A Chance Encounter Brings Tiyamjane a New Smile

woman with a cleft lip
Eighteen-year-old Tiyamjane, before surgery. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Growing up with a cleft lip in a rural village in Malawi, Tiyamjane fought – and overcame – many struggles throughout her life.

Some of the unthinkable challenges she experienced, including the death of both her parents at a young age, drew sympathy and compassion from those closest to her. While other hardships, like the burden of living 18 years with an unrepaired cleft condition, resulted in painful stigma, unfair treatment and being shamed by people in her community.

Enduring torment, teasing and name-calling because of her cleft condition not only made Tiyamjane sad, but she also felt angry. She was angry that she was being bullied solely based on her appearance. Lacking awareness of organisations like Operation Smile Malawi, Tiyamjane believed that there was nothing she could do to change how she looked or how people treated her.

To avoid the harassment, Tiyamjane decided to leave school at 11 years old and settle into life living with one of her sisters and working on their farm.

Every day for 18 years, she carried the weight of believing her cleft lip – and the pain and anger that came with it – was permanent.

woman with cleft lip
Photo: Jasmin Shah.

For Tiyamjane, living with a cleft lip was isolating, and she often felt alone. But cleft conditions affect more people than she ever realised: Worldwide, it’s estimated that every three minutes a child is born with a cleft condition.

Believing that she was the only person born with a cleft condition, Tiyamjane’s mindset pivoted instantly after seeing the cleft lip of a close friend’s newborn baby. Unlike Tiyamjane’s parents, her friend learned about Operation Smile Malawi and the possibility of surgery shortly after giving birth. After living her entire life with a cleft condition, Tiyamjane was shocked to discover that the solution she never knew existed was suddenly within reach.

Once learning the details of an upcoming surgical programme in Blantyre, it wasn’t long before Tiyamjane, her sister, her friend and baby set off together to travel by bus to the mission site. As she made the journey, Tiyamjane was hopeful a brighter future lay ahead and that she could live the rest of her life free from the pain of her cleft condition.

Even after arriving at the mission site, the surprises continued to follow: Tiyamjane couldn’t believe the number of adults and children she saw during screening who also had a cleft condition. After passing her comprehensive health evaluation, Tiyamjane was deemed healthy enough for surgery by a team of medical volunteers. Though Tiyamjane was nervous on the day of her long-awaited surgery, she bravely walked through the doors of the operating room and toward a brighter future.

smiling woman after cleft surgery
Tiyamjane, after surgery. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

The moment that Tiyamjane saw her new smile, she knew in her heart that her life had permanently changed. This newfound feeling of happiness deepened further when she returned home and received a warm welcome from the community that once mistreated her.

“I am always happy now,” Tiyamjane explained when Operation Smile Malawi volunteers visited her village a few months after her surgery. “Thank you for everything you did for me. Please continue to help others like you helped me.”

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients like Tiyamjane amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.

woman smiling holding a photo of herself before cleft surgery
Photo: Jasmin Shah.