SmileTrain – Lighting up faces in Malawi

Meet Alick. He looks like any other young boy from a sub-Saharan African village, doesn’t he? You’d have to look really closely to see anything unusual about him. Alick was actually born with a cleft lip - a congenital deformity that appears as a gap above his mouth – and lived with it for the first nine years of his life. Kids at school would tease him relentlessly for looking funny, and often he would play truant because he couldn’t face their jibes. Two months ago, his suffering came to an end when he received free corrective surgery at Mzuzu Central Hospital thanks to support from SmileTrain.

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Now meet Vincent. He has lived with a unilateral complete cleft lip – a more serious form of cleft – for no fewer than 43 years. I recently visited him in his home village of Madede to learn his story, and then accompanied him as he travelled the bumpy, dusty road to Mzuzu to undergo the operation that will change his life.

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Finally, meet Robson and his mother Maclina. Robson was born just four months ago with a unilateral incomplete cleft lip (just like Alick’s). He seems like any happy, bouncy baby boy right now, but Maclina knows very well how difficult it would become for him when coming of age and struggling to make friends, and later in finding a woman to marry. Given her family’s situation of poverty, she thought they were powerless to do anything. So she was overjoyed when she heard the news that there was an organisation that could ensure that Robson would get corrective surgery, and that would even pay the otherwise prohibitive cost for herself and her husband to travel with Robson to the hospital in faraway Mzuzu.

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that this has been one of the most fulfilling assignments I have so far been given. In the space of just a few days, I was able to witness these people’s lives and emotions in both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages. I was even invited to be present at and photograph the surgeries, which I found truly fascinating. The raw joy on the faces of Robson’s parents when they reunited with him after the operation was so beautiful to see, and although it was a little painful for Vincent to smile, I could sense the excitement bubbling through as he spoke. There were “thank you, SmileTrain!” exclamations all round!

I’m sharing these three images with you as a teaser. You’ll be able to see much more shortly when I publish this story in a forthcoming edition of my monthly newsletter. You can sign for this here.

Postcard from Blantyre, Malawi

I have the impression that most people in the West can think of two reasons for a photographer to go to Africa: one being to photograph the many less than positive things this continent gets into the news for (civil wars, starving children and so on) and the other being to capture images of its bountiful wildlife, much of which exists nowhere else on Earth. In my case, neither of these two motives brought me to Malawi. Many of the children I have so far photographed for EveryChild may indeed be hungry at times owing to the protracted ‘lean season’ the country goes through most years. Nevertheless, my focus was of course the tremendous difference this organisation and its partners are making in enabling disadvantaged children to live secure and dignified lives. So why, you may wonder, does today’s postcard feature two zebras?

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Zebras at Game Haven Lodge near Blantyre, Malawi.

A hard-working photographer needs a break from time to time, doesn’t he?! My typical day in the field starts early, perhaps before 6 am, and after the long, bumpy and often dusty drive back to wherever I’m staying after sunset, there tends to be several hours of desk work to do (backing up images, initial selecting and rejecting from the hundreds of shots I captured that day, charging drained batteries, etc.). To recharge my own batteries, I like to head somewhere peaceful wherever I get the opportunity. Last weekend, that ‘somewhere’ was Salima, on the shores of gorgeous Lake Malawi. And today, it was Game Haven Lodge near the country’s second city and commercial hub, Blantyre.

Sometimes, I love how interconnected the world is these days (though sometimes I curse it). It was after a recent meeting in New York that the lady I’d been talking with told me I must contact her friend in Malawi if I had any time on my hands. I did just that, and received a really warm welcome to her home in Blantyre as I was travelling south en route to my next assignment (which starts on Monday with Concern Worldwide). Today, I enjoyed a very civilised lunch  at the lodge - including Greek salad beautifully laid out on a slab of glass – followed by a short game drive. It was just what the doctor ordered after a couple of weeks’ intense (but thoroughly rewarding) fieldwork.