I met Bao Zoma, mother of four and grandmother of seven, while taking a bike ride through the countryside of Madagascar. In September 2015, I joined Bao Zoma as she traveled to the Operation Smile medical mission in Tana with her middle grandchild, Sandra, who was in need of a cleft lip repair. Now that Sandra has a beautiful smile, Bao Zoma is motivated to find more children in need of critical surgical care and bring them to Operation Smile. She has become a spokesperson for Operation Smile in the part of her country where radios do not reach and many cannot read the posters that are taped up at the health huts around the village.
When asked what motivates her to find more children suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate, she responded: “My grandchild once suffered from cleft lip. My grandchild Sandra was teased, dropped out of school, and was a shy girl. Now I can’t keep her in the house, she has many friends, and is constantly smiling. She is beautiful. I would like to give that gift, the gift of smiling to others like Sandra.”
Bao Zoma recently recruited two other patients for the upcoming medical mission here in Madagascar in April.
She walked eight kilometers, crossed a river and hiked another two kilometers to reach these children– a young boy by the name of Gino and a young girl named Nordine. I am happy to report they will be joining me on the medical mission in April.
Thank you Bao Zoma, not only for serving as a spokesperson for Operation Smile, but also for being an amazing grandmother.
Check out my story on Operation Smile’s Blog: A grandmother’s wish
6 months ago I met Jocelyne. 11 years old with a facial tumor. She has been accepted by Mercy Ships for initial consultation and scans.
After three weeks of trying to get in contact with her, endless radio messages, and letters sent by boats going down to the canal today Jocelyne showed up on my door step. She walked with her grandma over 8 hours.
We will go up for her in time visit this Sunday! I nearly cried seeing her, I was so happy aw showed up. With no phone and no reseau it’s been extremely difficult to get in contact.
I have an enormous amount of respect for Operation Smile and the great work they do on their missions. From Op Smile meetings to Operating Rooms I have seen firsthand how the missions are organized and carried out. It was an honor to take part in the Operation Smile 2015 Tana mission. I met and worked with a team of 90 doctors, surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, volunteers, coming from 12 different countries. Since I arrived in Madagascar, I noticed the rampant amount of diseases, deformities, and illnesses. Cleft lip and cleft palate rates are very high in Madagascar. Researchers still do not know as to why children are born with this deformity but in a third world country, such as Mada, where formula and feeding alternatives are scarce, many of these babies die early on. I made it my prerogative to search out potential patients in the East Coast region and bring them up for the mission this past month.
I biked to many different villages on weekends, spread the news through churches and eventually was able to find about 10 patients that would be good candidates for surgery.
The trek: The search for patients is not an easy one. Many times people with facial deformities, such as cleft lip and cleft palate are ostracized from their community. If the baby lives and has a chance to go to school, he or she may start and many times ends up dropping out due to bullying and difficulties communicating due to speech impediments. By the time they are adults many have gone through so much backlash from their community that they are shy, timid, and reluctant to accept help,
On my search this year, I decided to use churches and religious leaders to help me reach out to these individuals. Seeing that locals trust pastors and priests much more than a blue eyes blonde haired”vazaha” (term for foreigner in Malagasy). Once I located a location or village where a potential cleft lip or cleft palate patient lived, I organized a trip there. Many took half days, even full days, and some trips amounted to crossing rivers, and trekking in mud for a couple hours. Because the rainy season had just come to an end yet Madagascar’s East Coast was hit with a tropical depression during the same time I was set on finding patients, this caused many hurdles with regards to transportation.
Meeting patients: Gaining trust is crucial. During the first five minutes of conversation, I must convey to the patient and his family that I am going to take good care of him/her. That this program is real and that I am not going to kidnap their child and eat it for dinner. (You can only imagine what stories are told about vazaha.) I tell them that everything from transport, food, and surgery is free, and that they will have the opportunity for a new life after this! If they accept trusting me they show up the date of departure. This year to make things a little easier, I ended up bringing a patient that had previously received surgery from Operation Smile on a mission in Tana 2014. He became my spokesperson, my walking billboard, he shared his story and they listened. I think this helped reduce anxiety and doubts in the family, and produced trust and willingness to join the mission.
