Growing up, Akosua always felt different from the other children in her community. That feeling didn’t go away for more than 50 years.
“I was never a happy woman,” Akosua said. “I never wanted my photo taken.”
Despite not knowing the name of her condition, Akosua knew that the mistreatment and judgment she endured were because she didn’t have the same smile as everyone else.
It wasn’t until she was 52 years old that she learned more about her condition. For Akosua and many people in her local community, the terms cleft lip and cleft palate were unfamiliar. The idea of cleft surgery was even more unknown.
Akosua’s family accepted and loved her, but some people refused to look past her cleft condition. The bullying became so severe that she stopped attending school in second grade. However, leaving school didn’t stop the hurtful name-calling from continuing into her adult life.
She never let the pain or hopelessness prevent her from creating happy memories. Akosua got married and had three children who supported her through the seemingly endless cycle of abuse.
But making a living for herself and her family proved to be an unexpected obstacle.
As a vegetable seller, she encountered many people at the marketplace who refused to buy produce from her because of their misguided fear of her cleft lip. With the deeply rooted stigma and misconceptions surrounding cleft conditions in Ghana, some people believed her cleft lip was a negative reflection of the quality of her vegetables.
In an effort to save her business, Akosua began covering her face.
After more than 50 years fighting to be accepted and treated with decency, Akosua found out that she’d never again need to hide from those around her.
In March 2015, Akosua learned that the reason her smile was different was because she was born with a cleft lip. In that moment, she not only discovered that the cause of her sadness and mistreatment was something completely outside her control, but also that there was an organization dedicated to providing free, life-changing cleft repair surgeries for people like herself.
Cleft conditions are more common than Akosua ever realized. It is estimated that, worldwide, a child is born every three minutes with a cleft condition, making up about one in every 500 to 750 births.
Unable to afford living apart, Akosua and 20 of her family members share one home. Even with a proper diagnosis of her lifelong condition, Akosua knew that with her family’s meager income, surgery would remain out of reach. But the more she learned about Operation Smile Ghana’s free cleft care, the more relief and happiness she felt.
There was a chance to have the life she always wished for herself and her family.
Accompanied by her brother, Charles, Akosua made the 10-hour journey by bus to a surgical program in Ho. Charles expressed his sadness toward the suffering his sister experienced throughout her life, but he was overjoyed to witness her get an opportunity for a new beginning. Following her comprehensive health evaluation, medical volunteers placed Akosua on the surgical schedule.
Akosua couldn’t believe that it was her own smile she saw as she glanced at her reflection in a mirror after surgery.
“Now, I am confident, always happy and love having my photo taken,” she said.
Those who once treated her badly were surprised to see the change in Akosua when she returned home. Today, she hopes her vegetable sales increase so that she can help provide a better quality of life for her children and family.
The goals she has for herself go beyond the marketplace. Having left school early in life, Akosua intends to continue her education.
But her determination to help people involves more than just her own life.
“I tell people about Operation Smile,” Akosua said. “I already found a new patient with a cleft, and I will make sure they are registered with Operation Smile Ghana and come to the next mission.”
Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep families safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence.