he would never have to go through the trials and hardships that she had faced due to his cleft. Ojok left the hospital with a bright new smile and a scheduled date to repair his cleft palate when he gains more strength. His mother left the hospital with a happiness she had not felt in months and the hope that her estranged husband and her village would welcome Ojok back.
Thanks to the wonderful support of our donors, a benevolent stranger, and the hard work of our partner surgeon Dr. Robert Ssentongo, Ojok’s “curse” has been lifted before he was old enough to experience the hardship. Ojok’s mother and family will always remember the moment he was given a new life and will help Smile Train abolish the superstitions associated with clefts.