Let me start by explaining a bit as to why I am passionate about Operation Smile’s mission. Operation Smile changes lives. I have witnessed multiple cleft lip babies pass away due to malnourshiment and starvation. Babies do not breast feed, mothers stop producing milk, and the culture of wet moms is not prominent or practiced often here on the East Coast. This leads to parents trying to find solutions on how to keep their child alive.
Last year I biked over 80 km to find children or adults suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate. I stumbled upon a young mother who was holding a tiny fragile baby. The baby cried and couldn’t produce tears do to how malnourished he was. I told her about the program and she agreed to meet me on the day of departure. ON the day we were supposed to meet to go up to the capital city, she never showed up. I worried, called the contact number I had with no luck. I continued with the mission and brought up 7 patients. Upon my return I biked back out to her village. Once there I spoke to the village chief of the village I found the small cleft lip baby. The mother greeted me silently and said, “My baby died two days before I was supposed to meet you”. I am not sure if we could have operated on this child, seeing that it was in such a state but I promised myself that I would try even harder to find all the cleft lip and cleft palate patients I could and bring them up to the Operation Smile missions.
Why do individuals not go for sugery? (seeing that the majority of the patients this year are older)
I think this is a great question. I can only speak for the conversations with the people I have had here. The majority are scared. The majority have not heard of Operation Smile because they live in the countryside, do not have phones, and do not have radios (electricity has also been limited to two to three hours a day in some villages). The majority of people tell me that they are scared because they believe that to fix cleft lip you take skin from your thigh and paste it on the mouth then sow it together. Not sure who this tall tale happened. Many do nt have the funds or money or strength to walk from their village all the way to a village where there is a direct brousse to Tana or Tamatave.
How am I finding them:
I start with flyers, and stories, personal stories. I have previous Op Smile attendees come with me to remote villages and vouch for all the great work Op Smile does for its patients. These “promoters” become the back bone of my search, they are my ears and eyes. Since they have been on the mission with me and we have a relationship they promote their story.
This year I used the churches, evidently you know that Madagascar has more churches then they know what to do with. I used the churches to get the message out to a wider radius. People trust churches therefore they trust the program the churches recommend, meaning they trust me. Trust is the glue to getting people to accept coming on the mission, sometimes when I talk to cleft lip patients and their families I feel like I am begging them to come, to trust me. Wee must consider Malagasy people have long standing assumptions and stories about foreigners. These stories definitely put a wrench in my search.
After the churches I talk to the chef fokotany, the chiefs of the villages. I explain to them the details of the program and they become my spokesperson.
Lastly I bike. I bike and I walk to every village I can carrying around 50-60 flyers handing them out. Some people just stare, some people in fear and others in amazement because of the fact I am speaking Malagasy. But in all they listen. That’s the most important. Sometimes I sit and have coffee with them, talk some more and slowly but surely one person mentions, “ oh yea in that village over there, you know by the red building across from the church theres a cleft lip child.” So I walk over and indeed there is that beautiful smile I am looking for.
I am an education volunteer so I use my students to get the word out as well. They have been great helpers in getting indivudals to trust me and not steer away at the sight of a foreigner.