Disappeared From the Face of the Earth

Goizom's story

Goizom Danza Maleguidjeo’s name translates to “disappeared from the face of the Earth” in her native language in Cameroon. Unfortunately for Goizom, this is not far off from how she spent her childhood. She could not attend school or play with other children her age because of the fear from local parents in her village that she would bewitch their children.

It is a tradition in Goizom’s Mafa tribe for families to send their first daughter into marriage when they turn 16, but this was not the case for Goizom. At age 18, she still lived at home with no suitor, or any friends to talk to. The men in her village believed that since Goizom was born with a cleft, all of her future children would have clefts as well.

Goizom’s life changed one day when a Smile Train community worker came to her village. When the community worker announced that Smile Train helps provide free surgery for children with clefts, Goizom couldn’t believe the news. She knew her parents could not afford the financial cost of a surgery to fix her cleft and she had given up on her dream of having her cleft repaired a long time ago.

When Goizom arrived at Smile Train’s local partner, Maroua Regional hospital, she was surprised to see so many people who had similar cleft conditions as her own. She watched as patients would go in and out of surgery and was amazed by the great new smiles on their faces. When her turn finally arrived, she was ready. 18 long years of waiting for a new smile were finally over.

Today Goizom has returned to her village a completely changed person, proud of herself and full of self-confidence. No longer “disappeared from the face of the Earth,” she is looking forward to her bright future that is now full of endless possibilities.

Goizom After

The Story of Happiness

Dr. Meschack Ong’uti (left), with Happiness and her mother, Emina after Happiness' Smile Train surgery.

Dr. Meschack Ong’uti (left), with Happiness and her mother, Emina after Happiness’ Smile Train surgery.

Garoua, CameroonPaul Kimani from Smile Train partner Help a Child Face Tomorrow shares his introduction to Happiness—a nine-year-old girl from Cameroon.

As I was walking around the ward filled with pre-op patients with cleft lips, my eyes was drawn to two, a mother, Emina, seated while sleeping, with her daughter lying on her lap, both looking physically exhausted. I later came to know that the girl was the woman’s nine-year-old daughter, Happiness Betah.

When Emina married all she wanted was a family of her own. “I come from a huge family, seven sisters and four brothers,” she said. All of her siblings were married with kids. But her wish did not come as soon as she had expected, as it took her almost five years to conceive. At one point almost being divorced by her husband.

Hapinness Betah, 9yrs (1)

When she became pregnant it was the happiest moment of her life, not only was her wishes of having a child coming true, but her treasured marriage was not going to crumble. Her happiness was short lived though when she gave birth to her daughter, who had cleft lip and cleft palate, a condition which she had never seen before in her life.

Emina’s life went on a downward spiral when rumors started spreading that she cheated on her husband and that is why she gave birth to a child with cleft. Her marriage on the rocks, she felt as if the whole world was against her.

“We don’t always get what we want in life,” she said tickling her daughter. Emina decided to be strong for her daughter, finally naming her after one month—Happiness. Her fragile marriage could not hold the strain any more though and her husband left her. He could not bear being around a child who he believed was not his as no one had a cleft lip or palate in his family.

Despite all the hurdles, Emina didn’t give up on her daughter. She sold vegetables so that she could afford to feed her. Emina’s and her daughter’s fate changed for the better when she saw a poster at her church indicating a free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries being offered by Smile Train. This news could not have come at a better time. Although Betah was nine years old, she had never been to school because of her cleft lip and palate which impaired her speech.

“I didn’t want my child to undergo more torture in school, kids in the village had already done enough damage, they used to call her names and laugh at her, it made me sad whenever I saw my child playing alone. I just wanted to protect her.” Emina said as she wiped her tears. She could never have afforded cleft surgery for her daughter.

Without wasting time, she borrowed bus fare from her relatives, adding to what she had already saved. The two then set off on a 950km journey from their village in Kumba to Garoua. Happiness was lucky to be among the patients who underwent the free surgery, successfully repairing her cleft lip and palate.

“How can I every repay you? Thank you for giving me and my daughter a new chapter in life.” Emina told the team as she shook hands with Dr. Ong’uti, the maxillofacial surgeon who repaired her daughter’s cleft. “I want to get home as quickly as possible and enroll my child to school.”

Lau Jean’s Story

Lau Jean, 54, before and after his Smile Train surgery.

Lau Jean, 54, before and after his Smile Train surgery.

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.