Tokombéré, Cameroon—Rejected, insulted, despised, alienated, and thought of as a witch. Such was the fate of Mr. Lau Jean. Smile Train met Jean, a 54-year-old man, in Cameroon at Hôpital Privé Catholique de Tokombere.
Jean was born in a remote village in northern Cameroon called Glonhobe and from infancy his life was marked by rejection. He received no schooling and as a child lived in a world of ignorance, poverty, and fear of death. Because of his cleft, he was not allowed to partake in traditional ceremonies or village and family gatherings. Jean was unable to even sit with friends and family during meals.
As was the custom in his region, Jean’s marriage was arranged for him when he was a young adult. Jean’s brother represented him during the marriage ceremony though as he was unable to participate in this custom—his own wedding—because of his cleft. When Jean’s wife met him for the first time after the wedding, she was shocked, frightened, confused, and wanted out immediately. Her family could not allow her leave the marriage as the traditional rites had already been finalized. The couple went on to have five children.
Trying to provide for his family was impossible as no one wanted to do business with Jean. He barely had enough money to live, let alone receive surgery to repair his cleft. He was also very afraid he would die during the procedure. Luckily a social worker sponsored by Smile Train from Hôpital Privé Catholique de Tokombere arrived at his village and showed him pictures of patients whose clefts were repaired. They told him stories of how each patient, from infants to adults like himself, now had better lives. He then decided to go ahead with the surgery. After a short, but life-transforming surgical procedure, Jean’s whole world changed.
News about Jean’s new life had gotten to his village even before his arrival three days later. When Jean arrived home a celebration in his honor was waiting for him. His wife was once again confused, only this time, she was staring at her husband with eyes of joy and new love. For the children, it was the first time they saw their papa be like any other father in their community.
Jean is now accepted in all the ranks of his society as a man of honor, having now been given all the traditional rights and privileges. Although adjusting to his new life has at times been difficult, like trying to use his identification papers as his photo has completely changed, he is beyond happy and proud. He is very grateful to Smile Train and its worldwide partners for giving him, and so many other patients like him, a new life. Jean has now become a social recruiter visiting nearby villages as an ambassador for Smile Train educating communities about cleft and finding others in need of surgery.