Margaret Chikata (38) said she got the shock of her life when she gave birth to a baby girl with an elongated opening in the upper lip, a medical condition known as cleft lip, eight years ago.
From then on, Margaret’s single most important wish became to see her child with full lips that could make a smile.
“I asked God what wrong I had done the first time I held my baby in my hands. I felt cursed, but at the same time I accepted the child as a gift from above.
“The nurses told me that my baby’s upper lip could be fixed, and that gave me hope,” she said a few minutes after Shamiso, her eight-year-old daughter, had been wheeled into theatre for a surgical operation on her lip at Harare Children’s Hospital.
Cleft lip, which is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, is one of the most common physical birth defects across the world.
On average, one out of every 700 babies is born with a cleft lip.
When a woman’s embryo with genes that are prone to a cleft lip is exposed to certain environmental factors, chances are high the baby will develop a cleft.
Environmental factors that increase the risk of cleft lip include smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Some drugs also increase the incidence of clefting, such as phenytoin and sodium valproate. If a pregnant mother’s nutrition is poor, chances are high that a baby develops a cleft in the womb.
Nurses at Harare Children’s Hospital where Operation of Hope, an American-based non- profit organisation undertook a week-long exercise to perform approximately 100 surgical operations on children with cleft lips, said more and more babies with cleft lips were showing up at the hospital, a factor which could be attributed to poor household nutritional levels in recent years.
However, the condition is largely hidden in the country to the extent that no term for it exists in local languages. The condition is generally associated with bad luck, ancestral spirits and witchcraft.
Margaret said when she took her baby home, instead of bringing congratulatory messages, people would come in huddles to ogle at her baby — surprise and shock written on their faces.
“They would go back to their homes and tell their friends who would also come to look at my baby out of curiosity. It really dismayed me,” she said.
She added that her child delayed going to school because other children laughed at the shape of her lips.
“I used to tell my daughter that the problem could get fixed but because the other children laughed at her, she started hiding her mouth — causing her to lose confidence and self-esteem.
“Because of her broken upper lip, my daughter spoke through the nose, which made it very hard to understand what she was saying, but her teacher was very kind to her and today, they understand each other so well,” she said.
Often times, the mother of a child with cleft lip in Zimbabwe is accused of infidelity, or having committed a certain kind of misdemeanour during pregnancy causing the facial disfigurement of the baby.
The stigma and superstition surrounding cleft lip has led to many divorces with mostly men running away from their wives.
So, after enduring eight years of social ridicule, Margaret could barely hide her joy as she looked at her daughter, 45 minutes after an operation to stitch up the missing part of her lip had been successfully completed, courtesy of Operation of Hope assisted by local medical staff at Harare Children’s
Jennifer Trubenbach, Executive Director of Operation of Hope, said the reason why Zimbabwe currently has so many babies with cleft lips is that for a very long time, the problem was hidden.
She said the other factors were that no surgical procedures were conducted due to high costs and a limited number of specialists that could perform the operation in the country.