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
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 have recently been asked some pretty great questions and I think it’s important to share my answers. This question I especially enjoyed answering.
How has your service changed you? Do you think Peace Corps has benefitted you professionally or changed your career path?
Peace Corps has changed me in a variety of ways. It has made me appreciate where I come from. It has allowed me to see the world through a different lens. It has produced patience within me and enlarged my heart to give more. I am thankful to have gone through the challenges I have gone through because I truly believe it has produced a motivation, a fire within me. My service has allowed me to realize that the majority of the world does not live how we do. It has shown me that happiness does not come from money. It has shown me that change can be made with enough effort and enough positivity.
I have always wanted to work internationally and I believe Peace Corps has engrained that passion even more. I want to help those who have lost their path. I want to show them there is a way and that they are strong enough to accomplish the things they want in life. I believe that professionally Peace Corps has provided me with tools to make change and mobilize other to find their future through change. I believe that due to the fact that I have lived in the field, on the ground, and worked and lived like a local Malagasy person has afforded me great knowledge. If I want to work for a larger NGO or Organization I need to understand the people I am serving. These past 18 months I have studied, curiously questioned, and figured out how to best help my community by watching them, living with them, and most importantly listening to them. This on the ground experience is crucial.