Date of Departure: On the date of departure I rented out an entire taxi-brousse (very large van) to accommodate each patient and one chaperone. We left from my village and made our way up to pick up the rest of the patients on the road. Once all in the van, I noticed that there was an interesting energy that had formed between the families. One young girl, looked at another young boy the same age as her, approximately 9-10 years old, and said “you have the same lip as I do”. She has never seen another person with cleft lip. Imagine you are born with cleft lip and everyone around you looks “normal” suddenly one day you find yourself in a van with 9 other individuals that look just like you… its mind-blowing. The energy in that taxi brousee was magnetic mothers helped mothers care for the younger cleft lip patients. The older patients sat next to one another and sang Malagasy songs on the long 10 hour ride up to the capital.
The Ride: The ride up was magical but definitely a long one. 10 hours in a taxi brousse on a windy road necessitated many many “sachets” for car sick passengers. Every one of the individuals in that taxi brousse had never been to the capital. Many had never been in a car. A 45 year old patient screeched when she saw mountains and yelled out, “WHY IS THE EARTH RISING!!!” For me this moment really showed me how much trust I gained. These patients trusted me enough to come this far.
Why did you apply to Peace Corps?
When you think about life, about what a life holds, for me it holds purpose. I know this may sound cheesy for some or generic yet I took this moto for life very seriously. From a young age service had always been a large part of my life. I remember having a world map in our bathroom growing up and my mother would pin point a place or even sometimes have me chose a place and we pack our bags and go. Once at this destination whether it was Belize, India, Nepal, China, we would spend some time visiting and touring and the other time giving back. This idea of service never stopped at the small trips we took but became a ritual. A giving ritual. During the holidays I spent my time volunteering at food banks, wrapping Christmas gifts, visiting Veteran hospitals. This became my idea of purpose. I saw what it meant to people that I gave my time. I saw that it meant a difference and produced happiness for them. I saw a purpose. I heard of Peace Corps when I was in Middle School. Unlike other children around that age instead of going to the movies or buying new clothes, I was at dog shelters walking pups, or cleaning trash at the local park.
Once I graduated high school and entered college, I began revisiting the idea of serving in another country for a long amount of time. I enjoy learning about new cultures, seeing new places, and felt that many challenges I could foresee I had already met in my previous travels. .I felt ready. I felt that Peace Corps could provide me with tools to help people serve themselves. Indeed after being here in Madagascar for 18 months, I have learned so much about myself and about how to work in the field. I am grateful to have had this opportunity.
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.
I recently was asked this question and wanted to really dive into what has been my biggest challenge throughout my Peace Corps Service.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Biggest challenge I have had during my service is “saying no”. I know it sounds funny, “what does she mean saying ‘no’?” Well, once you have successfully integrated, when babies stop crying at first sight of you, and stares become smiles, people become comfortable with you. Every day community members ask me, “Please can you teach me English? Please would you be able to spare an hour to speak with me? Please can you give me books so that my children can become smarter?” When I first got to site, I felt much pressure to say yes to all requests. Soon I realized I could not split myself into numerous people and did not have enough time or energy to respond to all the wants and needs of my community. I became stressed out, not being able to fulfill everyone’s wants. I felt horrible if I said “no”, and would wear myself out saying “yes”. I was able to conquer this challenge, by asking my community for solutions, having conversations about their vision for Mahanoro. How could I develop something that would help many while still allowing me a good balance. The idea emerged to create a Cultural Center. A place that would provide educational opportunities for children and adults, a library stocked with books, and most importantly a place where the future of Mahanoro could develop and grow in a positive environment.
We received the furniture from the carpenter today! He did a stunning job! I spent the morning painting bookshelves and varnishing tables 🙂
We decided to organize the books by level.
Blue = medium
Red = difficult
All books have small color dots on the inside cover coinciding to the color of the bookshelves! Students will be briefed on our “lifestyle” at the center as well as the class schedule!