What’s in a smile?

Helping families in Madagascar with charity Operation Smile

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What’s in a smile?

Operation Smile is a charity dedicated to repairing cleft lip or palates. This year, in support of the charity, Huggies ran a competition to find the UK’s ‘Super Smiler’, inviting parents to send in snaps of their tots. For every entry received, Huggies donated a fee to Operation Smile, raising a fantastic £15,000.

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Prima Baby’s acting deputy editor Claire Roberts was lucky enough to join Huggies and the Operation Smile team in Madagascar to witness first-hand the amazing work the charity does… 

We arrive in the capital city of Antanarivo and prepare for the 150km journey south to the city of Antsirabe, in the central highlands, to join the Operation Smile team. This is it – we are officially ‘on a mission’, as the Operation Smile team refers to it. 

The next morning we drive to the old hospital, where the 40-strong Operation Smile team – which includes six plastic surgeons, a pediatrician, a dentist, speech therapists and 10 nurses – are setting up the screening clinic, in which families will have their details taken and the health of the potential patient assessed (blood pressure, weight, respiratory health) to ensure they’re healthy enough to undergo surgery.

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What’s in a smile?

Two things become clear at this point: what an immense task the Operation Smile team has set itself, and the grace and humility with which the Malagasy families conduct themselves. Families sit quietly next to each other, children gazing out from papooses and mother’s shawls, wondering at these pale Western strangers with their odd accents and strange clothes. We make ourselves useful handing out cups of water, sweeties, pens and pencils, bouncy balls and chalks to scribble with, and little by little, the older children creep from their parents and we play ball and hopscotch, and draw cats, owls and cars on big slate paving stones.

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What’s in a smile?

What is striking – and a little bit heartbreaking – is how many of the older children are dressed in their school uniforms, presumably their best clothes, as if being smartly dressed might make a difference to whether a child is selected for surgery or not. One boy of around 11 is determined to make a statement in a sassy pink straw bonnet, from which he will not be parted. The older children, aware that their smiles are different from other people’s, shyly hide big grins behind their hands.

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What’s in a smile?

Later in the week, when it becomes obvious there won’t be time to operate on all the children screened, despite the plastic surgeons performing surgery on a record eight children per day, we glimpse the frustrations of some of the Operation Smile surgeons – the human response behind the professional one.

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What’s in a smile?

What does it mean to these families, to have their children’s cleft lips and palettes repaired? ‘No-one stares anymore, and now he runs around and plays with the other children,’ says Rolland, 38, dad to 7-year-old Fanomezana, both of whom had walked the 150km from Antanarivo for follow-up surgery on the cleft lip Fanomezana had repaired last year (surgeons repair the lips first because of the cosmetic advantages). This year, Fanomezana will have surgery to close up his cleft palate, which means that his speech will improve and he will find it easier to eat. ‘He will be able to learn at school,’ says his father Rolland. ‘The teacher told him to go away because he couldn’t speak; she said he was uneducated. But now he will be able to have lessons with the other children.’

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